The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)


Marvin Blake (Richard Barthelmess, Broken Blossoms), a son of poor cotton farmers, aspires to go to college and his dream comes true when rich plantation owner Mr. Norwood (Berton Churchill, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) agrees to pay for his education. After graduation, Marvin goes to work for Norwood, but the young man realizes that his benefactor has been exploiting the sharecroppers. Meanwhile, Marvin falls in love with Norwood’s daughter, Madge (Bette Davis).

Reaction & Thoughts:

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

Directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) from a screenplay by Pulitzer-winning playwright Paul Green, The Cabin in the Cotton is a precursor of sorts to John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. However, unlike Ford’s classic, which is among many things a condemnation of greedy landowners, this is a surprisingly balanced view of the uneasy relationship between poor agricultural workers and rich plantation owners.

Although conceived as a star vehicle for popular silent star Richard Barthelmess, The Cabin in the Cotton belongs to Bette Davis, who seizes the opportunity to show off her acting skills. This is Davis’s 11th film and Madge is her first truly great role. Interestingly, Davis almost lost one of the most important roles of her career.

Producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who at the time was working for Warner Bros., personally selected Davis for the role of Madge. Director Curtiz vehemently objected to Davis and did everything in his power to get rid of her (Curtiz wanted an actress with more sex appeal), but Zanuck prevailed. Because of Curtiz’s complaints, Davis worked harder than ever before — it’s a brilliant performance with a hint of things to come.

Barthelmess, the true star of the movie, comes across as a bit of a bore. He is still in “silent cinema” mode. Barthelmess was a fine actor, but talkies didn’t help his mostly serene approach to acting. He had been a popular silent star, 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.

Character actor Berton Churchill is very good as Davis’s powerful father. The cast also includes Russell Simpson (They Were Expendable), Hardie Albright (The Scarlet Letter), Dorothy Jordan (The Searchers) and Dorothy Peterson (The Beast of the City). Dennis O’Keefe (The Leopard) has a bit role as a party guest.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Cabin in the Cotton is a solid Pre-Code melodrama: it has an interesting plot, a great cast, good production values and Bette Davis is unforgettable in one of her first memorable anti-heroines. B&W, 78 minutes, Not Rated.

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