God’s Little Acre (1958 USA)

The characters in this film have hearts and dreams so unbelievably huge and ungodly, they appear other wordly. This all adds up to bigger than life, almost cartoonish characterizations that are very interesting, if not an outright laugh fest. They are all down home and funky, with a work ethic that stretches any bounds of reality. A crazed Southern patriarch spends all his time digging on his property for gold that he insists that his grandfather hid somewhere on their property and he gets his two dim sons to him on this never-ending quest. As a result, they really do no productive work–they just dig and dig. As for the women, they are all horny and trashy and spend most of their time writhing about like they are in heat.

Hollywood’s version of Erskine Caldwell’s novel surprisingly defied the expectations I had after seeing the credits. I expected Robert Ryan to be corrupt and lascivious, but he instead plays the most optimistic and happy character of his career – even if he is not the brightest bulb on the tree. Actually, he is the brightest bulb on the tree – not one character (other, perhaps, than the black sharecropper played by Rex Ingram) has much brains at all. And Buddy Hackett was not the complete comic foil of the film either: he is one of the love interests, and, although ostensibly played for laughs, his love is a little too earnest for it to be a complete joke. Very interesting of director Anthony Mann to let the actors mix it up a bit.

This makes for some unpredictable viewing. But much more interesting, I think, is Mann’s decision to include in so many of his highly tense scenes other characters, who sit passively and quietly while the main protagonists battle for five or more minutes at a time. Watch Buddy Hackett and Fay Spain sit at a table barely moving while Tina Louise and Helen Westcott (as Rosamind) desperately try to keep a drunk Aldo Ray from going to the cotton mill to turn on the power. Note Tina Louise sitting and staring, immobile, while Robert Ryan berates his spoiled rich son Jim Leslie (played by Lance Fuller) while begging him for money. The spectator-characters seem so weirdly detached in these scenes – or are they just being polite, emotionally withdrawing so as not to embarrass the speakers? Very interesting indeed.

Sex quickly appears in the form of Walden’s hot daughter-in-law, played by Tina Louise in her film debut. She walks up to the hole the men are digging in with a pitcher of water. She is wearing a low cut dress and a skirt you can see through. She has a habit of bending over so all the men, and the director’s camera, can look down her shirt. Her husband, played by Jack Lord, is angry with her thinking she is still in love with her old boyfriend who is currently married to his sister. They argue continuously. Then we meet Walden’s daughter Darlin’ Jill, played by Fay Spain. We first see her naked in an outdoor bath tub teasing Buddy Hackett. She directs him to close his eyes and walk up to her. She then tells him to pump the water into the tub. Of course he peeks. He is in love with her while later she tells him, with all honesty, that he is not attractive to her except for the fact that he may become the sheriff.

Camp? This definitely is. Social satire? Perhaps, but it is all so heavy handed. Hollywood never passes up an opportunity to cast white Southerners in a bad light and they do so again here. On that level it is offensive. The story has some humorous moments, such as the assumption that an albino somehow has the innate ability to find the buried gold. There is a political subplot about a closed mill. There is also the symbolism of man changing his religious commitment to suit his own needs. However, all of those themes take a backseat to the sexual goings on. Even though this was made in 1958, you know that when Aldo Ray tells Fay Spain that she is a fat peach ready to be plucked, he means something else entirely. 🙂


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