Thursday, July 17, 2008

Notepad Recovery:
Swamp Water (Jean Renoir; 1941)

Back in January of 2005 I began writing an article on Jean Renoir's first American film, Swamp Water. I thought of the piece as primarily narrative in structure, a work of non-fiction film criticism (for once), although I fully intended to render such unperishable thoughts as I had on the substance of the film when the moment presented itself.
It's part of the uniform, you see.

In any event, here are two very brief fragments from the abandoned article, beginning with its opening paragraph:

When residents of Waycross, Georgia started to send live baby alligators through the mail to executives at 20th Century-Fox in the summer of 1941, Darryl F. Zanuck instantly realized that the time had now come to begin taking these people seriously. For weeks, ever since a company under the direction of Jean Renoir had completed location shooting in the area for a film entitled Swamp Water, the locals had been positively consumed by the idea of having the film’s premiere in their midst; just as Gone With the Wind had had its debut in Atlanta two years prior. At first, as it would with normal people, their campaign entailed the usual raft of letters and petitions. But when those failed to persuade anyone at Fox, alligators were pressed into service. Zanuck -- who felt he’d already expended more than enough attention on this film, and realizing the multitudes would not be denied -- soon relented; whereupon the citizens of Waycross set about according Swamp Water all the civic hoopla that normally obtains when a movie premieres somewhere out on the American road: Parades, cheering crowds, decorations, ceremonies, honors galore. Vereen Bell, the local writer of Boy’s Adventure tales who authored the novel upon which the film was based, was proclaimed Guest of Honor, and no less a figure than Eugene Talmadge, Governor of the state of Georgia, declared that day, October 23, 1941, to be Swamp Water Day: the biggest celebration ever held, in this country or any other, to honor a film directed by Jean Renoir.

Jean Renoir did not attend.

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He had arrived in America more than ten months earlier -- shortly before New Year’s, 1941, to be precise -- disembarking in New Jersey after a journey of some months duration that began with the onset of Nazi occupation in France that spring. Renoir was understandably reluctant to leave the country where, since 1924, he had been steadily forging a presence in cinema that had few parallels anywhere. So during a stopover in Lisbon that autumn, he sought to figure a way he could possibly remain in France as a working director now that so much had changed. It was not an easy decision. His long association with the Popular Front notwithstanding, Jean Renoir had not been loath to accommodate fascists on absolutely every occasion. Soon after the commercial debacle of La Règle du jeu in 1939 he, along with Carl Koch and Luchino Visconti, had begun work on a dramatic adaptation of Tosca. In Italy, and at the personal invitation of Benito Mussolini himself.

He’d already been approached by Vichy representatives about staying put and continuing his career where he started it, but no matter how tempting the overture, he ultimately had no wish to accept an offer that would transform him into a puppet of the new regime in the eyes of the world (he needn't have worried; collaborating with the Nazis never proved especially damaging to anyone's career). In the end it was a communication from Robert Flaherty, urging him to come work in Hollywood, that decided the course which ultimately led to what Renoir would later call his destiny. Hollywood now beckoned -- at least in this indirect form -- so he joined an already sizable number of European emigre filmmakers on an adventure whose attendant frustrations most of them learned to live with; even, in some cases, capitalize upon. Renoir would not be one of those.
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As it turned out I never completed this piece; nor did I get very far with it. Normally when I throw in the towel on something like this (as I'm wont to do more often than I care to admit in detail) it's because I can see the thing isn't going well for one reason or another. This occasion was different, however. While I was gathering the material (such as it was), I happened to track down a 1982 Georgia Review article by Renoir scholar Alexander Sesonske that covered . . . just about every square inch of narrative ground I was set to hike across. That ended that, far as I was concerned. I had nothing to write about. Sure, I could have scraped together some rote analysis of Swamp Water, its place in the Renoir canon, how its use of locations anticipate The River; I could have used the component parts to add one more such piece to the literally hundreds of such pieces extant . . . if I wanted to. I didn't. It would have been purely, utterly mechanical and . . . let's be honest . . . does anyone really need another article of that sort?

I thought not.

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