Posted by Susan Doll on November 9, 2009
The Morlocks’ tribute to Robert Ryan, which leads up to Turner’s multi-film celebration of the actor on November 10-11, has not only offered insightful comments on some of his most famous performances but also shed light on his lesser known films. Interestingly, there has been a notable preference for Ryan’s dark characters—the bigots, the villains, and the self-centered predators, probably because his antagonists were never two-dimensional bad guys with the black hats and two-day beards but all-too-real humans with hidden demons. However, Ryan’s choice of film roles was too eclectic not to recognize the diversity, so I selected a less-acknowledged film in his filmography to write about—God’s Little Acre.
God’s Little Acre was a box-office success when it was released in 1958, making it one of Ryan’s most popular films with movie-going audiences of his day, though it is virtually unknown now. The movie was based on the 1933 novel by Erskine Caldwell, which was controversial during the Depression for its explicit sexual scenes. When the novel was first published, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice took Caldwell and Viking Press to court for disseminating pornography. Many writers, editors, and critics of the day rallied to support Caldwell, and the judge in charge of the case ruled in the book’s favor. The case was a famous First-Amendment-rights battle, which undoubtedly helped make the novel a best-seller. However, it took 20 years and the relaxation of the Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code for the novel to come to the big screen.
God’s Little Acre was directed by Anthony Mann, who had worked with Robert Ryan on The Naked Spur (1953) and Men in War (1957). Though a celebrated novel by an established author, God’s Little Acre featured many themes and character types that Mann had explored in his films. Mann cast Ryan in the lead role as Ty Ty Walden, the patriarch of a Southern family barely scraping by on their farm. Like other Mann patriarchs (T.C. Jeffords in The Furies, Walt Radak in Desperate, and Dock Tobin in Man of the West, among others), Ty Ty fails to take care of his business, his family, or his property, creating conflict among the characters. Also like other Mann protagonists, he has a deep connection to his landscape and his property. He is obsessed with finding a stash of gold that was supposedly buried on the family farm by his grandfather during the Civil War. Not only does he neglect to plant and work his land, he pulls two of his sons into his doomed scheme so that no one is left to tend the farm properly. The land is pock-marked with huge holes, left empty as Ty Ty digs his way from one part of the farm to another. The title comes from Ty Ty’s pledge to tithe one part of his land to the church. Whatever grows, flourishes, or develops from “God’s little acre” is supposed to go to the church. But, whenever Ty Ty thinks the gold might be found too close to God’s little acre, he changes the site of this titular tract of land.
In the meantime, the Walden family is falling apart, struggling with moral issues in the form of sexual relationships, and eroding from within. The oldest son, Buck, played by Jack Lord, is married to the beautiful, sensual Griselda, portrayed by Tina Louise (later Ginger on Gilligan’s Island). Griselda’s effect on men causes Buck enormous anxiety and jealousy, and he fights or argues incessantly with his wife, other men, or his father. Griselda was once involved with her brother-in-law, Bill Thompson, and the two have unresolved feelings for each other. Barrel-chested Aldo Ray has never looked more masculine as the ill-fated Thompson, who can’t get over the closing of the local textile mill where he had once made a good living. Thompson is married to Ty Ty’s oldest daughter, Rosamund, who is the only female in the story who is not over-ripe with sensuality, making her unsuited for her over-heated husband. Shaw, played by Vic Morrow, is another Walden son who lives at home. With his father obsessed with gold and his self-centered brother a nervous wreck, Shaw has no role model to guide him, so he merely mimics his brother or his father, without fully understanding what he is doing. A third son, Jim Leslie, has become a successful cotton broker in town. Jim Leslie, portrayed by Lance Fuller, left the farm long ago, critical of his father for a preposterous quest that has kept the Walden family poor and backward. The youngest member of the Walden family is the ridiculously named Darlin’ Jill, whose wild abandon toward the opposite sex makes her a red-hot tease. Fay Spain must have had a raucous good time portraying the man-chasing, hyper-sexual Darlin’ Jill, the one Walden family member who seems happy with herself despite her sullied reputation.
Ty Ty Walden is a flawed character who has let his dream of finding gold turn into an obsession that contaminates his entire family. However, he is a good man at heart who loves his family and believes in God–unlike the hateful, hurtful characters Ryan is often associated with. There is no quiet cruelty to Ty Ty, nor are there any hardened edges or inner demons. Ryan, who was so good at suggesting the cruel, internal workings of his dark characters by simply narrowing his eyes or adding a quiet intensity to his voice, instead paints Ty Ty in broad strokes. His smile is wide; his voice booms; and his arms and hands repeatedly reach out toward the other characters, as though to pull them into his wild schemes and unrealistic plans. “What in blue-bellied hell is going on,” Ty Ty likes to loudly exclaim whenever he is perplexed by the actions of his family. He is a completely externalized character; there is nothing about him that is mysterious, hidden, or veiled.
Too often, Hollywood films set in the poor rural South feature caricatures rather than characters, going for a L’il Abner-like approach that is oversimplified and demeaning. Often, actors don’t realize that the South is home to a variety of accents that vary depending on region and class. Even in contemporary films, actors tend to adopt an exaggerated Southern accent whether their character is from Mississippi or West Virginia. Given that God’s Little Acre was released in 1958, I braced myself for stereotyped caricatures straight out of Dogpatch, USA, though I knew that the original novel was a serio-comic view of author Erskine Caldwell’s home state of Georgia so broad characters were to be expected to some extent. And, some of the actors did skirt that edge between portraying broad characters and demeaning caricatures, including Fay Spain as Darlin’ Jill and Vic Morrow as Shaw, particularly in the first half of the film where most of the comedy occurs. But, the film was not as bad as I feared, and I was impressed with Robert Ryan’s portrayal of Ty Ty, which was neither demeaning nor stereotyped. The intensity generally associated with Ryan in his portrayals of bigots, psychos, and mean-spirited S.O.Bs is channeled into the energetic high spirits and good humor of Ty Ty who for much of the film revels in his far-fetched dream.
The second half of the film turns serious as underlying tensions among family members rise to the surface, and they snipe, fight, and betray each other. The ruptures in his family become apparent to Ty Ty when he visits his wealthy son Jim Leslie to ask for money. In a light bulb moment, he realizes that his son now looks down on him and that Jim Leslie values his luxurious home more than his family members. Later, Jim Leslie provokes a fight with his brother Buck by propositioning Griselda. Just as Buck is about to stab Jim Leslie with a pitchfork, Ty Ty throws himself in front of Jim Leslie, saving his ungrateful son’s life. Ty Ty’s good humor and larger-than-life persona have faded, and Ryan shows us the anguish of a man who realizes he is reaping what he has sown. There is nothing caricature-like about this performance.
At the end, when Ty Ty realizes the folly of his pursuits and the effect it has had on his family, he quietly strikes a bargain with the Almighty: If God will help his children, he will fill up the deep holes that scar his property, farm the land instead of neglecting it, and forget the gold. At this moment, with his back to the camera, Ryan reigns in the character, speaking softly and barely moving—a stark contrast with the Ty Ty from the beginning of the film.
If there is an actor who holds his own with Robert Ryan in God’s Little Acre, it is Aldo Ray as Bill Thompson. Bill is physically strong, a natural leader, and very masculine, but he is also morally weakened by his passion for Griselda, and he proves ineffectual in his drive to get the cotton mill re-opened. Unlike Ty Ty, Bill sees no future in staying on the dirt-poor farm to work the land, and he refuses to participate in hunting for the treasure. He rightly points out that one of the holes from Ty Ty’s dig is so close to the Walden house that it will likely collapse in on itself—a symbol of the effect of Ty Ty’s 15-year-long quest on his family. However, Bill Thompson also shares in common with his father-in-law an obsession that could destroy him. Bill’s need for the cotton mill to open again is the force that drives him, and his drunken tirades at the factory gates are pitiful to watch. A character of opposing forces, Bill fights like a man but cries like a baby, loves Griselda with a heated passion but is cold and heartless to his wife Rosamund, can out-drink or outfight his peers but loses the struggle to open the factory. Ray’s portrayal of Thompson is one of the best of his checkered career; between his multi-faceted performance and the shots of him naked to the waist, I was reminded of the reasons why I have a soft spot for Aldo Ray!
Ty Ty and Bill represent two paths for the South in the 20th century—the traditional recourse of living off the land and modern industrialization. According to Erskine Caldwell, by way of Anthony Mann, both paths seem doomed to failure. The other aspect of Caldwell’s original novel that is retained by Mann in God’s Little Acre is the robust sexuality. (See trailer below.) From the way Griselda and Darlin’ Jill seem to pour out of their blouses to the unbridled lust in the hearts of the menfolk, sex is never too far from the characters’—or the viewers’—minds. Ty Ty’s “lust” is for the treasure he is so determined to find, but his offspring are preoccupied with doing what comes naturally. Sexuality hangs in the air in God’s Little Acre, which Mann depicts not only through his characters’ personalities and proclivities, but also visually. Odd angles of Tina Louise’s ample bosom captured from below accentuate her sensuous figure as do long shots in high contrast lighting of her silhouette as she leans against a post on the front porch with her back arched. At times, the women are a bit too much like the “Daisy May” stereotype—that naïve but over-ripe female character from L’il Abner who just can’t help but entice the menfolk with her busty beauty.
However, one scene stands out not only for its eroticism but for its aching romanticism. One hot, humid night, Griselda and Bill Thompson find themselves outside under the moonlight, unable to sleep in the stuffy house. Bill watches Griselda in the backyard at the pump and then moves toward her as they meet at the side of the house. Griselda wears only a silky, clinging white slip that virtually glows in the low-key lighting, while Bill is shirtless, his body glistening with sweat. They speak of their desire for each other, which hangs so heavily in the air, it is palatable. He grabs her hand as it rests on her upper thigh, and the couple shares a passionate embrace. Griselda, who is a good woman at heart, stops before their desires get the best of them, and she moves away from Bill in a series of shots connected by dissolves. This is an odd choice on Mann’s part because dissolves are generally used to signal the slow passage of time, or that a great deal of time has passed from shot to the next. But, in this scene, the use of dissolves serves to stretch out Bill and Griselda’s one perfect moment together—in the way one might remember a meaningful moment years later . . . like a memory you hope will last a lifetime. It is a haunting depiction of deep passion unsatisfied and true love lost. And, if you’ve ever had a moment like Bill and Griselda’s, then you know what I mean; if not, then I feel sorry for you.
Despite skirting the line between broad characterizations and stereotypes, God’s Little Acre is a worthy addition to Robert Ryan’s filmography for his terrific performance in what some might call an atypical role. In addition, supporting performances by Aldo Ray and Tina Louise add to the film’s cache, while director Anthony Mann’s command over visual techniques was rarely better. God’s Little Acre is not part of TCM’s Ryan celebration on November 10-11, but it will be shown on TCM on January 17 at 12pm. The DVD of God’s Little Acre offers the uncensored version of the film, which features an alternate final scene not in the original theatrical release; the DVD ending completely changes the perspective on Ty Ty Walden. I am not sure which version of the film TCM is showing, but I recommend the film regardless.
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