Universal // 1936 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // July 7th, 2009
Their hatred is their patriotism. Their quaint customs are their religion.
Call in the young'uns and find the parson, 'cause there's a-feudin' and a-fightin' comin' down from the hills. Filmed in glorious Technicolor, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is a surprising tale of a family feud, amidst the rise of industrialization and the modern woman.
For reasons nobody can remember, The Falins and The Tollivers have been feuding for generations. When Jack Hale (Fred MacMurray, The Lady is Willing), a big city engineer, comes to town looking to buy land for a coal mine and a railroad, he has to convince both families to sign on with him, forcing him to navigate a decades-long war and as his growing love for June (Sylvia Sidney, Sabotage), the Tolliver's oldest daughter.
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is a strange one. A remake of the 1916 Cecil B. DeMille film of the same name, it retains some of that old-school esthetic, but changes the story in an interesting way. Originally, the film was about moonshine runners, but the remake turns them into farmers. The Jack Hale character was a T-Man, but is now an engineer. Because prohibition was still fresh in the memory of the audience, it would have been natural to transfer the story as-is. However, these changes are clear evidence of The Hayes Code meddling with film. The code strictly forbade lawbreakers as a protagonist, so they were forced to make the story much more generic. As a result, it becomes more a celebration of the destruction of rural life in the South.
I am surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. The opening act is some of the hokiest cinema I've ever seen. The script is bloated with bizarre colloquialisms nobody would ever say. There's a tone of mockery toward rural culture. Jack Hale is so immediately superior to the other characters, it comes as utter shock he's one of the good guys. Then we have George "Spanky" McFarland (I Escaped from the Gestapo) running around doing his thing. I like The Little Rascals as much as anybody, but they weren't really acting so much as mugging for the camera. When they're all together, I don't mind them, but when producers would place one in an otherwise serious movie, their shtick is obnoxious and distracting.
Still, it's because of Spanky the tone and quality improves after the first act. It isn't anything he does, it's what they do to him. I won't spoil it, except to say it's a shocking turn. What began as hokum, becomes a violent and cruel picture. That producer Walter Wagner and director Henry Hathaway (True Grit) were able to get an expensive Technicolor picture made without removing much of the violence is a very welcome surprise.
The film is carried on the strength of its performances. MacMurray is perfect as the big city engineer. Fonda is equally good as his romantic rival. The pair plays well off each other, as they vie for the affections of Sylvia Sydney, whose considerable skills allow her to easily stand alongside these legendary actors. She is a beautiful, powerful presence whose eyes express far more than the script ever could. Her character is motivated by love and a desire to better herself, and the struggle to balance the two makes up the bulk of the film. When her family receives their first check for the use of their land, nobody in the house can read it. Realizing this, she becomes determined to get an education, but not for reasons typical of the time -- to get away from her hick family and meet a rich guy in the city. Instead, it's to help her family as well as herself. When push comes to shove and the family really needs her, she knows learning French has to come second. That her obligations are based on choices adds a nice progressive tone that carries the film through to a somewhat dark conclusion.
Unfortunately, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine has not received the same DVD treatment from Universal as other more "classic" films. While there is not a lot in the way of dirt or grain on the print, the overall transfer does not look very good. This is especially unfortunate, considering the spectacular vistas of the Sierra Nevadas (doubling for The Appalachians). These views had been seen plenty before in black and white, but in color they are simply amazing. It's too bad the tones bleed so badly. Skin tones are off and the sunlight alternately washes out and saturates the color. The 2.0 mono sound mix is nothing special; both speakers have the same sounds coming from them and it's pretty clear. There are no extras, which is typical of Universal's Backlot Series.
Even with three lead actors I admire, I had to struggle mightily through the first forty minutes. It was worth the trouble, though, because The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is a surprising gem; one certainly worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1936
MPAA Rating: Not Rated