The controversy that surrounded this movie, along with the scandal associated with the novel upon which it is based, may not have added up to box office success, but the film has become a classic nonetheless.
Author Erskine Caldwell and Viking Press, his publisher, were actually charged and tried for obscenity for releasing God's Little Acre in 1933 after pressure by a New York literary board who wanted the book censored. A quarter of a century later, in 1958, when the movie was released, it was actually banned in some theaters and audiences under eighteen years of age were prohibited from viewing what were perceived to be numerous obscene scenes throughout. The on screen sexual exploits are rather tame by today's standards, but the sexual tension of men standing and watching naked women pushed the limits in its day.
Robert Ryan stars as Ty Ty Walden, a farmer who believes there's gold buried on his land. A devout man, he has set aside a small plot of land promising God anything that comes from it. With typical human frailty, he is prone to move God's Little Acre whenever he fears it may contain his fortune, an obvious allegory for the shifting faith we all suffer.
Ty Ty has singlehandedly raised three hot headed sons and a lovely daughter, who is his treasure and, it turns out, an almost irresistible sexual force. Throw in Grisleda, the sultry wife of one of the sons, and her ex-lover, Will, and a subtext of complex sexual entanglements and betrayals lead to tragedy and eventual destruction of the family.
Caldwell, by showing Ty Ty destroying his farm in search of quick riches, meant to comment on the destructive attitudes of the South with regard to the land. Although Ty Ty could have turned a profit at any time by farming, he does everything but farm. Eventually he enlists the aid of an albino, played by a delightfully young Michael Landon, whom Ty Ty believes has magical divining powers, and demands that he find the gold, which, of course, he cannot do, since there is none. Vic Morrow, Jack Lord and Buddy Hackett round out the supporting cast, as the entire family living around the edges of Ty Ty's dream.
The real story, however, revolves around Louise, stunning in her first major role, and Aldo Ray, a classic machismo who put the "man" in leading man. Their adulterous tryst generates more heat than the oppressive dog days of the southern summer. You've got to see the water pump scene, if you can find a copy that hasn't melted from heat of it.
Originally, the novel was intended to dramatize the strike and eventual shutdown of a textile mill in Gastonia, North Carolina. Caldwell thought of the novel God's Little Acre as a proletarian manifesto that would call attention to the plight of non-unionized textile workers, lintheads, as they were called, in the Depression Era South. That the film got made at all in the age of McCarthyism is astounding. In fact, the nominal screenwriter, Philip Yordon, was actually a front for the real screenwriter, Ben Maddow, who had been blacklisted in the Hollywood Red scare.
The Marxist ideas of Caldwell's novel are mostly lost in the film adaptation, although discerning viewers will see their remains in the brutish Will's desperate attempt to seize control of and reopen the textile mill on which the entire local economy depends. Without giving too much of the story away, this is classic transgressive fiction in which following the dark side of life leads inevitably to destruction.
Although the movie is a uniquely satisfying experience, please don't let this classic prevent you from reading the book by Erskine Caldwell. The novel, one of the best selling in history, is a literary touchstone and deserves a good read, and reading is in danger of becoming extinct. But do watch this movie, when it's hot and you're feeling a bit nostalgic.