Filmsite Movie Review
The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)
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The Cabin in the Cotton (1932) is director Michael Curtiz' pre-Code social melodrama about social injustice, adapted with a screenplay by Paul Green of Henry Harrison Kroll's 1931 novel Cabin in the Cotton - a diatribe against the exploitation of sharecroppers by wealthy southern landowners.

Warner Bros' potboiling story of class conflict and organized labor in the Deep South was part of the studio's series of social-issue and social-conscience "message" dramas in the 1930s, including:

  • I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)
  • Heroes for Sale (1933) (also with Richard Barthelmess)
  • The Mayor of Hell (1933)
  • Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
  • Black Fury (1935)
  • Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
  • They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

Curtiz' studio film vowed that it would make a serious attempt to remain neutral and not take a stand on either side (the poor white farmer-tenants, known as "peckerwoods," or the rich and powerful managerial planters-owners), by presenting a scrolling disclaimer in an opening title card's prologue (See full quote below in "Plot Synopsis").

[Note: "Peckerwood" or its more vulgar derivative "peckerhead" was derogatory slang for an unsophisticated rustic person or "redneck." The reverse of the word, woodpecker, referred to a literally red-headed and red-necked bird. Its second meaning was sexual - the foreskin of a penis (or prepuce) - literally the 'peckerhead.' Another related, similarly-defined term in the film was "Whicker bill."]

In the plot, tenant sharecropping farmer's high-school aged son Marvin Blake (Richard Barthelmess) was pressured to not forget his place in life and to pick cotton in the fields for rich Southern cotton plantation land-owner Lane Norwood (Berton Churchill). However, his life changed when his sick, exhausted and overworked father Tom Blake (David Landau) died in his bed, and Norwood was prodded by his wickedly sexy, rich, young and seductive daughter Madge Norwood (Bette Davis) to let Marvin finish his education and graduate.

Afterwards, Marvin began working as a night clerk and then was promoted to bookkeeper in Norwood's company store-office - ascending into the Norwood's higher social class. He eventually learned of the landowner's corruption (high interest rates and exorbitant carrying charges in the company store that cheated the farmers), that indirectly had led to his father's death. Meanwhile, Marvin became entranced and fell in love with Madge, who kept urging him to support her father's way of life. The film has been best remembered for Bette Davis' (Madge's) Southern-accented delivery of a line of dialogue [later quoted in Get Shorty (1995)]:

"Ah'd like to kiss ya, but ah jest washed ma hair."

Marvin became caught in the conflict between his loyalty to his employer, his love for both Madge and his childhood tenant-farmer sweetheart Betty Wright (Dorothy Jordan), and his roots as a farmer. He decided to give up on Madge after bringing compromise between the workers and management.

Both of the main stars in the film were at different stages in their careers:

  • Richard Barthelmess, a 37 year-old (playing a 23 year-old), was a silent-screen star who played the role of a sharecropper's son - it was the last significant role of his career
  • Bette Davis, a 24 year-old in a breakthrough early role as blonde, slim and promiscuous Madge; it was the first in a string of performances as a strong, conniving and wily sexually-appealing Southern female, just before her similarly memorable performance in Of Human Bondage (1934) as blonde, lower-class, pale and anemic, coarse, trashy, slatternly and vulgar, Cockney-accented, pale-faced and illiterate tearoom waitress Mildred Rogers

Although Davis played the role of the sizzling, vampish Southern female with ease, she later admitted that she was a virgin, and was surprised that she had acquired the role. Director Curtiz had cruelly resisted and objected to her casting from the very start and questioned her passion and sex-appeal: "Who would want to go to bed with her?"

Plot Synopsis

Opening Title Credits - Prologue and Opening Credits Disclaimer:

Many of the film's principal characters were introduced during the title credits, with pictures, star and cast name. The film's opening title credits included a studio disclaimer in an attempt to remain neutral and not take sides in its story of conflict between two societal classes - the rich land-owning planters and the poor, tenant cotton-picking farmers:

In many parts of the South today, there exists an endless dispute between the rich land-owners, known as planters and the poor cotton pickers, known as tenants or 'peckerwoods'. The planters supply the tenants with the simple requirements of every day life and in return, the tenants work the land year in and year out.

A hundred volumes could be written on the rights and wrongs of both parties, but it is not the object of the producers of 'The Cabin in the Cotton' to take sides. We are only concerned with an effort to picturize these conditions.

[Note: The derogatory term "Peckerwood" was possibly derived from its reversed form as 'woodpecker' - referencing its red-headed and red-necked qualities - and implying that the tenant farmers were 'rednecks'.]

The Issue of the Education of Tenant-Farmer's Son Marvin Blake:

Marvin Blake (Richard Barthelmess), the son of over-worked, poverty-stricken tenant-farmer father Tom Blake (David Landau) and Lilly (Dorothy Peterson), was interested in bettering himself, rather than following in his father's footsteps as a tenant farmer in the rural town of Jonesville. His goal was to complete his high-school education as a way to improve his own destiny and help combat his community's poverty and backward ways. The rich, aristocratic land-owning planter Lane Norwood (Berton Churchill) was opposed to Marvin's upward strivings and wanted him to contribute by joining his father picking cotton. While sitting in his open vehicle driven into the cotton fields, the imperious Norwood ordered that Marvin work in the field immediately before winter set in: ("Tom, you can't afford to let Marvin go to school now. You need him here"). Tom protested: "But Marvin is going to be something. I ain't- I ain't never been nothin'. Nothin'. I want him to go to school, sir." Norwood overruled Tom: "Your crop comes first. You'll do what I said. Put Marvin back in the field."

That same evening during preparations for supper in the Blake's ramshackle house after Marvin returned home from school, his exhausted and sick father laid on a bed and never woke up - he was discovered dead by his surprised and distressed family members. Marvin raced to the Norwood's plantation, where Norwood's high-school aged daughter Madge (Bette Davis) was in the midst of arguing with her father about her classmate Marvin - a 'Peckerwood' who was an exemplary student and considered "the smartest boy in school." She disagreed with her father's recent decision to force Marvin to give up his schooling and work in the fields: ("It will nearly break his heart"). Norwood snapped back: "Poor-white is poor-white, and books won't change him." Marvin burst in, interrupted the Norwood family at dinner, told Mr. Norwood that his father was dead, and summoned him to help.

The Death of Marvin's Father, and Norwood's Sponsorship of Marvin's Education and Offer of a Job:

Following a somber funeral service and burial ceremony for Tom Blake (in a simple pine coffin), the guilty-feeling Norwood - partially due to his daughter's intercession for her classmate - begrudgingly but supportively assisted Marvin by sponsoring the continuation of his education. He communicated his decision through a typewritten letter (on his letterhead) to Marvin:

Marvin Blake:

My daughter, Madge, tells me you were forced to stop school since your father passed away. She said you made excellent progress in school and therefore I am going to arrange it so it won't be necessary for you to return to the cotton fields.
You can continue your school work, and after hours, work in my store.

Lane Norwood (signature)

Shortly later in a very brief scene, poor-white worker Sock Fisher (Erville Alderson), Lilly's suitor, responded was suspicions of Norwood's job offer for Marvin as a night clerk in his company's office-store: "He'll use Marvin for his own ends. He'll keep on robbin' you of everything." He proposed marriage to become her protective "head of the house" in exchange for her cooking.

Marvin - Torn Between Two Worlds (Working for Norwood's Interests or for the Farmers' Interests):

In a short montage, Marvin resumed his high-school education while working nights at the store, and received his graduation diploma.

At the store after graduation, Marvin (who had been promoted to financial accountant) was faced with comments from his new step-father Sock Fisher and his son Jake Fisher (William LeMaire) about his new allegiance: ("So, you're Norwood's man now, ain't you? Bought body and soul and educated by him"). The Fishers claimed that they was starving and couldn't effectively work: ("A man's gotta eat. He can't work without eating...We want a sack of flour and a side of beef, credit or no credit"). Marvin hinted that Sock might be stealing cotton, and then reminded the two that they had an overdrawn account. He opposed requests for further credit, food or handouts: "Mr. Norwood can't keep feeding you unless you bring in enough cotton to pay him," but then relented when his Ma Blake begged: "Can't you charge it to yourself the way you did before, Marvin?" Marvin was naively unaware that his loyalties were slowly becoming torn between two worlds.

Suddenly, Madge entered the store and seductively asked Marvin to provide a light for her cigarette, as his family members looked on. Once they left, Madge remarked that the clean-cut and sober Marvin should break loose from his family roots:

Madge: Don't smoke, don't drink. You'll be a preacher yet, won't you, Marvin. Or somethin' different. But you'll have to get loose from them. You don't like me, do you?
Marvin: Why, of course.
Madge: Well then, come close. I won't bite you. Why are you so serious? Always thinkin'. What about?
Marvin: I don't know.

She temptingly invited Marvin to leave his hot work environment and join her friends to go swimming in the cool lake. When Marvin declined, Madge spitefully responded and stomped off: "You don't have any fun, do you? Fine!"

The Destitute Tenant Farmers' Theft of Norwood's Cotton to Seek Vengeance Against Company Store Cheating:

Lane Norwood posted a sign on his property, offering a $50 Dollar REWARD for helping to arrest those who were stealing cotton:

$50.00 Reward Will be Paid to Anyone Furnishing Information That Leads to the Arrest and Conviction of Any Person Caught Stealing Cotton From My Property

After being ushered into his white-collar job and working for Norwood for four or five years, Marvin had ascended into a superior social class and would soon be viewed as traitorous and at odds with his lowly upbringing. Norwood summoned Marvin to pressure him to spy on his fellow tenants, inform him about thefts of cotton, and report any efforts at union-organizing by the field workers. He especially singled out the indebted Sock Fisher and Uncle Joe Wright (Russell Simpson) (Betty's father) - suspicious that they were ungrateful workers who were stealing his cotton:

The tenants trust you. You're sorta one of 'em. You keep your eyes open. Poke about. Get all the information you can. Your step-brother Jake Fisher's in it. The Clinton boys too, I know it. And you're livin' right among 'em. You keep your eyes open.

Marvin also became mired between his growing cross-class lust for Madge and his love for longtime sweetheart Betty Wright (Dorothy Jordan), the daughter of a tenant sharecropping farmer and close family friend. Norwood persuasively urged Marvin to accept that he had eclipsed his poor-white status from his past.

Look here, Marvin. After all, you're gettin' up out of the poor-white class. You been to school, you're a good bookkeeper. You're a sort of right-hand man to me now. And Betty is a sweet little - well, tenant girl, I know. But you don't want to get tangled up with her. Not if you're going anywhere in this world. You're sort of on the Planter's side now. And we're the people who keep the country going. Well, you know what I mean.

Norwood also suggested that Marvin attend a tenant-farmer birthday dance party scheduled for Betty (and other Peckerwoods) that evening, as an excuse for Marvin to snoop around, find evidence of stolen cotton or food, and identify the thieves: "You keep your eyes open. Listen. They'll talk. Somebody will say something. Something about the stealing....I've got to have evidence - evidence."

Marvin attended Betty's birthday party with a country-western atmosphere. Once he arrived, she led him into a back warehouse storeroom to kiss him, but he was distracted by the stockpiled goods in the room. He had known Betty since childhood and they always had a liking for each other. She jealously asked if he thought she was as pretty as Madge, without mentioning her name. She added that she had been missing him over the previous ten days, when he explained how he had been busy - but reassured her: "You are mighty sweet, Betty." As Marvin danced "The Peckerwood Wiggle" with Betty, he glanced at the window and saw Madge and one of her rich boyfriends peering through a window and laughing at the hick farmers. After excusing himself, Marvin rushed outside, and caught a glimpse of Madge driving off in a convertible.

Further Tensions That Pulled on Marvin - Urging Him to Join One Side or the Other:

Marvin was called aside by Betty's father Uncle Joe Wright, who led him outside to the edge of the cotton fields, and described how the impoverished and destitute tenant farmers - in retaliation for their harsh treatment and desperate poverty - were stealing cotton from Norwood:

There is cotton-stealing going on over at Norwood's. Though I don't call it stealing. I call it taking back what's yours. Lane Norwood done the stealing. Been doing it for years. Now, with hard times we've got to get our chance back.

Promoted and employed as Norwood's bookkeeping accountant for the financial empire, Marvin began to realize that the tenant farmers were burdened with high interest rates (and carrying fees) for the credit that was extended to them in the company store, and were striking back. The situation escalated for Marvin when Joe asked him to act as their agent and broker the stolen cotton for them in Memphis:

We want you in with us....We got a lot of cotton stored up. Call it stolen cotton if you want to, but we've got it. But it won't do us good unless we get a man on the selling end of the business....Now, we want you go to Memphis like a regular cotton grower. Set up an office and...There's a good, fat commission in it for you, too.

Joe argued it was now the time for the educated Marvin (who was given "learning" by Norwood) to pay back his kinfolk by using his intelligence to side with the tenant-farmers against his exploitative employer Norwood:

Now, you're under obligations to him. He uses you. He uses you to cheat us, your own folks. Keeping his books there at the store. Well, we want to use you. We want you to help us...And I know Tom Blake's boy will stand by his folks.

Marvin was dumbstruck by the request - and was unable to respond. He was forced to straddle himself between the two opposing sides and not risk his job or livelihood, or to alienate his relatives. After their brief discussion, Marvin decided to leave the dance and walk home alone - leaving Betty stranded.

The Rationale for the Theft of Norwood's Cotton by the Farmers - Was There a Way to Solve the Problem?:

The next day, Norwood introduced Marvin to the local District Attorney Russell Carter (John Marston) to discuss the problem in the upstairs office of the DRY GOODS & GROCERIES company store. Now that Marvin had received confirmation that the tenant-farmers were stealing cotton, he became complicit in their crimes by his denial of knowing about the thefts. However, Carter knew he was lying - due to being indebted to both Norwood and to his kin: ("I know how you're fixed. You're caught between two sides, aren't you?"), but assured him he wasn't immediately going to prosecute: ("I'm not going to put any of your folks behind the bars just yet").

As they looked at Marvin's ledger books, Carter realized why Marvin had sympathy for the tenants' plight and why they would steal cotton - they never had enough credit to buy things in the company store due to corrupt lending practices. Even at this early stage in the film, Marvin was contemplating ways to solve the problem:

Carter: Same old system. Thirty, forty percent interest, and carrying charges. A devil of a situation. The big fish and the little fish. The weak and the strong. And what's to be done about it?
Marvin: Seems like some way could be found, Mr. Carter. But there don't seem to be anywhere to start. Stealin' and cheatin' and fightin'. Both sides.
Carter: We must find some way, Blake.

Betty entered the store for five pounds of sugar, but it was only as an excuse to inform Marvin that her father wanted to meet with him again that evening for something "awfully important." Then, Madge entered to purchase cigarettes and was formally introduced to Betty. She knew of Marvin's long friendship with Betty, but snidely remarked: "She used to be your sweetheart, didn't she?" Envious of Betty, Madge invited Marvin to her own extravagant jazz band party (with an all-black jazz band from Memphis) on Saturday night at 8:30 pm, to openly display him as her "boyfriend" and expert dancer ("I want you to come. And be my boyfriend....We're going to dance the 'Peckerwood Wiggle'. Or whatever you call it and I want you to lead the figure"). After accepting her invite, to thank him, they retreated to the store's outdoor porch where she delivered the film's most memorable line:

Ah'd like to kiss ya, but ah jest washed ma hair.

Late that night at Uncle Joe's place, he mentioned to other farmers how he hoped Marvin would be caught in the "stealing end" of thefts rather than just the "selling" end. Then, they might have enough leverage to convince Marvin to take their side: ("He's got to stick by us to save his own hide"). Once Marvin arrived, Joe and others led Marvin to a shack filled with a "sizeable pile of cotton" (stolen) where everyone loaded up over half a dozen burlap sacks of cotton and carried them to be ginned at Kyle Jackson's place. Dawn approached as they broke up the meeting, when Joe again temptingly urged Marvin to consider becoming their selling agent in Memphis:

You're on the right side now, Marvin. Just keep your mouth shut about that Memphis business. We're gonna send you up there to be our agent. There's money in it for ya. Big money.

Madge's Formal Jazz-Band Saturday-Night Plantation Party - and Growing Love For Madge:

The next day as the all-black Memphis Jazz Band drove up, they were greeted with derogatory looks from some of the farmers. Madge volunteered Marvin to help assist the group: "Marvin, show them around to their rooms in the back, will you?" Two of the farmers added racist desultory comments: "And draw water for them, Marvin. Be a chambermaid for a bunch of yellow saxophone students."

That night during the formal dance party, in a parallel scene, the tenants (hiding behind bushes and trees) peered through the plantation windows and made fun of the rich folks. The pre-Code nature of the film was exhibited by one of the tenants' salacious description of Madge:

That Norwood girl, ain't got a bit of soul, she ain't. But she's sure got a body. Some body.

They also derisively mocked the formally-dressed Marvin who looked extremely awkward in the lavish setting: "Look who's there. Yeah, look at him. Look at him. Tryin' to be somebody...Look at him. Huggin' up to the high and mighty."

After their square-dancing of the 'Peckerwood Wiggle' led by Marvin, he and Madge retreated to the outdoor balcony, where while she enjoyed a smoke, she also enticingly announced that he was being invited by her father to live in the plantation: "You're going to come and live with us...Father said he wanted you nearby. Got a room all fixed for you, upstairs."

With the promise of being closer to her and realizing that he was moving up in the world, Marvin began to fall in love with the vivacious, carefree and tempting rich girl Madge who was also becoming infatuated with him. As they sat on a wicker couch and kissed, he naively pledged his love to her, but she wasn't willing to move as fast as him in their relationship:

Madge: Love me, honey.
Marvin: I do love you, Madge. I love you more than anything in this world. There is nobody but you. But I never dreamed you'd like me.
Madge: Ah, you're so sweet, Marvin, sweet. Of course I like you.
Marvin: Imagine.
Madge: Here you are. With me, Lane Norwood's daughter. Up in the world. Goin' somewhere. Oh, darling.
Marvin: I will be something. I'll make you proud of me. I love you, Madge. (More kissing)
Madge: Not so fast, honey. Just love me. Love me. (Another kiss)

Later that evening, as she snuggled up into his arms on the outdoor wicker couch, she sang: "Willie the Weeper." When the song ended, she added: "Your head is full o' plans, isn't it, darlin', full o' plans." Nearby, blind "Negro" (Clarence Muse), who was playing a banjo and walking along the fence line with his young son, sarcastically remarked about the lavish plantation setting for the party: "The great glory of the white man."

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