July 13, 2009

The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)
Grade: 76/100

Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Richard Barthelmess, Bette Davis, Berton Churchill

What it's about. Set on a large cotton plantation owned by gruff Lane Norwood (Berton Churchill). Among the many tenant farmers working there is Tom (David Landau), who has a grown son, Marvin (Richard Barthelmess). Marvin is bright, and his prospects are championed by Lane's vivacious daughter Madge (Bette Davis).

After Tom's unexpected death, Lane allows Marvin to continue his education, and employs him at his store. Soon, Marvin is torn between two loyalties, to his employer and his 'people,' the tenants. He learns that Lane methodically cheats the tenants, who in turn steal his cotton. Neither side seems sympathetic, since the tenants appear as corrupt as their employer, and are decidedly more threatening.

Marvin considers leaving the plantation, but his two sweethearts bar his way. They are bad rich girl Madge, and Betty (Dorothy Jordan), the poor good-girl daughter of scheming Uncle Joe (Russell Simpson). Both girls throw themselves at Marvin, with Madge having the greater success.

How others will see it. This movie is best known for Davis' flirtatious line, "I'd like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair." Male viewers would like to see much more Bette Davis, but instead they get Richard Barthelmess and his Hamlet-like indecision. Imdb.com user ratings show a gender gap increasing with age. Women 45+ award the film 8.6/10, much higher than the 7.0/10 from men 45+ up.

How I felt about it. Cabin in the Cotton was one of nine movies from 1932 that Bette Davis appeared in. Although many believe the turning point of her career came in Of Human Bondage (1934), in fact it came in 1932. The year had began badly for her. Universal cut her loose, but she found employment at Warner Bros. She received praise for her work in The Man Who Played God, and she was on her way.

It was a different story for the star of Cabin in the Cotton, Richard Barthelmess. He had been a movie star since D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919), where he played a Chinese man in love with Lillian Gish. But like many silent era stars, his career faded early in the sound era. He remained top billed through 1936, but was relegated to 'B' movies following his last success, Heroes for Sale (1933).

He was technically miscast for his role in Cabin in the Cotton, too old at 37 since his character was a man in his early twenties. While hardly a man-child, he projects sufficient wide-eyed innocence and boy-makes-good earnestness to pull off the role.

The Production Code was not enforced until sometime in 1933. One can tell this watching Cabin in the Cotton, since robber baron Lane Norwood receives only a minor comeuppance, and the thieving, conspiring, arsonist tenants are actually rewarded for their behavior.

1932 was near the trough of the Great Depression, an era of mass unemployment and widespread hunger. It is timely, then, that the economic battles between planter and tenant, as depicted here, are solved by a communal sharing of profits. The solution proposed by Marvin and district attorney Carter is little discussed, but it sounds vaguely socialistic, something like the programs eventually championed by Franklin Roosevelt, who was less than one month away from election as President at the time of the film's release.

The tenant farming system didn't last long after 1932. Crop prices were no longer sufficient to support tenant housing. By the time of The Grapes of Wrath, only seasonal mass lodging was provided for pickers, who became migrant farm workers, often brought in from Mexico. The cinematic victory achieved by the cotton pickers in the present film proved illusory in real life.