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.