The Cabin in the Cotton (1932; dir. Michael Curtiz) dramatizes a struggle between sharecroppers in the American South and the owners whose land they work. The owners charge excessive fees to the croppers, who can’t get ahead or live beyond a subsistence level as a result. In turn, the croppers steal cotton from the owners and sell it on the black market. The film proclaims itself objective in the portrayal of this struggle (a message that scrolls down the screen in the beginning tells us so”: “it is not the object of the producers . . . to take sides. We are only concerned with an effort to picturize these conditions [of sharecropping]”), but in fact it favors the croppers.
The main character is Marvin Blake, played in a slope shouldered, hangdog manner by Richard Barthelmess. He is the son of a cropper but is intent on getting ahead in life by attending school. When his father dies, he faces having to drop out of school until the local landowner, Lane Norwood (Berton Churchill), offers him a job so he can continue his studies. In a few years, Marvin keeps Norwood’s books, is a trusted employee, and appears to have won the heart of Norwood’s daughter Madge, played by Bette Davis in an early role. The croppers still see Marvin as one of their own and expect him to provide inside information and to help them continue stealing cotton. Norwood expects Marvin to help him discover who is stealing cotton. Marvin is also torn between two lovers: Madge Norwood on the one hand and Betty Wright (Dorothy Jordan), a cropper’s daughter, on the other. Poor Marvin is pulled back and forth throughout the film between Norwood and the croppers, between Madge and Lily. In the end, a lawyer helps him organize a town meeting where he presents the complaints of each side to the other and ultimately declares himself on the side of the croppers.
Cotton is everywhere in the film, in the fields, the yards, and so on. In the opening, cotton pickers are at work in the fields, white pickers in the foreground, black pickers in the background. Strains of “Suwanee River” waft through the air, as do other songs associated with the South.
The film focuses on white croppers. Black sharecroppers rarely appear, and though they are victims of the system as well, they are barely acknowledged. The film suggests that Marvin’s meeting, which forces a contract on the owners which is fair to the croppers, has solved the problem, though we know the problem persisted almost to the present day.
Bette Davis as Norwood’s daughter Madge is all wealthy white Southern privilege, but she is more flapper than Southern belle, with her svelte dresses, cigarettes, flirtatiousness, and implied sexual looseness. Betty is ever-suffering in her unwavering and virtuous love for Marvin.
With a screenplay by Paul Green, The Cabin in the Cotton tries to evoke the folk life of Southerners early in the century. There are several seemingly authentic moments where banjo players pick music. In one scene, a blind black blues guitarist (Clarence Muse) plays his spiritual melodies that contrast with the upscale jazz of the band hired to play at the Norwood home. The implication here and elsewhere in the film is that modern ways have supplanted and blotted out the genuine folkways of the traditional South, which is being corrupted by greed and jazz (!). In general, the South of the film is entirely generic. Southern accents are few and far between.
Even in this early film, Bette Davis has her shtick down. The film sizzles a bit when she’s on screen. Churchill as Lane Norwood would be likeable were it not for his hostile indifference to the croppers, whom he cheats of justly earned income. The sharecropper farmers are mostly played for hillbilly effect: shiftless, dishonest, lazy. They spy on the parties at the Norwood house. They threaten Marvin when he doesn’t promise to give them his copy of Norwood’s books (which show how Norwood has cheated them). At the meeting, Marvin explains their tendency towards shiftlessness as the result of poverty.
It's difficult for the dramatic medium of film to convey the details and contexts of history. As a result, partially, this film does not portray sharecropping as a product of history, of the ending of slavery in the American South and the collapse of the plantation system. Audiences in 1932 might have understood that the film shows an aspect of the post-Civil War economy and way of life in the South, but few would have recognized close causal links between sharecropping and the consequences of the Civil War. The film is more aware of the economic disparities between the land owners and croppers, but it does not suggest that such fundamental economic inequalities ought to be remedied. Rather, it argues that each side in its own place, the owners and the croppers, should treat the other in a fair manner. Beyond that, the film makes no overt or implied call for meaningful social change.By its pious pledge of impartiality, Cabin in the Cotton hedges all bets. It asks its audience to appreciate the simple lives of the croppers and the luxurious surroundings of the owners. Just as the croppers have their grievances against the owners, so do the planters have complaints against the croppers. Only gradually does it make us aware that its loyalties fall with the croppers. Never does it suggest that black sharecroppers faced equally difficult conditions.