Jean Renoir, the celebrated French director of Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), fled his home country after the Nazis invaded in May 1940. Hollywood welcomed him with open arms, but he had difficulty finding material. Renoir was interested in adapting George Perry Sessions' novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, but only if he could rewrite the book to fit his sensibilities. Re-titled The Southerner, Renoir's version would tell the story of a poor young couple trying to eke out a living on a small Texas farm during the Great Depression. They face many hardships, including sickness, belligerent neighbors, and a tornado that destroys their crops. Renoir was less interested in Sessions' narrative than in how he could make a statement about the American people. Renoir cast Zachary Scott, an actor best known for playing dashing, urbane rogues, like the playboy Monte Beragon in Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1945). Ironically, Scott actually
was from Texas, and with his trademark mustache shaved, made a convincing farmer. Cast as Scott's wife was Betty Field, who had starred in Lewis Milestone's award-winning adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1939). Also featured are a fine coterie of distinguished supporting players: versatile character
actor J. Carrol Naish, Beulah Bondi (who played James Stewart's mother in four pictures, including It's a Wonderful Life), Percy Kilbride (''Pa Kettle'' from the Ma & Pa Kettle series), and longtime Hitchcock associate Norman Lloyd. Premiering May 18, 1945, The Southerner opened to rave reviews, and would be nominated for Best Director, Original Music Score, and Sound at the 18th Annual Academy Awards. Despite this, some felt its portrayal of life down South was too stark. The film was even banned in Tennessee, whose state censor thought it was an insult to Southern famers. Such criticism has long since fallen away, however, and now The Southerner is largely regarded as Renoir's American masterpiece. It's an opinion shared by the director himself, who once wrote to his nephew, the cinematographer Claude Renoir, ''The only work which fully satisfied me here was The Southerner.''