The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)
“EVERY 2 YEARS BARTHELMESS MAKES HISTORY! 1920–“BROKEN BLOSSOMS” 1922–“TOL’ABLE DAVID” 1924–“BRIGHT SHAWL” 1926–“PATENT LEATHER KID” 1928–“WEARY RIVER” 1930–“DAWN PATROL” 1932–“CABIN IN THE COTTON””
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Richard Barthelmess, Bette Davis, Dorothy Jordan
Synopsis: A tenant farmer’s son is caught in the middle of owner-tenant disputes when he falls for the plantation owner’s seductive daughter.
Richard Barthelmess and Bette Davis were stars shooting in opposite directions when this movie was made. For Barthelmess, this was to be one of his last significant roles, while, for Davis, the part of Madge Norwood was one of her first. That this is so seems to be reflected in the performances of the pair: Barthelmess, in an admittedly thankless (and passive) role for which he is badly miscast, is very wooden; his features are strangely immobile when they should be emoting, and only in the final scenes during the climactic meeting at the town hall does he manage to inject any kind of believable emotion into his performance. Sadly, by then it is too late: all interest in his character has long since waned. Davis, by contrast, is fresh and beguiling, and refreshingly free of the hardness typical of the mink-stole b!tch roles in which she would soon come to specialise.
The movie itself is dated in all aspects, and while its social issue message may still be relevant today, the setting (cotton plantations) is not. Aside from the character of Marvin Blake (Bathelmess), which is too insipid, everyone is far too scheming and manipulative to be sympathetic and, until the final scenes, I found myself siding more with wealthy Lane Norwood (Berton Churchill) than the exploited ‘peckerwoods’. While the ambiguity of the screenplay may have intended this, it still didn’t seem right somehow, because I still felt as if I should be on the side of the impoverished tenants. The ending, in which Blake decides between rich Madge Norwood and poor Betty Wright (Dorothy Jordan), seems to be tacked on as an afterthought, because the real climax to the story takes place in the town hall.
Worth a watch for movie buffs, but certainly no classic.
(Reviewed 1st March 2003)