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With: Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Tina Louise, Buddy Hackett, Jack Lord, Fay Spain, Vic Morrow, Helen Westcott, Lance Fuller, Rex Ingram, Michael Landon
Written by: Ben Maddow (uncredited), Philip Yordan (front for Ben Maddow), based on a novel by Erskine Caldwell
Directed by: Anthony Mann
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 118
Date: 08/13/1958

God's Little Acre (1958)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Plot Holes

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As a huge fan of director Anthony Mann, I'm always eager to check out anything he did, but God's Little Acre is something of an oddball curiosity on his resume. Not coincidentally, it comes from a novel by Erskine Caldwell, whose Tobacco Road was turned into the most peculiar movie on John Ford's resume.

Both movies focus on poor farmers who teeter awfully close to buffoons. And in every household there's an oversexed young lady (played by Gene Tierney in Tobacco Road and Tina Louise in God's Little Acre). However, with his film, Mann employed his signature touch for exploring violence within a specific space to fascinating effect.

The plot begins with old-timer Ty Ty Walden (Robert Ryan), who should and could be raising cotton, but instead has spent fifteen years digging up his property in search of gold that his grandpappy supposedly buried somewhere. His sons Buck Walden (Jack Lord) and Shaw Walden (Vic Morrow) gamely help him out. The fiery Buck is married to the luscious Griselda (Louise), but she is in love with the loutish Will Thompson (Aldo Ray). Will is married to one of Ty Ty's daughters, Rosamund (Helen Westcott). Ty Ty's other daughter, the playful Darlin' Jill (Fay Spain) has captured the attention of the ridiculous Pluto Swint (Buddy Hackett), who spends the entire movie campaigning for sheriff.

Other characters include Jim Leslie (Lance Fuller), Ty Ty's third, estranged son, who has married into money and moved to the city. Uncle Felix (Rex Ingram) is the aged farm hand. And future TV star Michael Landon plays an albino that Ty Ty forces to divine for the gold.

Thanks to some gorgeous, deep-focus black-and-white cinematography by Ernest Haller, Mann is able to perfectly stage each scene for maximum emotional impact. The holes all over the Walden family farm give an impression of incompleteness, as well as an unsafe feeling (Pluto falls into one hole in the dark). Going to Jim Leslie to ask for money results in a scene of awkward misplacement as the outdoorsy Ty Ty, Darlin' Jill and Griselda wait in the spacious, trinket-filled living room. (Darlin' Jill breaks a vase.)

Most notably, in the movie's climactic scene, Will breaks into the shut-down textile plant where he used to earn his living and races all over its abandoned expanses, turning the power back on. He climbs up on catwalks and rampages down cluttered corridors. Lights flicker on and machines grind to life; they're so noisy they even drown out the dialogue.

Mann keeps up the tension and simmering violence throughout using these and other spaces. In another important scene, both Will and Griselda find themselves unable to sleep on a sweltering night. Will attempts a lustful move, and Griselda tries to resist, keeping only the corner of a building or a railing between them. Not much, but just enough.

However, God's Little Acre doesn't seem to me to be one of Mann's great films. As adapted by the blacklisted writer Ben Maddow (and fronted by the credited Philip Yordan), the screenplay is very high-pitched and sometimes hysterical. Mann's subtle inflections of violence are overrun by actual shouting matches between the characters. After Mann's great films noir and Westerns, it does seem an odd choice of material, and perhaps he was hoping it would elevate him in status. (His Western, Man of the West, made the same year, is held in much higher regard.)

What's truly interesting about this movie is the strange "hillbilly" genre that probably seems further away and more alien today than it did back then. This novelty could be an entry point into watching the movie, and then Mann's supreme artistry is reason enough to stay.

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