Monday, July 23, 2012

Swamp Water - 1941

“Swamp Water” (1941) was what did it for Dana Andrews. After a few years in Hollywood bouncing between bit parts, an apprenticeship at the Pasadena Playhouse, and working as a gas station attendant, it took a trip to the Okefenokee to really launch his film career as a leading man.

This is part of the Dana Andrews Blogathon over at Classic Move Man, with links to other blogs posted this Saturday, July 28th.

Dana Andrews knew himself that ''Swamp Water" would be important to his career. In June 1941 he took “a fast cross country airliner,” to Waycross, Georgia to film on location according to the Waycross Journal-Herald of June 25, 1941. “‘It’s my big chance,’ laughed young Andrews a bit groggy after his first plane trip but fascinated by it all to such a degree he hadn’t been able to sleep.”

Thirty-three years later, in his mid-60s, in another phase of his career when performing dinner theatre in “Best of Friends” at the Alhambra Theatre, Jacksonville, Florida, Andrews took his wife on a side trip to the Okefenokee. He wanted to show her where he had filmed some scenes for “Swamp Water”. He was recognized in a Waycross diner. (Waycross Journal-Herald, February 13, 1974).

Dana Andrews had been the only principal actor to film in the Okefenokee, not counting his hound dog in the film, “Trouble.” According the Journal-Herald, Trouble also arrived on the same plane with Mr. Andrews, “‘sick as a dog’ from flying so high” in these days before jet planes with pressurized cabins.

Director Jean Renoir, in his first American film, and his assistant Irving Pinchel arrived as well, with Mr. Pinchel taking over the location shooting when Renoir went back to Hollywood, where of course most of the film was shot on sets.

It’s an unusual film, a precursor perhaps to Renoir’s “The Southerner” (1945) about Texas sharecroppers, which we’ll probably get around to sometime or other. In both, this esteemed French director, with an impressive body of work in French cinema behind him, and who was also the son of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, tackles a brooding American landscape. The swamp, with its gothic imagery, is a place of escape and freedom, but also a claustrophobic prison, a place of gruesome death.

Dana Andrews plays a backcountry youth who loses his hound dog, Trouble, in the Okefenokee swamp. He goes after him and meets Walter Brennan, who has been hiding in the swamp for five years, a fugitive from justice. Brennan had been wrongly accused of murdering a man, and he escaped before hanging.

His ragamuffin daughter, played by Anne Baxter, is taken in by storekeeper Russell Simpson as a hired girl. She is no-account by virtue of her father being no-account. She and Dana brave the community’s censure when he buys her a dress and takes her to the square dance.

Mr. Andrews has his own problems with run-ins with his domineering father, played by Walter Huston. There are a few subplots to round out this poor, isolated community -- Mary Howard plays Walter Huston’s young second wife, who is being romantically pursued by a smarmy John Carradine, who is given protection by the bullying brothers Ward Bond and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, who are actually the ones who committed the murder of which Walter Brennan is wrongly accused.

Did I mention there would be spoilers? No? Sorry.

It’s an interesting film both for Renoir’s perspective on American gothic, complete with the imagery of a skull atop a cross as a warning sign, and for it being Dana Andrews’ first leading role.

Andrews’s voice is what fascinates me most. He speaks his lines with his chin sunk into his chest, pushing the dialogue out of his body with a sound somewhere between growling and weeping. I know he was supposed to have a fine bass singing voice, but I never heard it. I can believe it listening to the fullness of his speech in this performance.

He doesn’t hunker down too much in a southern accent, though as a native southerner he could -- but that would make him stand out from everyone else in the community who do not speak with southern accents. Most especially the Massachusetts-bred Walter Brennan in his alligator skin clothing and his New England long vowels.

Andrews's emotions are raw and on the surface in this movie. In later roles he displayed that skillful knack of showing great depth of emotion under a surface of cool reserve, a man already burdened with too much baggage and afraid to acknowledge it. Here he conceals nothing. He is all joyful shout and angry bluster, yet it is not overacting. He is a young man of considerable pride who perhaps represents for Renoir the sunshine contrast to the dark swamp. His hair curling on his neck, his first bashful, then exuberant discovery of love for Anne Baxter, his physical energy in this film give us no foreshadowing of the haunted war vet, the gloomy private eye, the troubled police detective of future years.

Some of the scenes look straight out of a John Ford copybook -- the fiddle playing of “Red River Valley” at the square dance, and of course, the use of so many Ford regulars like Ward Bond, John Carradine and Russell Simpson.

Eugene Pallette is also along as the sheriff, whose otherwise jolly demeanor is a puzzle against the scene where he allows Ward Bond and “Big Boy” Williams to half drown Dana Andrews to force him to confess Walter Brennan’s whereabouts. It’s a bit of backcountry interrogation. Perhaps if he floats he will be declared a witch.

He and Walter Huston have a father-son reunion when Mr. Huston saves him.

Virginia Gilmore plays Mr. Andrews’s best girl, until she dumps him. Then her jealously over his attention to Anne Baxter drives her to accusing him of hiding the fugitive. She is smug, self-centered, manipulative, and dangerous.

The scenes at the dance are touching for the very way these folk observe courtly rules in contrast to their ragged best clothes and the rotting walls of the local meeting hall. I’ve been in swanky places where the manners were far worse.

They are proud people. It is pride that divides Dana Andrews from his Pa; pride that divides Walter Huston from his young wife, whom he thinks is seeing a man behind his back; pride which makes Dana shun his ratfink girlfriend; pride which makes him refuse to knuckle under Ward Bond. When his pal and surrogate father figure Walter Brennan accuses him of selling him out, it is his pride that makes Dana Andrews stand on purpose to take a bullet from Ward Bond to prove his innocence. More trial by ordeal.

And then back to gothic. There is a scene where “Big Boy” meets his demise in the swamp, slowly sucked up into a bog hole. It’s quite horrifying, and despite my fascination for bottomless pits in movies (see “Make Haste to Live” - 1954, here), I was amazed that the studio allowed Renoir’s fixed camera gaze on Williams screaming in terror as his disembodied head sinks into the mud. It’s something out of monster movie -- which would have been less terrifying because we do not believe in monsters -- than in a movie that has so far kept rigidly to unblinking reality.

Brennan lets a stunned Ward Bond live, to face the same hell he did as fugitive in the swamp. Their justice is crude, and final.

Another less horrifying, but cinematically striking scene is when John Carradine attempts to seduce Mary Howard, declaring his love for her while both are fairly tattooed with the mottled shadows of leaves that mask their expressions.

It’s an unusual film where character actors tell the tale. There are no stars, really, in this movie though certainly Walter Huston had a big name in film and theatre. The only star was the one yet to be -- Dana Andrews.


Stephen Reginald said...

This is an excellent post and would be great to include in the Dana Andrews blogathon starting this Saturday.

readerman said...

Never heard of this one. It sounds like a real corker. Thanks for bringing it to my attnetion. I'll be on the look-out. I love a good Dana Andrews performance.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, readerman. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you can see this one soon.

Yvette said...

I've never seen this, Jacqueline. But that's not surprising since I am not a big Dana Andrews fan with two exceptions: LAURA and BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.

But as usual, I enjoy reading your point of view on films and whatnot. :)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Yvette. It's the whatnot that always gets 'em. I think.

Classicfilmboy said...

I'm a big Dana Andrews fan but have never seen this one. I'll now have to search for it. Thanks for sharing!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Classicfilmboy, this is one of those that seems to be rarely shown on TV. I don't know its DVD status, but it does show up on the Fox Movie Channel every once in while. Good luck.

Caftan Woman said...

I always get "Swamp Water" mixed up in my mind with "Dark Water". After reading your interesting review I'm not even sure I've seen "Swamp Water". I blame the folks that come up with titles, Elwy Yost and age.

PS: For years I also did the same thing with "Moonrise" and "Moontide". Sigh.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

CW, that is precisely why I wish Hollywood would not be so vague with titles. This one should have been called Dana Andrews In a Swamp where "Big Boy" Williams Gets Sucked Into a Bog Hole.

Just tell me what I'm supposed to be watching for crying out loud.

silverscreenings said...

I really like how you described Dana Andrews' voice/speaking style. So true!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, silverscreenings. I especially like his confrontation scenes with Walter Huston.

Citizen Screen said...

No indication in this film's title that it has the depth you describe and such a great cast. At least to me. Sounds more like a "B" horror flick. Elements of Ford and the great cast - adding to my list of "must-sees." Great post!


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Aurora. I imagine a lot of people might have passed this movie by just on the title alone. You're right, it does sound like a "B" horror flick.

Carl Rollyson said...

For those of you who don't know, let me say that Swamp Water was recently issue in blue ray dvd. The novel, Swamp Water, is well worth reading. It is still in print (University of Georgia Press). Walter Brennan's character is much darker in the novel. Hollywood does some sentimentalizing. But Brennan still gives a wonderful performance. In fact, I got interested in him and have decided to write his biography. This film really shows off all the years Dana worked on his voice. In the confrontation scene with Walter Huston, Dana drops quite naturally into a lower register when he asserts his manhood.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Mr. Rollyson. Thanks for the news on the new release of "Swamp Water". Good luck on your Walter Brennan biography. It's great to learn more about Hollywood's memorable character actors.

Stephen Reginald said...

Jacqueline, thanks so much for taking part in the blogathon. I need to get a copy of this film. I l know I saw it on TV as a kid, but don't really remember much of it. Your post makes me want to see it!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Stephen. According to the above commenter, the recent Blu-Ray, DVD release will make it easier to find.

Kristina D said...

havent seen this movie either, great cast though, lots of my faves besides Dana, and speaking of voices (that's an awful choice of words, sorry) this one has a lot of distinctive ones, what with Pallette, Carradine, et al. Nice post as usual, something I really enjoy at your blog is the way you include biographical / historical background. After reading thru most of the blogathon posts I like how many writers are commenting on that quality Dana had of having something deeper, more going on beneath the surface and so forth. Made him right for a variety of genres and types of roles. Great read, Thanks & best

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Kristina. I think you're right that Dana was a good fit for a variety of genres and types of roles. Looking forward to the biography of him to learn what he might have thought about that.

Patti said...

First of all, thank you for stopping by and leaving your thoughts on my blogathon entry, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

You have written a wonderful post, and you have really aroused my curiosity about this film. It is one I have never seen before and, in fact, have never even heard of. It definitely sounds interesting, and in light of the fact, that (besides Dana) I think Walter Huston was a fantastic actor, I know this is a definite must-see.

Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Patti. I enjoyed your post on "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt." This blogathon is giving us all a chance to learn about lots Dana's films we've never seen. I hope you can catch up with "Swamp Water" soon. I agree Walter Huston was tops.

WhatHappnd2Hollywood said...

I'd never heard of this one before either. Like everyone else has said, Ill have to find it now, especially after reading this :)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, and I hope you can find "Swamp Water" soon. Thanks.

Ghoh said...

I have known and loved Swamp Water since I saw it several times when it used to show up on TV. I have the DVD and have watched it with both my sons. Now that I have a grandson I will be waiting for him to be grown up enough to watch it with me.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome to the blog! It's certainly very fine movie, and your grandson has a lot to look forward to, especially sharing it with you.

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