Tobacco Road (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John Ford|
|Produced by||Darryl F. Zanuck|
|Written by||Nunnally Johnson (screenplay)
Erskine Caldwell (novel)
|Music by||David Buttolph|
|Cinematography||Arthur C. Miller|
|Edited by||Barbara McLean|
|Distributed by||Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation|
|Box office||$1,900,000 (USA) (1973)|
Tobacco Road is a 1941 film directed by John Ford starring Charley Grapewin, Marjorie Rambeau, Gene Tierney, William Tracy Dana Andrews and Ward Bond. It was based on the novel of the same name by Erskine Caldwell, but the plot was rewritten for the film.
From Turner Classic Movies: "The downtrodden Lester family lives in rural Georgia alongside the old tobacco road, on once-prosperous farm land which is now fallow. The head of the family is Jeeter (Grapewin), a shiftless man who is always making grand plans but never following through with them. The other Lesters are Jeeter's hard-working wife Ada (Patterson); their daughter Ellie May (Tierney), who is a spinster at twenty-three; their high-strung son Dude (Tracy), who is obsessed by automobiles; and Jeeter's silent, browbeaten mother (Tilbury). The Lesters are constantly on the verge of starvation. One afternoon they are visited by Lov Bensey (Bond), who is married to Jeeter and Ada's daughter Pearl (who never appears in the film), the family attacks him and steals his bag of turnips.
Soon after, Jeeter hears a rumor that Captain Tim Harmon (Andrews), for whose father Jeeter used to farm, is coming to the tobacco road. Believing that Tim will extend credit to the farmers, Jeeter becomes convinced he can restore his farm. In order to clear his conscience, Jeeter confesses stealing the turnips to Sister Bessie (Rambeau), a local revivalist. Soon after, however, Jeeter meets Tim and banker George Payne (Mitchell), who explain that Tim is broke and subsequently, the bank has taken over his land, including that on which the Lesters live.
Payne tells Jeeter he has to pay $100 rent for the year, but Jeeter has not brooded on the matter for long when it appears that his problem will be solved. Sister Bessie, who was recently widowed, announces that she heard a voice telling her to marry Dude, despite the wide disparity in their ages. Jeeter, knowing that Bessie's husband left a substantial amount of insurance money, agrees to the match, but his scheme to borrow the rent from her is thwarted when Bessie spends all of her $800 inheritance on a new automobile for Dude. Later, Jeeter talks Dude and Bessie into taking him to Augusta to sell a load of firewood, and when no one buys the wood, he convinces the newlyweds to stay overnight in a hotel. While Dude and Bessie sleep, Jeeter steals the car, which has become increasingly dilapidated through careless treatment, and attempts to sell it. He is picked up by the chief of police, however, and the car is returned to Dude and Bessie.
Jeeter then returns home, and he and Ada prepare to leave for the "poor farm": a depressing, government-run home for paupers. Lov arrives and informs the family that Pearl has run away to work in the cotton mills. Jeeter persuades his son-in-law to take Ellie May home to care for him. Jeeter and Ada begin to walk to the poor farm, only to see Tim drive by. He stops and takes them back to their home. Although he can barely afford it, Tim has paid Payne six months' rent on the Lester farm. He now gives Jeeter ten dollars for seed and fertilizer. Jeeter promises to make good. However, after Tim leaves, Jeeter tells Ada that he will attend to his big plans 'pretty soon.'"
- Charley Grapewin as Jeeter Lester
- Marjorie Rambeau as Sister Bessie Rice
- Gene Tierney as Ellie May Lester
- William Tracy as Dude Lester
- Elizabeth Patterson as Ada Lester
- Dana Andrews as Capt. Tim Harmon
- Ward Bond as Lov Bensey
- Grant Mitchell as George Payne
- Zeffie Tilbury as Grandma Lester
Studios attempting to acquire the screen rights to the novel date back to 1933. RKO Pictures and Warner Bros. considered buying the rights, the first intending to assign Charles Laughton in the lead role, but were discouraged to do so. In March 1940, Columbia Pictures showed interest, but was informed that Tobacco Road was on the list of banned titles. Eventually, 20th Century Fox won the rights in August 1940, with RKO as its main competitor. It was believed that Fox won due to the success of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). They were the main preference of the copyright holders Erskine Caldwell and Jack Kirkland were reluctant to sell the rights unless the film "would be picturized honestly and fearlessly."
Initially, Henry Hull was sought from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to reprise the main role previously portrayed on Broadway. However, in October 1940 he was revealed to be only in consideration, along with Walter Brennan and Henry Fonda.
Much to the "immense satisfaction of the studio", John Ford was signed on as the director as early as March 1940. On production, he commented in a December 1940 interview: "We have no dirt in the picture. We've eliminated the horrible details and what we've got left is a nice dramatic story. It's a tear-jerker, with some comedy relief. What we're aiming at is to have the customers sympathize with our people and not feel disgusted." The decision was most likely a result of a November 1940 warning that "many religious folk throughout the nation may be offended by the religious aspects."
Casting was a huge problem, and it was reported that producer Darryl F. Zanuck and director Ford deliberated for weeks. Marjorie Rambeau and Gene Tierney were cast in November 1940. Most other cast members were signed on in the same month. Ford personally insisted that Charley Grapewin was cast as Jeeter, because of their previous collaboration on The Grapes of Wrath. To portray Dude, William Tracy had to diet and lose teeth. On his role, Tracy commented in a December 1940 interview: "It's a swell part. It's one you can sink your teeth in, if you have your teeth."
While in production, Tobacco Road was thought to be received as even greater than The Grapes of Wrath. Filming was initially set on location in Georgia, but to avoid any controversy, the studio decided in November 1940 that the film would be shot in the studio on closed sets. To further prevent the film from being banned before its release, there was no publicity.
Despite the studio's concerns over the censorship, the film was only banned in Australia for unknown reasons. Although the film received mixed reviews, it became a success at the box office, and it had grossed up to $1.9 million by 1973.
- Crowther, Bosley."Tobacco Road (1941)",New York Times, February 21, 1941
- "Tobacco Road Full Synopsis". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 24 June 2014.
- "Notes for Tobacco Road (1941)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2010-04-29.
- "Sensational Screen Play Comes Thurs. To Fox California", San Jose Evening News, March 12, 1941, p. 13
- "Hollywood Now Only Talks In Millions" by Sheilah Graham, The Miami News, March 31, 1940, p. 2
- "'Tobacco Road' Cleaned Up For Production as Movie" by Frederick C. Othman, St. Petersburg Times, December 15, 1940
- "'Tobacco Road' To Be Here Soon", Spartanburg Herald-Journal, March 30, 1941, p. 8
- "Gene Tierney Wins Big Role in 'Tobacco Road'", Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1940
- "Director Ford Operates Own 'Stock' Group" by Robbin Coons, Toledo Blade, January 15, 1941
- "'Tobacco Road' Will Be Filmed On Closed Sets" by Cameron Shipp, Spartanburg Herald-Journal, November 25, 1940, p. 5
- Tobacco Road at AllMovie
- Tobacco Road at the Internet Movie Database
- New Georgia Encyclopedia article on Tobacco Road
- TCM synopsis