Credit: 20th Century Fox/Letterboxd
by Patrick Preziosi Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Ruby Gentry — King Vidor

February 11, 2022

On the set of 1946’s Duel in the Sun, King Vidor was constantly assailed by a positively megalomaniacal David O. Selznick, who extrapolated new subplots and mini-climaxes from the already lurid western scenario, as well as imposed multiple other directors’ visions on Vidor’s so as to center and emphasize the beauty of the producer’s wife and star, Jennifer Jones. This domineering meddling, which constituted everything from re-shoots and enough lighting advisement from Josef von Sternberg to earn him a director’s credit, rattled Vidor, so much so that he began having nightmares where the cables and lighting fixtures of the shoot became sentient and strangled him. What eventually rose from the ashes is one of the most misshapen masterpieces of its era, with a foregrounded, hot-blooded emotionalism that overcomes the stop-start rhythms of this obviously belabored story.

Coming six years later, Ruby Gentry was a return to similar psychological war zones, a commonality bolstered by the casting of Jones, again forced to choose between two men, culminating in a shootout in a backlot swamp transplanted from Murnau; it earned the unofficial subtitle, “Duel in the Swamp.”

Maybe it’s a reductive disservice to so closely associate these two Vidor-Jones vehicles (especially when Selznick was barely a factor the second go-round), but in King Vidor, American, Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon reference Duel in the Sun’s “hybrid nature,” where melodrama mingles with then-newfangled Freudian theories, and thus, the film has a “Janus soul.” Taken together themselves, however, Duel in the Sun and Ruby Gentry exhibit a singular Janus pair, visual and thematic echoes speeding towards one another from opposite ends, radically different points of origin; Luc Moullet termed their respective climaxes, “The Bravura Sequence[s]”.

A maelstrom of faith, class disparity, and repressed sexuality, Ruby Gentry’s finale obliterates the preceding 75 minutes with a gale force that has slowly gathered from the almost innocuous framing device onward. In the same piece, Moullet designates the majority of both films as mere preludes, which is to be taken as a compliment, as Vidor has wrought a storytelling vernacular that, in the case of Ruby Gentry, is streamlined and muscular; the ending is predestined, but that’s the guiding strength. The potential perfection of the medium is bottled up in this climactic sequence, and thus, the film can wobble and veer, but it’s guaranteed to never capsize.

That aforementioned framing device, which indulges noir’s tendency for omniscient voiceover, is how Vidor navigates further down the slipstream of intimacy — when we finally feel on equal footing with Ruby Gentry (Jones) and Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston), two lovers who embody the restrictive “other side of the tracks” class disparity, the film ruptures, as if you were watching the reel melt. Watching over again, the anonymity of the opening is remarkable: a city doctor (Barney Phillips) comes down south to Braddock, caring for the sick wife of local loan shark (to put it bluntly), Jim Gentry (Karl Malden). Eventually, Jim takes the doctor across the tracks, to the Corey home, a lodge ensconced well within the outskirts of the swamp, where Ruby and her father Jud (Tom Tully) host hunting parties for the bigwigs of Braddock, among them the young, rich, and ruggedly handsome Boake. The animalistic lust shared between Ruby and Boake — full-nailed scratches and hands gripped around throats — isn’t enough to dispel the divide imposed by the all-American social stratification of the 1950s, and Boake’s got to listen to his daddy and marry Tracy McAuliffe (Phyllis Avery). Vidor is happy to still capture the fleeting intervals of romantic transcendence shared between the two, like a nighttime drive in the surf, acknowledging its finite practicality. Soon, Boake will be out of bounds.

With Jim now a widower, Ruby marries him, first as a rebuke of Boake, but the two subsequently develop an adult understanding: Jim won’t try and take the place of Boake, as Malden delivers in his heartbreaking confession of being content at being “second best.” Still operating with a remove that suggests that these events are processed and pieced-together by the barely participating doctor, Vidor wrings a scintillating dissonance from these mismatched relationships. Ruby, given her upbringing, is of course the locus of gossip and mistrust, but Boake’s never-diminishing presence compounds the friction, and Jim and Phyllis are respectively embittered and left teary-eyed by their lesser romantic standings. Then, Jim is accidentally struck overboard by the boom of his boat while sailing with Ruby, and Braddock foments her wrongful reputation as a murderous gold digger, stamping her with a scarlet letter. So Ruby enacts a deluge, both literal and figurative, cashing in on her husband’s sundry debts, and sinking Boake’s farmland, a technically and agriculturally progressive passion project.

That Boake commits himself to bringing backwater Braddock into the future of industry, while opting to leave Ruby by the wayside, is one of the film’s many casual ironies, the pick-and-choose ethics of the upper class spurring a veritable punishing plague. However, Vidor was as much a filmmaker of the body as he was of the social mind: the culminating dance of Our Daily Bread; the manual labor of the mines and factories in An American Romance. Ruby Gentry is simultaneously as entrapped in biblical violence as it is in political grievances, the figure of scripture-quoting brother Jewel (James Anderson) mutating into an angel of death who stalks the least navigable thickets of the swamp (one can’t help but notice the tiered Corey family, of who’s allowed into the larger world at varying intervals, and who’s conscripted to the home; the mother herself never leaves the kitchen). Boake, and especially Ruby, are punished by various old guards, those that ostensibly preside over commerce, while they really penetrate the individual, wielding a regressive influence.

Admittedly, this is a lot for 82 minutes, erotics blown apart by Old Testament violence, all while Jones effortlessly inhabits Ruby’s variegated personalities, which transcend one another, devolve, shift laterally: she’s the young and nervous teen given over to a rich family, the backwoods “wildcat” (as per Boake), the affluent widower with a face veiled in sophisticated fabrics. Ruby Gentry embodies the exhilarating contradictions of Vidor’s career, expressionistic artifice elevating earthy, natural textures, and vice versa. Amidst it all is the prevailing human center, and thus, the most melodramatic, the most improbable twists and turns are easily, affectingly rationalized.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.