Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)

The Blakes are a tenant farmer family struggling to survive and the Norwoods are the sharecropper family that is struggling to keep their power over their tenants. The Blakes oldest son, Marvin (Richard Barthelmess) wants to go to school and educate himself. After a struggle, the sharecropper patriarch Lane agrees to help send him if he works in the store and keeps his books for him. Soon Marvin is torn between the two different allegiances perfectly portrayed by two love interests - Betty (Dorothy Jordan) a tenant farmer's daughter and Madge (Bette Davis) the sharecropper's daughter. As tensions rise between the two factions, Marvin must decide how serve both sides and make peace.

Bette Davis trying to rub off Richard Barthelmess' awful makeup

I have to say that the biggest drawback to this one for me was Richard Barthelmess. First of all, this is another example of Hollywood's obsession with casting old men in parts for young men. Secondly, dear Richard is really from the era of silent film and it screams it in this film given that he is wearing more makeup than Bette Davis. Lastly, I just didn't feel that he was passionate. He was incredibly stiff and kinda looked like an unfrozen caveman barely moving his lips and showing no emotion. He just ... didn't do it for me.

On the other hand, Bette was a complete delight. At first her character seems to be flirting with him just because she is curious and he happens to be around. Given this is pre-code, at one point she strips off-camera to lure him into her bed, saucy minx that she is. This is also the film where she delivers the completely quirky line "I'd like to kiss you but I just washed my hair!" She totally steals this film and blows unfrozen caveman off the screen with her exciting performance.

I really enjoyed this one. Not only because of Bette's not-so-nice girl performance, but the movie is much more. Michael Curtiz really did a great job of lining up some beautiful shots in the compact 78 min run time. The script is really good with the daring social commentary (again, a nice pre-code touch). In addition, there are some interesting music elements mixed throughout. These are the types of movies that I wish the younger generation had someone mentoring them to make sure they studied. Movies like these showcase a time period that is foreign to most current generations and clearly show how hard a struggle it was for basic necessities for many people. When watching a film like this, the hope is one will begin to think about the generations of folks before you whose shoulders are so proudly holding you up even today. At least, that is what I thought about at the end of this movie.

If you haven't seen this one, search it out on TCM - it is definitely worth watching.


kda0121 said...

This is a fun movie to watch for Bette's performance. She stated in later years that her favorite line she said in a movie was from this one: I'd like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair.

Jennythenipper said...

I'd like to see this. I haven't seen any Richard Barthlemass,and Mick LaSalle touts him so highly that I thought I should at least try some of his films. He had a reputation for doing films with a social conscience. But yeah, he always looks like he's wearing a ton of make-up and he doesn't look that great even then.

AbbyNormal said...

Karl - I think Bette rocks in general. I like that she looks so different in her earlier roles like this one.

Jenny - I have never seen Richard Barthelmass in anything other than this. I didn't get the urge to try to find anything else of his based off this performance, sadly. Maybe I am missing his awesomeness or maybe Mick is just more forgiving of bad makeup. :-) Definitely check this out if it comes on TCM again.