THE primitive, ribald Georgia rustics of Erskine Caldwell's "God's Little Acre" have been a long time emerging from the pages of his twenty-five-year-old super-best-seller, but they arrived yesterday on the screen of more than 100 local theatres impressively alive and full of sex, vitality and bucolic humor. Although they still are as far from the country-club set as possible, the denizens of "God's Little Acre" have been treated with dignity and intelligence in a folk comedy that is actually funny, realistic and rarely a lampoon.
The combination of scenarist Philip Yordan, Director Anthony Mann and Producer Sidney Harmon have changed the author's blueprint here and there to accommodate Hollywood's moral guardians and to suit their own literary ends. But they have not done an injustice to the theme or most of the book's plot and dialogue. It not only is recognizable but, in many ways, also has been improved by tightening and some re-arrangements. Although the starkness, tragedy, poverty, ignorance and inter-familial lusts are there they do not appear degraded but natural to the people and their environment.
In Mr. Caldwell's original, it will be recalled, Ty Ty Walden, the poor white farmer, was driven for fifteen years to dig holes all over his fallow acres (while he and his Negro sharecroppers went hungry) in an effort to discover the secret gold mine his grand-pappy spoke of guardedly. In the film he and his sons, Buck and Shaw, are determinedly excavating for a hidden treasure. Sex, as has been noted, is as ever-present as it was in the novel. Ty Ty's amazingly endowed daughter-in-law, Griselda, again sends Bill Thompson's temperature rising as his daughter, Rosamund, sits helplessly by. And Darlin' Jill, his blond youngest daughter, grown to full-blown womanhood and courted by the fat, jovial simpleton, Pluto, is exuberantly ready to kiss and run.
Ty Ty again is the dedicated religious man who has set aside the products of one acre to his church. But he is not against moving the cross that marks it with regularity if he feels the gold may be uncovered there. This is not an irreverential gesture, but merely the reasoning of a simple man whose intentions are wholly honorable by his lights.
Include among these simple folk this son-in-law, Bill Thompson, who is devoured with the idea that it is his duty to set the cotton-mill wheels in his town turning again. An urbanite, he feels that this will redeem himself and the idle townsfolk. Although this all ends in tragedy and results in a climax that is a switch from the original, it is, nevertheless, effective. The fact that Ty Ty and his sons decide to stop digging and return to farming is not a strange occurrence, as it is illustrated here.
Credit Robert Ryan with a superb performance as the farmer consumed by an exotic drive for gold and a devout wish to keep his family happy and at his side. As the graying, unshaven, middle-aged but still muscular patriarch, he makes a rough-hewn but memorable figure. Credit also the Messrs. Yordan and Mann with giving their cast colloquial lines and direction that provide each player with a "fat" and distinctive role. Buddy Hackett, the TV comic, is surprisingly funny as the rotund Pluto, the helpless and lovelorn rube who is running for the sheriff's office and the beauteous Darlin' Jill.
Aldo Ray has more than one effective scene as the ill-fated townsman who loves Griselda, and Helen Westcott is fine as his understanding but resigned wife. Tina Louise, late of the musical, "Li'l Abner," is decorative as the eye-catching Griselda, as is Fay Spain as the rambunctious Darlin' Jill. Jack Lord does well as the jealous son who is ready to fight for the affections of his wife, Griselda. And Lance Fuller, as the farmer's rich, city-slicker son; Vic Morrow, as another son; Michael Landon, as the Albino used by Ty Ty to divine his gold treasure, and Rex Ingram, as his dignified Negro farmhand, pitch in with meticulous portrayals.
They have neither kidded nor cheapened "God's Little Acre" but have treated it with respect.
GOD'S LITTLE ACRE; screen play by Philip Yordan; based on the novel by Erskine Caldwell; directed by Anthony Mann; produced by Sidney Harmon; a Security Pictures presentation released through United Artists. At neighborhood theatres. Running time: 118 minutes.
Ty Ty Walden . . . . . Robert Ryan
Bill Thompson . . . . . Aldo Ray
Griselda Walden . . . . . Tina Louise
Pluto Swint . . . . . Buddy Hackett
Buck Walden . . . . . Jack Lord
Darlin' Jill Walden . . . . . Fay Spain
Shaw Walden . . . . . Vic Morrow
Rosamund Thompson . . . . . Helen Westcott
Jim Leslie . . . . . Lance Fuller
Uncle Felix . . . . . Rex Ingram
Dave Dawson . . . . . Michael Landon
Anthony Mann's film based on Erskine Caldwell's book about obsessive faith in 'hidden gold' by an eccentric family of simple southern sharecroppers has quite a history. It was initially banned in many states compelling a theatrically presented 'toned-down' version. Censorship revolved mostly around young Tina Louise's excessively healthy boobs.
The most consistent supporting actor ever; Robert Ryan, holds the charm with some interesting inclusions in the cast. Aldo Ray plays inflexible in-law Bill, who can't accept that the local plant has shut down... once '50s pinup, Fay Spain plays the unwed nubile sister... Buddy Hackett of 'Buddy Hackett' fame plays the candidate for local Sheriff and "Little House on the Prairie" 's Michael Landon portrays the kidnapped albino worker (didn't you know - "they're good luck!"). All in all this is just too good a film to be so forgotten. It resonates feelings of isolation, bigotry, self-importance, small town lust, and warping materialism. With Mann steering the ship this is racy comedy that plays as a sanctinfy'in fable. You gotta see this...