Tobacco Road (1941)

4 08 2008

Without question, the best John Ford film I’ve seen so far. While it understandably seems silly and juvenille on the surface, it is also by far the most mature and complex of Ford’s work. Yes, this is a film about rednecks and yes, a lot of them are fit into clichés but their world is still one of disappointment and regret. There is an in comparable sense of sadness underlying every scene, and that includes the bits that are outright slapstick. It’s probably also worth acknowledging that not one particular character in the film is sympathetic nor is anyone the voice of reason, with the exception of Captain Tim, who only makes two short appearances anyway. Instead, Ford paints a subtly devastating and heartbreaking portrait of people. Most people will see the Lester family as pathetic, but that doesn’t make their story any less tragic.

Jeeter Lester and his wife, Ada Lester have kept their family together through dozens of children. Every since they were first married, they have lived in a small log cabin. Now, they only have two children living with them, Dude and Ellie May. Jeeter’s sister, Bessie Rice (though not his real sister?) comes into town and falls for his son, Dude. His intelligence (or lack there of) does not make difference, and before the day is over, the two decide to get married. Jeeter approves of the spontaneous decision because he anticipates that Bessie can help the family out with money. Before the week ends, Jeeter has to scrap up $100, or else the family will be relocated.

I do this a bit too often, but I can’t help but draw a parallel between Ford’s film and (yes, you guessed – or didn’t!) Harmony Korine’s Gummo. If there is anyone likely to be the “Ford of our generation” it is Korine, as his vision of Midwest is as startling yet oddly poetic as Ford’s. The poetry of Korine’s film is a bit more apparent, due to its formal experimentation, but considering the time, Ford does attempt many unorthodox things in the technical department. Nothing physically different I suppose, but his whole visual style here seems far more rich than anything else that came out at the time. Of course, such rich visuals present some superficially “disgusting” images, which is exactly what Gummo would do so many years later.

Underscoring all the moments of redneckism and craziness, is an uncomfortable sense of tragedy. Not of a Greek mythological kind, but a sense that is far more subtle. A tragedy that comes from memories, not from physical misfortunes. Nothing specifically bad even happens in the film. As one can expect, the family doesn’t get the money together to pay off their debt, but it is the gradual process that Ford takes us on, that is bursting with poignant moments. Even with all this, none of the intended comedy turn out bad. In fact, it goes completely as planned, and creates the perfect balance between the moodier sequences. This is what cinema is all about, people.

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