Home Video Hovel: Ruby Gentry, by Scott Nye
One of the great pleasures returning to the TCM Classic Film Festival year after year has been acquainting myself with the early sound films of King Vidor. Not always widely distributed or even discussed, I was nevertheless blown away by Street Scene, The Stranger’s Return, and the better-known Stella Dallas. I’m not well-acquainted with the films he made in the following decades, but to go by Ruby Gentry, few of his priorities have changed. It’s the scope that’s widened. His feeling for individual moments is as potent as ever, but this is just too much story for an 82-minute movie.
Ruby (Jennifer Jones) is a poor girl, living rough with her family in rural North Carolina. She’s in love with Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston), who’s just returned to the country and can no longer be kept on the farm now that he’s seen Belize. He loves Ruby, too, in a lustful sort of way, but has big ambitions that can be more easily realized if he gets himself associated with Tracy McAuliffe (Phyllis Avery), whose well-to-do family socialized with the Tackmans back when they had some coin to throw around. There’s a whole lot else going on in this small town, including a doctor (Barney Phillips) who’s sort of our entry point to all this and vastly overstays the entire point of his being there, which is to care for the ailing Letitia Gentry (Josephine Hutchinson), who along with her husband Jim (Karl Malden) took in Ruby at a young age because, hey, everybody needs a backstory.
Ruby being young, pretty, and spirited, she has no shortage of male admirers, but the way she’s stuck on Boake and he on her provides terrific melodramatic foundation. Their carnal desire for one another allows her some leverage, as he seems about one lay away from never speaking to her again. The simple fact is he’d have to earn a living with her, while he can make a life and legacy with Tracy. Class is pervasive throughout the film, though it’s wise enough not to outright say it. The whims of those who have reverberate and decimate those to have not, yet when the landed (“Gentry” is a particularly well-chosen last name) decide to start bickering and leaving the poor with no work, the poor simply shrug and say “well that’s how it is, we’ll weather this.” There’s no surefire marker as to when the film takes place, though the cars suggest it fairly contemporary to its 1952 release, but we’re certainly a long way off from the Depression-era awareness of crooked bosses. Vidor doesn’t judge the workers for their naivete, but he is conscious of it – plenty of people with a whole lot less to lose point out how much suffering these petty maneuvers will cause.
Most of all, the film succeeds in moments. I’ll never be rid of the image of Ruby standing in her doorway, light pouring out from behind to silhouette her frame; nor of the moment when Ruby and Boake navigate their car along the coastline, navigating the wheel with their feet, propelled by that movie magic that makes cars go when no one is on the pedal. Vidor had a way of infusing high emotion with an image to match. It might be enough for some directors to show a tumble in the grass, but there’s really nothing like a car plunging into the ocean to show the heedless joy of being completely, disastrously in love.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics brings Ruby Gentry to Blu-ray with a transfer that will feel quite familiar to those who have seen similar discs culled from existing masters in studio vaults. It definitely shows more information than the DVD, is robust and clean and well-textured. There’s nothing exceptional about it, nor nothing particularly wrong. The film does use some effects unusual for its time, “zooming” in on certain frames by enlarging them (these were the days before zoom lenses). Those shots, naturally, are much rougher than the rest of the film, grainier and less crisp. But the transfer gets the job done, and is definitely the best representation of the film on the market.
Sadly, the only supplements are a trailer for Ruby Gentry and four other films from the KLSC library, so nothing really to speak of there.