Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston Star in King Vidor’s Conflicted and Deadly Drama
DIRECTED BY KING VIDOR/1952
STREET DATE: APRIL 24, 2018/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Maybe some swamps really do need draining. King Vidor’s 1952 drama Ruby Gentry culminates in a pretty convincing one, a studio-built swamp doubling for the inhospitable marshes of North Carolina. It’s got fog emanating from the water, distorted trees and overgrowth, and no shortage of the Kudzu weed, which may or may not be geographically inaccurate. The characters don’t spend a ton of time here, but it is nonetheless the environing at the heart of Ruby Gentry.
The film’s title character, played with assured gusto by Jennifer Jones, is from these very swamps. Although we never see any tracks, per se, we’re told again and again by the members of upscale “polite society” that Ruby hails from their Wrong Side. Even as she’s grown up in and around the wealthy movers and shakers of the area, they seem to relegate her as the token exotic, curvy and accented for both their enjoyment and self-validation. The amount of casual sexist objectification in the general male chatter at any given moment is shocking.
Maybe the overt sensuality of Jones was the intended Trojan Horse for whatever message he was interested in communicating this time around. Or, maybe Ruby Gentry is simply a contemporary character study by a visionary who’s good intentions lacked the legs of his starlet.
From a 2018 viewpoint, in which we’ve become accustomed to and even expectant of spoon-fed feminism being a part of any film or television show with a female protagonist, the character of Ruby Gentry is downright jarring. While an over abundance of easy, spoon-fed feminism dilutes the importance of the movement, the weirdly conflicted version of it going on here does no one any favors, either. Here we are watching a female lead character whom isn’t particularly smart or in touch with herself, nor particularly cognitive the how her world needs the change she could imbue.
That is, until the opportunity to actively inflict change is heaped upon her. Ruby then proceeds to use her newfound wealth and power to inflict not progressive benevolence, but rather pure revenge on the “good old boy” network that’s kept her down her whole life. Amid this journey is the unrequited privileged love Ruby’s life, Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston, his elongated face sickening leering throughout) and the kind-hearted millionaire Jim Gentry (Karl Malden, sporting a receding hairline even then). Guess which one Ruby marries?
Though handsomely rendered by Vidor and his crew, Ruby Gentry is an ugly experience. It’s never rewarding or even pleasurable to spend time with the characters, even when, once upon a time, that was the intention. It would take a few more undesired viewings of Ruby Gentry to suss out which scenes of the menfolk sitting around chatting are not intended to play as culturally misogynistic, if any. People die suddenly and without warning in this world; it’s just that rough. As for Ruby herself, she’s well established to be a curvy cat-eyed vixen. It’s how not only her world, but also how the filmmaker views her.
Jennifer Jones, an Oscar winning actress (The Song of Bernadette) from Hollywood’s Golden Age, is rewarded by Vidor for starring in his sunburnt debacle Duel in the Sun with this choice part. One can only assume that a strong-willed yet completely hot and cold personality such as Ruby is more fun to play than she is to watch. Jones, in any case, completely owns it, at the character’s every turn.
Though much of Vidor’s directorial output during his record-setting sixty-seven year career might be easily read, at best, as “tone deaf” today, it must be noted that he is one of very few powerful men in the business whom, particularly when left to his own devices, sought to tell unique “social issues” stories of women, minorities and those on the outskirts. Today, some call his pioneering 1929 all-black musical Hallelujah! inherently racist. (And maybe it is). Similarly, Duel in the Sun and Ruby Gentry could be dissected as corse exploitations in the guise of what we’d today call feminism. King Vidor might well be the case of a powerful do-gooder with a self-righteous streak inflicting his views, positive and negative, onto the mass populace of his day. Maybe the overt sensuality of Jones was the intended Trojan Horse for whatever message he was interested in communicating this time around. Or, maybe Ruby Gentry is simply a contemporary character study by a visionary who’s good intentions lacked the legs of his starlet.
It’s interesting to note that despite all of this, Ruby Gentry apparently has its share of fans, even now. For this reason, one supposes that this handsome new Blu-ray by Kino Lorber Studio Classics is plenty warranted. Likewise though, it’s a missed opportunity that no film historians could be wrangled for a perspective-exploring audio commentary track. Naturally though, admirers of this film should seek this release out, anyway. And then, if they please, do let the rest of know what is compelling to you about this piece of film art that’s so much like its namesake: pretty but punishing.