It’s easy to infer there is an innate kinship between famed director Jean Renoir and the folks within this picture. Certainly, he was no peasant, by any means related to those found in Millet’s The Gleaners. However, like his painterly father Auguste Renoir (a figure I always find myself reverting back to) he had a penchant for people and nature underlined by a genteel eye for beauty.
That is not to say, Jean was exactly the same. His films can often be socially-minded, capable of both satire and commentary. But underlying such themes is always this same sense of natural and artistic pulchritude.
Though his output in the states is generally forgotten, upon closer analysis, efforts like The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) and The Woman on The Beach (1947) have glimmers of his brilliance as an auteur. We can even see how the content often fit Renoir, though the system and in some cases, the performers might not have. However, in its day, most everyone seemed to agree that of all his efforts as an expatriate, The Southerner was his finest achievement stateside. I don’t disagree.
At its core, Zachary Scott gives an understated performance full of grit and common decency as the head of the Tucker clan. Right beside him, his wife, Nona (Betty Field) exhibits a stalwart character exuding both affection and maternal grace, a constant rock to steady her man. In an inciting event that feels strikingly similar to The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Gramps dies and the family sets out on a pilgrimage in search of a new life. This will eventually lead them to a strip of land to call their own.
While Scott’s no Henry Fonda, I’m pretty sure even John Ford would consider Jean Renoir his equal if not a superior director. Regardless, both are visual filmmakers of the most visceral kind. In fact, Poetic Realism was an attempt to put a label on Renoir’s exquisite naturalism, placing the human form in environments like modern day evocations of the Garden of Eden in an otherwise sullied world. A Day in The Country (1936) or even Toni (1938) stand as stunning earlier examples from his native France.
Compared to his other American efforts, The Southerner has the most straightforward and even conventional narrative. Because the story is simplistic and the dialogue unadorned; at it’s worst it’s throwaway. However, it effectively provides a bulwark for Renoir to capture strains of humanity with a truth that gleams with his usual sensibilities. Again, like Ford, such a minimal plot frees him up for digressions that are more lyrical and character based so by the end of the picture as short as it is, we feel like we have witnessed something full-bodied and singular.
The Tuckers have the most darling little kids. Beulah Bondi subverts her angelic image as the cackling, particularly ornery granny. Their new life is hard, their resources scant, and yet the Tuckers are cisterns full to the brim with indefatigable spirit. Sam is driven by the humble desire of Man to cultivate his own land. He never says it implicitly but God was a Creator and so it’s almost innate for him to want to do some of the same.
But Tucker, like Job, is born to trouble with backbreaking labor and constant devastation. His boy is stricken with sickness needing nutrition from vegetables, lemons, and milk that they either don’t have or can’t afford. The Tuckers live by a creed of family and neighborliness but they receive no such charity from those nearest to them. It’s like the gruff farmer next door is seeking to see them fail. Nature too is all but looking to sink them. There’s no amount of clemency
In one pleading moment, Tucker even walks out to his decimated crop he’s toiled over for so long and talks to God in the most candid of ways. It’s like a modern-day psalmist asking the honest questions. His resolution is to keep going and hold his family together thanks to the unremitting determination shared by his wife.
However, overlaid on this is also the struggle between the new urban centers and all the natural wonders of God’s green earth. We saw it in Renoir films such as The Human Beast (1938). In Sam’s case, his friend all but guarantees him a steady factory job and yet he continually balks at the chance. His calling is to be in the fields no matter how inexorable his opposition might prove to be.
The beauty is that we get a bit of a reprieve from the constant barrage of misfortune. It comes in the form of a wedding when two jolly old folks get hitched and it births the most joyous occasion. Partying ensues full of good-old-fashioned gaiety and square dancing brimming over with laughter and hilarious antics made 10 times more humorous in the company of others. Each and every one of them is a part of this grand joke. The Job-like assaults keep on coming and yet in the company of others they hardly seem as catastrophic. There you have a secret to life.
I rather like the conclusion Renoir’s film makes tacitly. It’s quite evident in the following aphorism voiced by one of the characters, “It takes all kinds to make up this world.” So this is not the Romanticist where everything mechanical and technological is inherently bad. Nor is farming or the land being tilled and cultivated any less important. They share equal footing and they need each other.
Again, it’s the humanism of Renoir fully realized. This is an American story, the most American narrative undertaken by the French director. However, in the waning days of WWII, you cannot help but see this as a universal rallying cry. Out of the ashes of destruction and international animosity, ill-will, and hatred, we need each other. Come to think of it, the credo is a timeless one at that. We could use these words now as much as we ever did. There you have a secret to the relevance of Jean Renoir.