The Bette Davis Project: The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)

The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)


Marvin Blake, played by Richard Barthelmess (Tol’able David), is the son of poor cotton farmers. He aspires to go to college and his dream comes true when rich plantation owner Mr. Norwood (Berton Churchill, Stagecoach) agrees to pay for his education. After graduation, Marvin goes to work for Norwood, but the young man realizes that his boss has been exploiting the sharecroppers. Meanwhile, Marvin falls for Norwood’s sultry daughter Madge (Bette Davis).

Reaction & Thoughts:

“I’d like to kiss you but I just washed my hair.”

The Cabin in the Cotton, written by Paul Green, directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca and Mildred Pierce), is a rather interesting film; a precursor of sorts to John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (actor Russell Simpson appears in both movies). The politics of the film are fascinating. Unlike Ford’s classic, which is a condemnation of greedy landowners, this is a balanced view of the uneasy relationship between poor agricultural workers and rich plantation owners.

This was Davis’s 11th film and Madge is her first truly great role. It almost didn’t happen. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck personally selected Davis for the role of the Southern vixen. Director Curtiz vehemently objected to Davis, preferring instead someone like Ann Dvorak (Three on a Match). He did everything in his power to get rid of Davis, but the studio prevailed. Curtiz was convinced that Davis had been miscasted, citing her lack of sex appeal as the main reason for his objection — he (in)famously called her, a sexless son-of-b*tch.”

It seems that Curtiz’s cruelty made Davis work harder than ever before. She is more relaxed and self-assured than in any of her previous roles. Davis also gets to utter the famous line, “I’d like to kiss you but I just washed my hair.”

On the other hand, Barthelmess, the true star of movie, comes across as a bit of a bore. He is still in “silent cinema” mode. Barthelmess is a good actor, but talkies didn’t help his mostly serene approach to acting. He had been a popular silent star (he’s terrific in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms and Way Down East), but by the time The Cabin in the Cotton was released, his career was on life-support. Davis has a flashier role anyway and Barthelmess is unable or incapable to compete.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Cabin in the Cotton is a solid Pre-Code melodrama. The cast also includes Hardie Albright (Angel on My Shoulder), Dorothy Jordan (The Searchers), and Dorothy Peterson (Lillian Russell). Dennis O’Keefe (The Leopard) has a bit as a party guest. B&W, 78 minutes, Not Rated.


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