Ty Ty Walden:  “When a man has a wife like Griselda, I don’t know how he can keep his mind on food all the time.”

Griselda Walden, Ty Ty’s Daughter-in-Law:  “Now, quit your teasin’ Ty Ty.”

Ty Ty Walden:  “If the good Lord seen fit to put a beauty like you in our house, I’m gonna take my fill of lookin’ while I can.”  [Robert Ryan to Tina Louise in “God’s Little Acre!” (1958)]

Rural America, whether it was portrayed in the south, mid-west, or elsewhere has been a popular subject for countless novels, plays, movies or TV shows going all the way back to the founding of this nation.  Since the majority of the population was rural, not urban or suburban until much later in our country’s existence, it was a natural subject for dramatization.  Also, due to job prospects being more limited, agriculture was the principal means for employment even though individuals remained limited economically due to such fickle things as topography, weather, acreage need, etc. which too often resulted in people just barely scraping by or living in dire poverty or…  OK, WAKE UP!  WAKE UP ALREADY!  I figured I’d better do that right now before my pseudo-sociological/economic introduction to this month’s Blog Post puts everyone to sleep (or at least keep you from getting a concussion from dozing off and hitting your head on something).  In a nut shell, this month’s Post will discuss the overabundance of movies, cable, and Network TV shows that explored/misrepresented this part of rural American life which I have not so subtly nick-named, “Poverty Porn.”

From the late nineteen-fifties right on up to the beginning of the nineteen-seventies, Network TV was loaded or plagued, like an infestation of locusts, with numerous shows that celebrated (AKA made big ratings/bucks for the TV Networks) rural America.  These shows happened to be sitcoms presenting a rural populace that the Networks wanted to make appear as being naïve but noble but too often devolved into just having them come across as ignorant or dumber than an ice truck salesman trying to sell ice to an Eskimo.  The only saving grace for these shows was that a number of these rural types often interacted with urban dwellers who, despite being better educated and economically advantaged, were made to look even dumber than these so called “lesser” individuals.  My own opinion was that these shows were just plain stupid, simplistic, and loaded with heavy-handed and borderline slapstick humor, so much so, that they just re-enforced crude stereotypes that did a disservice to everyone.  The CBS Network was a pioneer in mass producing these highly rated low I.Q. sitcoms.  They were so prevalent that critics said that CBS should actually mean, the “Country” Broadcasting System, and that instead of originally being called the “Tiffany” Network, a much better moniker should have been the “Hillbilly” Network.  Some of these shows were:

  • “Petticoat Junction” (1963-70): Rural sitcom taking place at the Shady Rest Hotel run by Kate, the owner, her three jailbait daughters located in the community of Hooter…ville (I’m not kidding), and where hilarity ensues.  An old 1890s train called the Hooterville Cannonball also played a predominant role at the beginning of each episode Hooting its whistle while the three daughters just happened to be taking a shower together during the opening credits (Real subtle, CBS!).
  • “Green Acres” (1965-71): When New York City lawyer Eddie Albert wants to leave the rat race and become a rural farmer, his glamorous, semi-beautiful wife, Eva Gabor follows and hilarity ensues.  And where is their farm located?  Why near Hooterville of course.  You know a sitcom is really bad when a pig named Eva … Ops! (wrong pig) I mean, Arnold, has all of the best lines.
  • “The Beverly Hillbillies” (1962-71): Widowed Ozark hillbilly Jed (looking like a scarecrow who got his attire from The Walking Dead”) after discovering oil and becoming a gazillionaire moves his family consisting of sex bomb daughter Elly May, the family imbecile Jethro, and sweet/forgiving devout Confederate/Baptist Bigot Granny (Yeah, and if she was around now would probably have been leading the crowd storming the Capitol Building with a rope in hand looking for the nearest non-Caucasian to lynch).  And where did they all move to?  Why to Beverly Hills, of course where even more hilarity ensues (At least it wasn’t Hooterville this time!).
  • “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-68): Starring Andy Griffith playing Andy Griffith as the sheriff of Mayberry, his 6-year-old son Opie (Ron Howard before he started going bald like at age 8), his deputy Barney (Don Knotts vibrating like a tuning fork), Jim Nabors as Gomer (the village idiot), and where even more and more, hilarity ensues (I think I need a marathon “Halloween” movie fix right about now!).
  • “Mayberry, RFD” (1968-71): With bland Ken Barry taking over after Andy Griffith left the show.  The blandly re-named show follows bland widow city councilman Sam and his bland son Mike’s interactions with the remaining denizens of Mayberry where bland hilarity now ensues (I think I’m starting to fall asleep!).
  • The Real McCoys” (1957-63): This show actually originated on ABC but for its last year it moved to CBS so I’m including it here.  It starred Grandpappy Amos (Walter Brennan) and his grandson and family who move from West Virginia to California to live and work on a farm that they inherited, and how they dealt with others while instilling their sweet, rural family wisdom and humor (which also reflected Brennan’s conservative views). What sort of views you ask?  You know, like when good old Amos uses his divining rod to find a new water source for the farm vs. the recommendation of an actual geologist (AKA science “Bad!”  Ignorant, superstitious folklore “Good!”).  Or how about good old lovable Amos confronting bigotry against hillbillies like themselves from local children (But it’s perfectly OK for you, Walter in real life to be a vehemently hateful anti-Semitic and racist Bigot!  Right, Walter!).  Maybe CBS in their wisdom could have done a crossover episode with Granny and Amos hooking up and going on a first date, fire-bombing places of worship that were not of their same faith.  Oh, what wonderful hilarity would ensue from that!  Right, CBS!

Finally, the Big Three Networks, and especially CBS under executive Robert Wood and programming head Fred Silverman during the 1970-71 time period instituted what was known as the “rural purge” where an entire group of rural themed sitcoms, some still very popular in the ratings, were cancelled along with a number of older game shows (“I’ve Got a Secret”, etc.) and variety shows (“The Ed Sullivan Show”, etc.).  This followed from research showing that these shows drew a less desirable audience, namely older and rural or young boys lacking disposable income for advertisers’ products.  The result was Networks focusing more on developing shows that would be appealing to suburban and urban audiences along with young adults, and who would also have more disposable income to buy advertisers’ products.  CBS would still make shows that appealed to the rural populace like the original “Hee-Haw” (1969-71) and which, after cancellation, was put into syndication from 1971-93, the gentle rural family drama “The Waltons” (1972-81), and “The Dukes of Hazzard” (1979-85).  However, as an important block of Network programing, rural-oriented TV sitcoms were deader than an Egyptian mummy (or Madonna’s film career!).

Hollywood adapted a large number of books by some noted authors and playwrights into films exploring poor rural life with both good and bad results.  A number of these novels along with their film adaptions ran into censorship problems due, at times, to their tawdry subject matter (real or imagined) which affected the overall quality of their film adaptions.  For writer Erskine Caldwell you had a bad film version of “Tobacco Road” (1941) but a good one for “God’s Little Acre” (1958).  Next, for William Faulkner you had a good adaption of “Intruder in the Dust” (1949), but poor adaptions of “The Sound and the Fury” (1959) and “Sanctuary” (1961).  Then, for John Steinbeck you had good film adaptions of “Of Mice and Men” (1939) and “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), but a poor one for “Tortilla Flat” (1942).  Lastly, for Tennessee Williams you had a good adaption of “This Property is Condemned” (1966) but a God awful one for “Baby Doll” (1956) (Karl Malden overacted so badly he should have been muzzled!).  The list just goes on and on.  Out of all of the ones that I have just mentioned, I’d like to highlight two for praise.  They are not as acclaimed as some of the others but they both deserve better appreciation.  Those two are “God’s Little Acre” and “This Property is Condemned”.

“Acre’s” storyline revolved around widowed farmer Ty Ty Walden (Robert Ryan) the patriarch of his family in the backwoods of Georgia during the Great Depression.  His family consists of three boys (Buck, Shaw, and Jim) and two girls, Darlin’ Jill (Fay Spain) the teenage sexual tease, and Rosamund, unhappily married to Will (Aldo Ray) who still lusts after his ex-fiancee Griselda (Tina Louise) who also still has the hots for Will even though she is now married to Ty Ty’s hot-tempered son, Buck (Confused yet?).  Ty Ty has been digging for gold, supposedly, a treasure left by his grandfather for over 15 years while leaving his farm in total disarray.  Will, depressed after losing his job when the nearby textile mill closed, longs to re-open it while erotically reconnecting (and not figuratively either) with Griselda (What a mess!).  When this book was originally published in 1933, the sexual themes were considered so explicit that Caldwell and his publisher were sued for spreading pornography.  Caldwell won!  They lost!  It was also banned in Boston (always a badge of honor as far as I’m concerned) as well as courting controversy due to Caldwell’s desire to focus on the plight of non-unionized textile workers in the Depression era South which back then could be construed as maybe Socialist or Communist or Marxist or, at the very least, not too friendly towards Capitalism in general.  This film courted its own amount of controversy since the screenplay was by blacklisted writer, Ben Maddow who tried to show a form of popular uprising by the laid-off millworkers in trying to re-gain control of their former factory equipment in order to work again.  However, this film was made back in the McCarthy Era fifties when Blacklisting was prevalent so it was really toned down into just showing a bunch of guys showing up with Will in the lead to briefly turn on some textile machines before tragedy strikes.   By now you may be thinking, “And why exactly, do you like this film?”  Well, remember the title of this month’s Blog Post Dear Reader?  For the fifties, besides innuendo, “Acre” reeked with erotic and smarmy sexual tension combined with some really hysterical funny moments which made it all worthwhile.

The still underrated and great Director Anthony Mann could do any sort of picture from film noir (“Raw Deal”) to Classic Westerns (“Winchester 73”) to even historical Epics (“El Cid”).  Here, even though he had to tone down Caldwell’s radical views and maybe Maddow’s as well, he ramped up (as far as possible back then) the sexual aspects of the novel into his film.  Whether it was Fay Spain taking a bath in an outdoor bathtub next to an outdoor handpump and spigot while asking lusting Buddy Hackett (eyeballs almost popping out of his head) to “pump” some more water on her to Tina Louise walking outdoors in the middle of the night wearing an almost painted on negligee covered in sweat to Aldo Ray, bare-chested, also covered in sweat panting almost like a wild animal upon meeting her at night, the sexual tension could make anyone sweat right along with them.  When this film was first released, audiences under 18 years of age were prohibited from seeing it. However, it didn’t stop me from seeing it when it first came out and I was a whole lot younger than 18 too (My older brother took me with him!  He wasn’t 18 either!).  To be honest, back then I liked “Acre” because, for a little innocent kid like me, I didn’t notice the sexual overtones at all.  I just thought the film was really funny.  Some of the advertisements for “Acre” were things like, “See How Poor White Trash Live!” and “Forbidden Love in the Hot Georgia Sun!”  Some of the dialogue was priceless too!  For example:

Ty Ty Walden: (In response to his son wanting a raincoat) “Son, if it starts to rain, you just peel off your clothes and let your skin take care of the rest.  God never made a finer raincoat than a man’s skin, anyhow.”  (No sexual innuendo here at all!  Right!)

Robert Ryan looked like he was having the time of his life overacting in this role.  Although Tina Louise was never much of an actress, she didn’t have to be rather than just acting alluring which she pulled off without a hitch.  Aldo Ray, also a limited actor, could at least elicit a crude form of blunt masculine sexuality here that fit into this movie very well.  There was even a small pivotal role played by a very young Michael Landon playing an albino (Why not!  He played a “Teenage Werewolf” just the year before) who Ty Ty enlists (sort of) in helping him to find that gold.  The scandalous aspects of “Acre” are pretty dated now.  However, the overall acting by everyone as well as the non-subtle comedy in the storyline still make “Acre” enjoyable more so than the overrated and supposedly more scandalous “Baby Doll” made just two years prior.

“This Property Is Condemned” was based on a one act play by Tennessee Williams that took place during the Great Depression in the small fictional town of Dodson, Mississippi.  Natalie Wood starred as Alma Star, the eldest daughter of Hazel who owns a boarding house where local railroad workers rent rooms.  Hazel uses (pimps out) Alma as an attraction for the men so they will rent rooms there while Alma desperately wants to escape this dead-end existence and head to the big city of New Orleans.  A stranger named Owen (Robert Redford) soon arrives there and also rents a room while quickly attracting Alma’s interest since he came from New Orleans.  However, secretly, he is actually a railroad agent hired to lay off a number of employees, some of who are Hazel’s renters, due to cutbacks caused by the Depression.  Conflicts arise as Alma and Owen slowly grow closer and fall in love.  However (This is a Tennessee Williams story, you know!), things ultimately do not work out the way either Alma or Owen had planned.

“Condemned” had a lot of problems being made.  Tennessee Williams hated the adaption and threatened to have his name removed from the credits.  As such there was no finished screenplay when filming began which required constant re-writes causing further delays.  Wood was also having some serious personal problems.  Her prior films were not successful, and she even tried to commit suicide during this film’s production.  She also had difficulties doing some of the scenes.  For a specific scene where her character was supposed to be drunk in a bar, she had to actually get drunk because she just couldn’t perform the scene properly.  For another scene where her character was supposed to be standing in a steel water tank for cattle, she was so scared of being in dark water (a major phobia that she had all of her life) that actor Robert Blake (who was also in the movie) had to dive under the water and, while holding his breath, steady her legs so she could do the scene.  Sadly, when this film was released, it was met with both public and critical indifference resulting in Wood not making another movie for the next three years.  However, “Condemned” has gotten better and better with age.  First, despite its problems, the film had a top-notch production team making it.  Future Oscar-winning Director Sydney Pollack (it was his second film) directed it very well.  Also, despite the screenplay’s issues, the finished version was excellent (even if it didn’t jive with William’s original play).  This might have been due to the fact that it was co-written by a young talented guy by the name of Francis Ford Coppola who would later earn his spurs as a future Oscar winning screenplay writer before graduating into becoming a future Oscar Winning Director.  It was co-produced by the great producer (and later actor) John Houseman and the cinematography was by legendary former Oscar winning cinematographer James Wong Howe.  Second, the acting was excellent too with Redford subtly underplaying his character while managing to show some depth in the role.  The other actors such as Kate Reid as Hazel, Mary Badham as Alma’s younger sister, and Charles Bronson in a sly and sinister performance as Hazel’s (maybe) boyfriend are all good too.  However, the best of them all is Natalie Wood’s great performance as Alma.  Her Alma, like most of playwright William’s female characters, is a tarnished innocent living in a dream-world of her own mind.  Whether it’s taking Owen to show him her late father’s red-headed scarecrow to telling him fanciful stories that Owen knows are not true, her Alma is consistently beautiful aided in no small way by James Wong Howe’s stunning star highlighting cinematography.  However, at the same time, in Alma, Wood gives the absolutely sexiest and most sensual performance of her career.  Her Alma attracts men to her like a magnet and she knows it and she loves it.  She pulls off the difficult dual role of making her Alma both an erotic unattainable dream girl, and a desperately manipulative tramp.  This movie deserved better, and so did Natalie Wood in her too short and, ultimately, tragic life.

Other adaptions of novels highlighting rural life have been made into fine films such as “The Yearling” (1946), “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), and “Winter’s Bone” (2010).  However, the last two pictures that I want to highlight are more recent.  Those two films are “Hillbilly Elegy” (2020), and “The Devil all the Time” (2020).  “Elegy” was based on the runaway bestselling memoir by J.D. Vance, and it starred Amy Adams as Beverly, J.D.’s mother, and Glenn Close as Bonnie (Mamaw), J.D.’s grandmother.  In flashbacks, a grown-up Vance (Gabriel Basso) reflects back to his upbringing as  part of a poor dysfunctional Kentucky family while he currently tries to help his drug/alcohol addicted mother once again while also applying for a job at a prestigious law firm.  Like other films chronicling family substance abuse issues tied into corresponding sociological problems such as poverty, “Elegy” does not paint a pretty picture of it or an exactly original one either.  Also, a movie that shows someone like J.D. being able to overcome such a life to become a success is not exactly original either.  Nor is a movie where ultimately, J.D.’s road to success is due to both his equally flawed Mamaw’s abuse/tough love as well as his own desire to accept responsibility and make something of himself as anything really original either.  What makes this movie work however, is that it tells a simple story very well while presenting a portion of American society, namely rural, honestly, and with believable individuals who are not stereotypes thanks to Director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”).  Film critics have not generally approved Howard’s directorial efforts and for “Elegy” they have not been kind either except for praising some of the acting performances.  Why?  You tell me!  Some critics said it perpetuated stereotypes.  Others said it was nothing original.  Others said it was too melodramatic.  Others didn’t like how the movie cherry-picked only certain parts of Vance’s memoir and didn’t tell a full story.  My own personal view is (Repeat my Mantra…), “The Critics Are Full Of Shit!”  About the only real fault I have with this film is that there may be some truth to the film’s cherry-picking premise but, unless you want to have a six-hour movie, I’d like to know how else it could have been done.  Also, as an aside, actress Amy Adams is way overdue in getting an Oscar win, but unfortunately, her performance as Beverly, is too often someone acting like the character but never actually being believable as the character.  That’s a big problem!  Sorry, Amy!  Better luck, next year!  However, as for Glenn Close, another actress that is even longer overdue Oscar-wise, She…Absolutely…Nails…It!  Every time she is in a scene, she completely steals it.  Some of Vance’s family members even started crying when they saw Close’s performance and felt it was almost like Mamaw had come back to life.  She is Mamaw, not trying to act like Mamaw!  If the Academy doesn’t finally give her the Damn Oscar already, I’ll personally be accepting Bounty donations for their heads (excluding a small stipend for my expenses, of course)!

“The Devil all the Time” is a different sort of animal altogether.  Adapted from the novel by Donald Ray Pollack (who also provides the narration for the film), “Devil” is an ensemble drama consisting of a number of interconnected storylines of individuals in and around the rural area of Knockemstiff in southern Ohio encompassing a period from the end of World War II up to the late 1960s.  The film is a portrait of rural poverty, ignorance, violence, psychopathic/deviant behavior, and how backwoods religious beliefs can be misused or distorted to commit or to excuse any sort of abhorrent or criminal act.  The only real connecting thread for all of these various storylines for the film are in how they all ultimately tie in later with the character of Alvin Russell (Tom Holland), a newly orphaned teenager who lives with his grandmother after his widowed father previously committed suicide.  This is a dark and, at times, disturbing film.  It is probably one of the most damning portraits of those professing holiness committing evil that I have ever seen since the movie, “Spotlight” (2015).  Also, some of the twisted and disturbed individuals portrayed in this film almost look like escapees from your typical Rob Zombie film.  Other than that, it’s a fun film for the whole family (If you’re The Adams Family!).  Director Antonio Campos does a masterful job interconnecting all of the various storylines and eliciting incredible realistic performances by the entire cast including Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett (who gave a fine performance in “Hillbilly Elegy” too), Bill Skarsgard, and especially, Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson.  Pattinson has been giving a bunch of great and acclaimed performances for the past few years now (after he quit doing all of those Shitty “Twilight” movies) and his performance as a phony Bible-thumping preacher is one to remember.  However, Tom Holland is the true revelation here as Alvin.  Gone is the boyishly shy nerdy Peter Parker from the Spiderman movies.  His Alvin, while youthfully awkward, is also unexpectedly tough, quick thinking, and a surprisingly formidable adversary against some of the repulsive lowlifes that he is forced to face.  However, his character never loses his humanity, and is so soulful that by the end of “Devil” he is actually quite touching.  It’s a great performance!  Campos’ outstanding direction loaded with religious symbolism captures a gritty side of backwoods life in a way that you won’t soon forget.  This picture has gotten better reviews than “Elegy” but, unfortunately, it still won’t get the full recognition that it deserves.

Whether you want to call “The Devil all the Time”, Poverty Porn or not, I will just call it “The Best Movie of 2020!”

Deal with it!

N.L.P.

4 thoughts on “Poverty Porn!

  1. My thoughts:

    “Petticoat Junction” – Betty Jo was my favorite

    “Green Acres” – I think “Green Acres” is a genuinely great, absurdist comedy. “Arnold Goes to Hollywood” is one the funniest TV episodes ever made.

    “The Beverly Hillbillies” – a few of the early episodes are funny. “Admiral Jed Clampett” is a hilarious episode. But, it was a pretty dismal show.

    “The Andy Griffith Show” – proves my rule that TV comedies featuring little kids are funny only as long as they’re little kids. Once they grew up, they’re either boring or obnoxious.

    Sean

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  2. Good grief, Nelson, I remember some of these shows! I did occasionally watch The Andy Griffith show. I didn’t watch the others but I watched Gilligan’s Island faithfully. I had to look up Tina Louise when I read her name in your blog and that made me remember that show. The only other shows I can remember watching and loving during the years when I still lived with my parents were Bonanza and the Ed Sullivan show.

    I’ll have to see if “God’s Little Acre” is available on any of the streaming channels we have and check it out. As far as “Hillbilly Elegy,” I didn’t read the book even though I bought it for my Kindle but I was curious about the movie. Then I saw that the critics absolutely HATED it! So, I never watched the movie either. And let me tell you, looking at those photos of Glen Close from the movie made my mind wander to the vision of her in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” with Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich (of all people!). Seeing Close in that baggy t-shirt made me want to absolutely weep. And, by the way, I recently deleted Hillbilly from my Kindle after reading what Vance is up to these days.

    As I’m sure I’ve told you before, Stephen and I are not particularly aficionados of film noir. Recent movies we’ve seen in theaters are “Fabulous Fungi,” a movie which was good for my soul, The Green Knight, which was the most incomprehensible movie I’ve seen in the past 10 years (but very pretty), Free Guy (which was amazingly fun even though we have never played video games in our lives), the Truffle Hunters (an Italian movie about – guess what!), and Twelve Mighty Orphans, a lovely feel-good kind of a movie, a genre which we all need because the world – and America in particular – is making me absolutely crazy right now!

    Well, being a movie buff and writing a long blog like this is definitely an excellent retirement occupation, so keep on watching and writing, Nelson!

    Stephen and I look forward to seeing you in October!

    Joelle

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  3. Nelson-

    Thanks for yet another very interesting blog. I found myself agreeing with you about all the TV shows (notwithstanding Gloria’s reverence for Andy Griffith and Opie). Generally speaking those shows were just plain bad. Hilarity in fact didn’t ensue very often.

    As for the movies, “The Devil All The Time” was one of the highlights for me last year. Really liked that movie. I haven’t seen “God’s Little Acre” and will check it out if I can find it. Same for “Condemned.” I liked your observation that the movie was good even though it wasn’t true to the book. I think some movies disappoint because people like the book and expect the movie to recreate what they liked. The great example of a very good movie living up to a very good book, I think, is “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

    In any event, I enjoyed the blog very much.

    Jerry.

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    1. Thanks Jerry. I agree with you that “Mockingbird” was an almost perfect example of a great movie adaption of a great novel. I suppose that I should have included it under my Poverty Porn Blog Post this month too. I guess at times I like to highlight stuff that didn’t get the recognition they deserved when they first came out. Fortunately, for “Mockingbird”, here was one that definitely did get the recognition that they deserved.

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