Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Book, A Play, A Movie, and a Legacy

Tobacco Road was Erskine Caldwell's most highly regarded book; hailed by the likes of William Faulkner and Saul Bellow. A 2006 Slate magazine review (Erskine Caldwell's greasy hairball of a novel. - By Dwight Garner - Slate Magazine) called it "one of the sickest and most lurid books to have emerged from the literature of the American South. It's about as nutritious as a plate of pork cracklings. You're going to feel a little ill when you get up from this table. And I mean all of this, I think, in a good way."

Tobacco Road depicts the Lester family as the "poorest, whitest, trashiest, horniest family in rural Georgia." They are about as lowdown as human beings can get. Lazy, shiftless, and dishonest, violent, and sex-obsessed. In some ways, Tobacco Road is the anti-Gone with the Wind; no magnolias and romantic chivalry in Caldwell's South. It is also an anti-Grapes of Wrath. The Lesters are stuck in the Depression too and about to be kicked off their land, but it's hard to work up any sympathy for them.

Tobacco Road was turned into one of the most successful Broadway plays of all time by Jack Kirkland and later a movie (starring the alluring Gene Tierney as Ellie Mae Lester). The movie recently aired on TCM and is showing on the Fox Movie Channel on March 26, 2010 8:00 am ET and April 14, 2010 7:00 am ET. The movie (directed by John Ford, who also directed Grapes of Wrath) turns the story into a hillbilly comedy.

The Georgia Encyclopedia entry had this to say about the movie:

Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (a Georgia native) attempted to preserve the caustic comedy and social protest of the book and play, but the studio overruled them on central issues, specifically the tragic ending. The result was a sentimental burlesque that Caldwell himself disavowed.

Nevertheless, the movie retains enough of Caldwell's sharp edge to draws the viewer in. The characters created by Caldwell became enduring cultural stereotypes of white Southern hillbillies. And it does provide a window into a time and place not too far over the historical horizon, but nearly unimaginable for many.

Netflix: Tobacco Road

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