Beware, New Beverly audience: the film you are about to watch is not only controversial and considered obscene in several states, but a blacklisted author penned the screenplay! That’s right folks; this film is pure cinematic filth with hardcore Commie themes!! BEWARE!!
Got your attention? Good.
If you’ve attended any recent shows at the New Bev, you may have seen the God’s Little Acre trailer. Playing behind the black and white imagery, one can hear the gospel-inspired song “God’s Little Acre,” a tune composed for the film by Elmer Bernstein with lyrics by Acre’s original novelist, Erskine Caldwell. As it plays, words splash across the screen: The Most Adult Picture Ever Made.
EVER MADE, GUYS.
But in 1958 this was only a slight spin on hyperbolic exploitation advertising.
Erskine Caldwell’s book was a best seller but its explicit sexuality was too much for organizations attempting to “keep America safe. ” Twenty years AFTER its initial 1933 publication God’s Little Acre was the first piece of literature tried for obscenity by the first organization to solely concentrate on book censorship, the Georgia Literature Commission (sounds so innocuous) formed in 1953. The first thing they did was indict Caldwell. Georgia wasn’t the novel’s only “fan.” The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (famous for hating on Margaret Sanger and shutting down Mae West’s first Broadway play and jailing the actress) thought God’s Little Acre was irretrievably immoral, and took Caldwell and his publishers to court for the distribution of pornography!
The film adaptation of God’s Little Acre got no such treatment. While 1958 was still Production Code era, things had gotten more lax, allowing for God’s to be the lusty film it is. Five years previous, Otto Preminger had broken the Production Code by releasing a lovely but fairly standard film called The Moon is Blue without PCA approval. This move by United Artists and Preminger was huge for everyone. Preminger (who hated the Code) simply wanted to be able to say “pregnant” and “virgin” in his film but wouldn’t budge or change the text. End result? This was the sounding of the death knell for the PCA, one bell (or film) at a time. Every sexy little scene in God’s Little Acre is a smash against Breen, his gang and the rules and regulations that had been enforced on the film industry for years, intentional or not.
A critical success upon release, modern critics have not treated the film kindly, labeling it as camp or just tossing it aside. I contend that this film is worthy of discussion for a multiplicity of reasons: 1) the cast and performances alone are enough to make one’s jaw drop, 2) the production history is fascinating as it was borne out of pure censorship and blacklist/McCarthy-ism, 3) it’s an Anthony Mann film. COME ON.
The untouchable cast includes Robert Ryan, Vic Morrow, Aldo Ray, Tina Louise (in her first film role), Jack Lord (before his iconic Hawaii-Five-0 life), Michael Landon (in his third film appearance), and Buddy Hackett in possibly one of the best roles of his career.
The steamy chemistry between characters (*ahem* Aldo Ray * ahem* Tina Louise) is enough to set the screen on fire. Please locate your fire extinguishers in the theater before settling in with your popcorn. This film has enough sweaty, barely clothed moments that blushing is the least of your concerns. It got Georgia concerned though. They refused to let the production shoot there. But Stockton, California, high as a kite off the press that they had recently received from the William Wyler picture, The Big Country, told the God’s Little Acre folks to come on over! So if you think that Georgia looks a little like California…
Anthony Mann was not the first person wishing to make God’s Little Acre. In 1950, Anson Bond of Emerald Productions submitted a script to the Production Code Administration (PCA) for approval. Anson Bond was Ida Lupino’s film production partner in Emerald Productions, a company that she created along with her husband Collier Young. Unfortunately, Emerald dissolved right after the release of the truly incredible film, Not Wanted (Ida Lupino, 1949). Lupino and Young went on to create The Filmmakers, while Anson Bond decided that a career in film production was “too risky” and left the business. It is entirely possible that the reason that the Bond/Emerald submission never went further than the submission step is because Bond left the game and Emerald was no more.
The screenplay credit for the film reads Phillip Yordan. However, Yordan’s primary position in classic Hollywood was actually not writing – it was being a front for blacklisted writers. As Nick Pinkerton states, “the process of attribution in the case of anything signed by Yordan is a very dicey prospect… Yordan functioned as a front for blackballed screenwriters, putting his name on their work in exchange for a paycheck. This would appear to have been less a matter of political conviction than exigency.”
Mr. Ben Maddow – blacklisted writer, left-winger, WWII documentarian, poet, radical, and sadly, namer of names – was the man to whom the writing credit belongs. Associated with such great films as The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950), Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), and Men in War (Anthony Mann, 1957), Maddow was certainly no slouch and to read his discourse on leftist politics or poetry is striking. Certainly the Blacklist was a dehumanizing experience, rough on everyone, but people lost their lives in that wholly unnecessary witch-hunt. Maddow’s colleague, Walter Bernstein remarks on Maddow’s final decision, in his blacklist memoir Inside Out,
“It had nothing to do with money or politics or being afraid or not able to work. He simply could no longer stand living in the shadows. Something had broken in him…Maddow had not been forced to do what he did. He had been working, being well paid, surviving the blacklist better than most. He had gone through the worst of it. But there are no gradations of betrayal. He had sold his friends so he could come out of the dark.”
Maddow’s radical leftist sensibilities matched Erskine Caldwell’s southern tale of employment struggles and exploration of sexuality and class economics in God’s Little Acre. While there is a tonal shift from the first half of the film (more bizarre, exploitative, highly comedic in many places) to the second half which underscores social action and “message” content, this is an unusual and dynamic work and not to be missed. Besides, who doesn’t want to see Ginger from “Gilligan’s Island” being exactly as sexy as you always thought she could be?
*For a more exhaustive exploration of the Blacklist, I recommend listening to the recent Blacklist series on Karina Longworth’s podcast, You Must Remember This.