Forgotten by Fox: Looking for Trouble

Jean Renoir's Hollywood debut, "Swamp Water," was a fraught production but makes a satisfying drama.
David Cairns
As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
***
Jean Renoir's first Hollywood film, Swamp Water (1941) is available on home video from Twilight Time if you have the means, and is well worth buying, again if you have the means. Most of us don't, which is why capitalism sucks. The sentence "Swamp Water is not currently streaming" has a redundant air.
The "celebrated megaphonist," as Fox publicity hailed him (see Pascal Merigeau's Jean Renoir: A Biography, if you have the means) began work on Dudley Nichols' script, from Vereen Bell's novel, with a mixture of trepidation and hope. Renoir regarded American filmmaking as somewhat stultified, the admirable dynamism of its pioneering days having settled into a rut. Could he shake things up? Would he be allowed to? An early disillusionment was the discovery that, for budgetary reasons, he would not be allowed to shoot the film on location in Georgia, though he was permitted to go there to pick up some scenic views to use as rear-projection plates, and was eventually allowed to take his leading man, Dana Andrews, to establish the character in his habitat with what a title card quaintly refers to as "actual photography." Given his anxieties, it would be wrong to call the production of Swamp Water a study in disaffection, since Renoir had largely gloomy feelings about Hollywood before he ever picked up a megaphone there.
When studio filming began, Renoir was politely harried by Zanuck to go faster: a major criticism was "too much importance given to atmosphere," which might stand as a working definition of the difference between Hollywood and European filmmaking. Renoir was, it seems, in despair of being allowed to make anything worthwhile. But, like many movies, Swamp Water is much more pleasurable to watch than it was to make.
The few days spent filming in the real Okefenokee swamp pays off in spades with moody and poetic scenes, the camera gliding ghost-like over the waters: the very first image, of a skull affixed to a cross of sticks rising from the murk sets a tone that persists. A little of that goes a long way, and here it has to, since the back lot and a rear projection screen are poor substitutes. I love process shots for their transparent illusionism, but they're not good for every occasion. The trouble with a factory set-up is it's one-size-fits-all, creatively.
Dana Andrews starts the film by looking for Trouble, which is the name of his dog, lost in the swamps. He finds him, but also gets a blow on the head from fugitive-from-injustice Walter Brennan (above). Once he's convinced the paranoid hermit that he doesn't intend turning him in for the reward money, a friendship is struck up, and the two resolve to trap together, with Andrews selling the furs in town and dividing the money with Brennan's daughter, who lives in town in the personage of Ann Baxter. But can the sincere but somewhat simple hero carry off this ruse without the townsfolk and sheriff getting wise to the presence of his wanted-for-murder bestie? You know the answer.
There are also subplots aplenty: Andrews' good stepmother (Mary Howard) is being aggressively serenaded by local yokel John Carradine (always good to find the skeletal thesp in horny troubadour mode; see also Mary of Scotland); Andrews' gruff pappy (Walter Huston) is sure to kill him if he finds out. Andrews has a no-good girl, Mabel (Virginia Gilmore), but he will of course fall for Baxter. Then there are the vicious stupid Dorson brothers (even their name seems illiterate), played by the classic plug-ugly team of Ward Bond and Guinn "Big Boy" Williams. Throw in Eugene Pallette as town sheriff and we have quite a posse. Everyone's doing their best version of a hillbilly accent, no doubt with varying lacks of authenticity lost on me.
Asides from the music, which resorts too readily to familiar hymns and folk tunes, it's all very well done. Renoir complained that all Zanuck's ideas were good, but they did not make a Renoir film, indeed "they destroy the films." If we can't call this a Renoir film, what's left is a fine Nichols script, as good as his work for Ford, sensitively played (Dana Andrews is generally very good and with him in the lead, you can't be sure things will turn out for the best; Brennan was never not great).
"Like another world in here, ain't it?" muses Andrews, looking up into the darkness of the studio rafters as every recording of a bullfrog ever made plays in the background.
"I heared tell stars is other worlds too," says Brennan. "Big shinin' rafts afloat in the ocean o' God's night. With living things on every raft just like there is on this one they call the earth. Livin' alone in this swamp's just like livin' on another star."
Thanks to Brennan and this kind of writing, this is one of the few movies with Walter Huston in which Huston isn't the best thing.
Zanuck was only trying to be helpful, even when he removed cinematographer Lucien Ballard (Morocco, The Killing) for being too slow.
So we can be confident Renoir meant at least part of what he said when he left the studio. "Well, goodbye, Mr. Zanuck, and let me tell you that it certainly has been a pleasure working at Sixteenth Century Fox."
Forgotten by Fox is a regular fortnightly series by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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