In the December 1, 1940 issue of Vogue, published just as the United States teetered on the brink of world war, novelist Carson McCullers wrote, “All men are lonely. But sometimes it seems to me that we Americans are the loneliest of all. Our hunger for foreign places and new ways has been with us almost like a national disease. Our literature is stamped with a quality of longing and unrest, and our writers have been great wanderers… It is a curious emotion, this certain homesickness I have in mind. With Americans, it is a national trait, as native to us as the roller coaster or the jukebox. It is no simple longing for the home town or country of our birth. The emotion is Janus-faced: we are torn between a nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.”
This inherent sense of loneliness, longing, and even a rootless sense of wanderlust — which applies not just to geographical roaming, but to a temporal tension that pulls one between the glorified past and a nebulous future — is an integral part of not only American culture, as McCullers says, but particularly American literature. McCullers herself was part of a tradition described eventually as Southern Gothic, a swampy no man’s land of a genre that rests somewhere between horror, fantasy, historical romance, and bleak melodrama. Beginning roughly with Mark Twain and built off of American Gothic writers like Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, Southern Gothic didn’t fully emerge until the twentieth century, primarily through writers like William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, but also with McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, Harry Crews, Eudora Welty, and Cormac McCarthy.
In addition to a Southern setting, many of these stories focus on economic concerns; depictions of extreme poverty and social decay contrasted with corrupt familial dynasties determined to hold on to their legacies regardless of the cost. As with traditional Gothic literature, aberrant psychology is a major theme, with an array of flawed, or at least very strange, characters who are guilty of everything from domestic strife and emotional cruelty to sexual perversion and violence. And whether these stories take place in the antebellum years, during the Civil War itself, or post-Reconstruction, racism is a looming specter with progress — often symbolized by “Northern” values — seen to be an active threat against the traditional Southern way of life.
The majority of these plots have horror and crime elements — death is a frequent subject, be it murder, suicide, disease, or accidental — they often flirt with the supernatural, and almost always have a sense of the uncanny. In her essay, “Southern Gothic,” on the work of folklorist Kathryn Tucker Windham for The Paris Review, Margaret Eby wrote, “Being haunted is a permanent condition below the Mason-Dixon, one that defines the region as much as the voracious kudzu and the iced tea so sugary it hurts your teeth. William Faulkner, who was known to spin particularly scary fireside stories, described the Deep South in Absalom, Absalom! as ‘dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts.’” There is certainly a sense of magic realism about many Southern Gothic novels and short stories, a blending of nightmarish and macabre elements from the horror genre, a use of irony and black humor, and the overwhelming sense that these lush, hot landscapes are haunted by a sense of fundamental wrongness, as if there was something ingrained miasma in the very earth of the South itself.
As with the connection between crime novels and the emergence of gangster movies and film noir, it was perhaps inevitable that Southern Gothic literature would bleed over into cinema. This essentially took off in the interwar years, in the early ‘30s, and became a relatively popular theme during WWII, no doubt because the Civil War was a convenient parallel for the moral and martial battles fought around the world in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Southern Gothic themes didn’t really become a major force in American cinema until the ‘50s and ‘60s, but I’m going to examine the origins of the cinematic movement — which essentially began with the controversial Pre-Code film The Story of Temple Drake (1933) — as the first in an ongoing examination of Southern Gothic cinema.
Based on William Faulkner’s novel, Sanctuary, director Stephen Roberts’ The Story of Temple Drake is one of the Pre-Code films directly responsible for the implementation of the Production Code (known as the Hays Code), established the following year, and the film found itself banned for several decades. Though toned down considerably from Faulkner’s novel — which featured sexual slavery, forced prostitution, and a rape with a corncob — The Story of Temple Drake still included plenty of scandalous content. The beautiful, but headstrong young Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) is from a prosperous Southern family, but ignores lawyer Stephen Benbow’s (William Gargan) attempts to marry her; she would rather drink and flirt her way around town.
But one such drunken escapade leads her to get into a car accident in the middle of nowhere during a storm and she’s forced to hole up at a dilapidated mansion that serves as headquarters for bootleggers. Though a young man (James Eagles) tries to protect her, she is raped by the gang’s leader, Trigger (sultry Howard Hawks discovery Jack La Rue), who murders the boy and moves her into a brothel, where she serves as his sex slave. For a time, she is a willing participant, until Benbow tracks her down, hoping she will testify on behalf of another bootlegger (Irving Pichel) who is being wrongly tried for the boy’s murder. But this leads to a showdown between she and Trigger and she is forced to kill him, leaving her uncertain of her own fate…
Temple is a key early example of the types of female characters that would serve as protagonists for a number of Southern Gothic novels and films, all the way from Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara to the protagonists favored by playwright Tennessee Williams. Beautiful, young, wealthy, and charming, Temple has all of the prerequisites to successfully carry on her aristocratic Southern lineage, but there is the sense that something about her is fundamentally wrong. She herself admits that there seem to be two sides to her personality; one loves Benbow and wants to settle down with him, while the other is wild and delights in the kind of sadomasochistic violence promised by Trigger. It’s discussed that the Drakes have “fire in the blood,” and this sense of inherited corruption would reappear constantly through the subgenre.
The Story of Temple Drake is controversial not simply because it features a rape (which occurs offscreen), but because it has quite a nebulous way of treating Temple’s moral complicity. Initially, the rape is portrayed as horrific; there is a lengthy lead up sequence in which a terrified Temple believes she will be assaulted by various men in the bootlegger’s mansion, a set clearly influenced by German expressionism that would feel at place in any ‘30s horror film. But after the rape, Temple is not held prisoner and says that she prefers to stay with Trigger, living with him quite willingly in a brothel. In Pre-Code Hollywood, Thomas Doherty wrote, “Did Temple enjoy the rape? Did she willingly prostitute herself for Trigger? The inquiries alone are invitations to profane thoughts, occasions for sin at the moment of utterance. Second, the questions are truly open, unanswered, not closed by the narrative. The degree of Temple’s complicity in her rape and culpability for Trigger’s murder is unresolved.”
Ultimately — and this is another theme that connects back to many of the subgenre’s female protagonists — Temple becomes a sacrificial figure. In Faulkner’s novel, she lies in court and Goodwin is hanged. But in Roberts’ film, Benbow convinces her to eventually admit her wrongdoing publicly. Afterwards she collapses to the floor and he carries her out like the Pietà; it is unclear if she is dead or alive or whether she will be prosecuted for Trigger’s murder. A major element of the Production Code was not just to censor sex and violence, but to dole out punishment for moral transgressions. This sense of personal, familial, and even communal expiation is a major component of both Southern Gothic and Southern-set melodrama, where acts of violence, vengeance, and sacrifice are routine.
A similar theme was revisited a few years later in Jezebel (1938), one of three collaborations between director William Wyler and star Bette Davis in a role that would help establish her career. Allegedly a consolation prize for not winning the lead in Gone with the Wind — the production of which was already underway, but due to delays wouldn’t be released until the following year — Davis was cast as Julie Marsden, another beautiful, headstrong, and privileged Southern belle in 1850s New Orleans. More romantic melodrama than full-fledged Southern Gothic, Davis’s strong, charismatic performance acts as sort of a work-around for the relatively neutered script that depicts Julie as inherently moralistic, but driven to tragedy by a stubborn personality flaw.
Engaged to Preston “Pres” Dillard (Henry Fonda), an earnest and handsome young banker, Julie sets in motion a series of disastrous events when she feels slighted by him one afternoon. Because he won’t go dress shopping with her — thanks to an important meeting that could influence the fate of local industry — she wears a scandalous red dress to a ball in which all young, unmarried women are supposed to wear white. This social gaffe not only enraged Pres, who furthers her humiliation at the ball to teach her a lesson, but causes him to call off their engagement all together. He goes North for business and doesn’t return for an entire year, during which a depressed, penitent Julie locks herself up at home. When he returns, she is eager to resume their relationship, but is horrified to learn that Pres already has a wife (Margaret Lindsay). Her thirst for revenge leads to violence, just as an epidemic of yellow fever comes to the area.
In some ways similar to Gone with the Wind — a perhaps more epic, though in my opinion far less fulfilling tale of an aberrantly willful woman’s lust for a man she can’t have — Jezebel takes on some racial issues at a time when they were repressed by Hollywood and the Production Code. One of the film’s central debates is that Pres doesn’t believe in subjugating the working classes with a series of unfair business agreements and has obvious abolitionist sympathies, going so far as to marry a Northerner. While Julie is presented as being unusually kind to and even deeply fond of her black servants, the fact remains that they are still slaves. The other characters react with open hostility to the idea of abolishing slavery, clinging to the notion that it would also put an end to their very way of life; one character asserts, “I like my convictions undiluted, same as I do my bourbon.”
The film takes on some Gothic elements towards the conclusion. Rather than forcing Pres to choose between Julie, who he still clearly loves, and his wife Amy, he contracts yellow fever and falls deathly ill. Thanks to quarantine regulations, he is taken away to a leper colony on a nearby island. Determined to atone for her sins — which resulted in the death of one of her other suitors — she convinces Amy to let her follow and care for Pres, even though it’s essentially a guarantee that she will die by his side. In the final shots of the film, she takes a doomed ride beside Pres and a number of other fever victims on a wooden cart, wearing a black cloak and shrouded in evening mist, awaiting her fate. This could have been an early Southern Gothic equivalent to something like the films of producer Val Lewton, if Wyler had only shown Julie’s experiences on what is described in the film as little more than an island of the damned, but — as in other Southern Gothic fare — the act of sacrifice and atonement is of vital importance.
Wyler and Davis’s follow up, The Letter (1940), is my favorite of their films together and though it doesn’t qualify as Southern Gothic, it’s worth a mention here. Based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, it’s a film noir about a married woman who murders her lover, but covers it up as an act of self-defense during an attempted rape. It has much in common with Southern Gothic cinema, in particular, Wyler and Davis’s third film together, Little Foxes (1941). Despite the fact that The Letter is set in Malaysia, it has a number of key tropes, including a plantation setting, issues of slavery and economic exploitation, murder to cover up a moral misdeed, a marriage of convenience, and of course the concluding theme of guilt and sacrifice. The cinematography from the prolific Tony Gaudio is soaked in German expressionist influence and bears a relationship not only to film noir, but to The Story of Temple Drake.
If Jezebel is essentially a romantic drama and The Letter a crime film, Little Foxes is a sordid look at domestic melodrama. With a script from Lillian Hellman, based on her own play and with contributions from Dorothy Parker and Parker’s husband Alan Campbell, the film follows the exploits of the aristocratic Giddens family. Largely focused on the machinations of Regina (Bette Davis), who is attempting to wrest wealth away from her two greedy brothers (Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid), Regina is willing to do anything for financial independence, even if it means marrying off her daughter (Teresa Wright) to the girl’s no good cousin (film noir regular Dan Duryea) and doing away with her own husband (Herbert Marshall, in a film stealing performance), in order to gain the funds necessary to broker a deal on a cotton mill.
This deeply cynical film introduces a theme that reappears constantly throughout Southern Gothic films: a prominent family that is rotten to the core. The corrupt, duplicitous siblings are willing to exploit anyone for their own gain — including spouses and children — and things become quite grim, involving themes of alcoholism, spousal abuse, theft, blackmail, and even murder. Davis’s Regina is a mesmerizing figure, a forerunner to the type of characters she would play later in her career. The death of Regina’s husband — where she tells him, “I hope you die; I’ll be waiting for you to die,” before goading him into a heart attack and then refusing to get his medicine — is actually mirrored in Davis’s later horror film The Nanny (1965). The cinematography, from the great Gregg Toland, is nearly as Gothic in tone as The Story of Temple Drake and builds on the expressionist influence in The Letter.
In closing, it’s also worth briefly mentioning two films from the early master of French cinema, Jean Renoir, whose WWII-induced tenure in the United States resulted in two Southern Gothic forerunners: Swamp Water (1941) and The Southerner (1945). While Renoir’s early French films, such as (my personal favorite) La grande illusion (1937), La bête humaine (1938), and La règle du jeu (1939), are undeniably classics, I also have an abiding love for his American films. In particular, This Land is Mine (1943), a scathing anti-Nazi film starring Charles Laughton, and The Woman on the Beach (1947), an icy film noir about a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder who falls prey to a mysterious woman. As with the impact of so many European emigres on film noir, it’s fascinating to see Renoir’s take on American culture and his contribution to such a thoroughly American genre.
Speaking of film noir, Swamp Water (1941) launched the career of one of the genre’s most beloved mainstays, Dana Andrews. He stars here as a boy who becomes unlikely partners with a fugitive (Walter Brennan), an innocent man fleeing a murder charge in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. They survive by hunting animals and selling the spoils, until local townsfolk become suspicious. As with Little Foxes, though the boy tries to do the right thing for the fugitive and the fugitive’s daughter, he is up against a corrupt social order that he has little hope of overcoming or changing for the better. Shot on location, the swamp has an almost fantastical quality and it becomes symbolic of the extremes of life and death within the film. In one of the most graphically violent, horrific sequences in early Southern Gothic cinema, one of the men actually guilty of the murder being blamed on the fugitive falls into a hole in the swamp and is swallowed up by mud as he drowns to death.
The Southerner (1945) is also concerned with the potentially lethal power of the forces of nature, as the plot centers around the struggle for water on a family farm, which ends in a terrible thunderstorm and destructive flood. A cotton picker, Sam (Zachary Scott), attempts to start up a farm of his own with his family, but their land has no built-in water supply and they almost starve to death when no crops will grow. As with Swamp Water, the family comes up against corrupt locals and a number of other obstacles. Sam is determined to see his dream through despite this, but he will have to contend with the ultimately chaotic forces of nature, in addition to everything else. Between its natural themes and impressive landscape shots, The Southerner is another harsh examination of the inherent hostility to small town life south of the Mason-Dixon line.
It was Jean Renoir who said, “There is no realism in American films. No realism, but something much better, great truth.” His own American films certain reflect that sense shared by much of Southern Gothic cinema and literature: that something is wrong with the world, maybe broken, but that there is something beautiful about it too. And despite the poverty, the injustice, and the decay, there is a bit of irrepressible magic that lives within the very land itself… a theme I will further address in part two of my Southern Gothic series with an exploration of the subgenre in the ’50s, the decade responsible for the greatest Southern Gothic film ever made, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955).