The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)

Bette Davis and Richard Barthelmess
Bette Davis and Richard Barthelmess

I’d been wanting to see a movie starring Richard Barthelmess since reading about his work in Mick LaSalle’s book Dangerous Men. Since this film also stars a young Bette Davis and is directed by Michael Curtiz, it sounded like an unbeatable combination.
I wasn’t disappointed. This Warners/First National movie is gritty and powerful, turning the focus firmly on exploitation of poor cotton workers in the South during the Great Depression. Pre-code elements include the daring social commentary and a scene where Davis apparently strips off just off-camera to tease Barthelmess.
Despite a disclaimer at the start claiming that the producers have no interest in taking sides between the planters and the workers, the rest of the film refutes this, with haunting scenes of exhausted workers driven to desperation. There’s a moment near the start of the movie where planter Norwood (Berton Churchill) smugly lectures the weary parents of the hero, Marvin Blake (Barthelmess) about how they should take their boy out of school and set him to pick cotton. “Your crop must come first. Those are my orders.”
Nevertheless, all the characters are painted in shades of grey. The planters are not monsters – Norwood changes his tune to sponsor Blake’s education, if for his own ends – while  the workers are far from being saints.
Reviews I’ve seen claim that Davis steals the movie from Barthelmess. She certainly gives a seductive performance as spoilt rich girl Madge, with the famous line “I’d like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair” – .and completely outshines her love rival, Dorothy Jordan. However, I think it’s still very much Barthelmess’ film. Despite being too old for the role, he gives a powerful performance as Blake, the poor boy torn between two worlds and two sets of loyalties – and he has a great speech near the end of the movie.

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2 thoughts on “The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)

  1. Hello! Got on here thru Live Journal…and I wanted to comment on your nice blog…you have seen many movies I have and that I also admire. Last year I went through a big Richard Barthelmess kick, and had fun with a mini film fest of several of his films. I thought he was great here in Cabin in the Cotton. Sure, he may have been a little old for the part, but I really liked him in it anyway; he played off Bette Davis very well. I also have the book Dangerous Men, and wow, Richard Barthelmess was the only actor in the book who got a chapter all to himself…what an honor! Do you have other fave films of his? I really liked his silent Tol’able David, among others. I always wished he smiled more in his films as I had my film fest, and how funny it was to see the author of Dangerous Men say about his smiling, that when he did smile in a film, it was like “a gift”…my feelings exactly! Like a ray of sunshine…Will try and comment on more of your writings later. Have a nice day!

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  2. Hi Susan, thank you for commenting on my blog and being so encouraging. Good to hear from a fellow admirer of old movies. Unfortunately I haven’t yet managed to see any more Barthelmess films apart from this one – it’s the only one which ever seems to come on TV in the UK, but I will have to try to track more down. I’m just starting to get into silents, so ‘Tol’able David’ is high on my list of those I want to see. Have a nice day too!

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