So Red the Rose (1935) was based on the novel of the same name by Mississippi writer Stark Young. It is a film unavailable today on tape or DVD, probably because it seems by contemporary standards too retrograde, especially in its treatment of the Old South and of slavery. It is told from a perspective sympathetic to the Southern viewpoint and makes no attempt to politicize its subject or to view slavery as anything other than a benign practice. In its portrayal of the Southern belle and plantation life it looks forward specifically to the film Gone with the Wind (1938), which may have borrowed elements of the earlier film.
This film begins with scenes of slaves working in the cotton fields to the musical strains of “Way Down on the Sewanee River (cf. Mississippi). The tone is one of tender tribute to a lost way of life. Even though the film romanticizes that way of life, there are ways in which it accurately portrays plantation life and life on the home front.
The first scene of the film makes clear that war is about to break out with the North. We see the old patriarch Malcom Bedford (Walter Connolly) telling the main house servant how nothing will ever change, war will not happen, and everything will continue as it always has been. The film then proceeds methodically to refute this assertion by showing how things do change. One by one sons of the family go off to the war and die. The old patriarch goes off to the war after he is rousted out of bed by Yankee soldiers and forced to show them the way on the road to their headquarters. He returns months later exhausted and shortly after dies.
So Red the Rose offers three perspectives on the Civil War. First is that of Duncan (played by Randolph Scott), cousin and suitor of Valette Bedford. Because he was educated in the North and has friends there, and because he sees the war as a conflict between Americans, he doesn’t support the war or want to fight in it. In a sense he is like the plantation owner, unwilling to accept that change must occur, unwilling to be drawn into the battle because he sees it as fundamentally at odds with the concept of one America. (He never articulates these positions but I infer them from his statements and behavior).
Another perspective is that of survival. The matriarch is at first afraid of war and afraid of the loss of her family. She gradually strengthens throughout the film until she is capable of acts of courage, even when faced with the burning of her beloved home. A similar development of character occurs in Valette, played by Margaret Sullavan, who at first begins as a coy and flirtatious Southern belle but who gradually develops in strength and moral insight.
A third perspective is that of the home front. The film takes place almost entirely on the plantation Portobello, and we learn of the war mainly through bulletins flashed on the screen, through visitors to the plantation, and through reports that filter in. The focus is on a family’s struggle to survive. The story is told from a sympathetic point of view, but even through the film seems sympathetic to the Southern way it is mainly sympathetic to the plight of a family in a time of crisis.
One minor recurrent theme is that of brother vs. brother, embodied in the reluctance of Duncan to go to war, and brought to a head when he finds a Yankee raider wounded in his house and being protected by his family. Scott goes from being a neutral to being a fierce partisan more intent on being partisan than on being human.
The main house servant, well played by Clarence Muse, is a dignified man who though subservient and clearly possessed by the role he is playing does not embody most racist stereotypes. He speaks Latin, and he is of course thoroughly loyal to the family, even when other slaves want to be freed. The stereotype he does reflect is that of the “good” house slave, loyal to his family even when offered the possibility of freedom. In this stereotyped role, the good house slave knows what is good for him and sticks by his white family. There are clear echoes in this kind of character of Thomas Nelson Page’s “Marse Chan” and of the slave in Simms’ The Yemasee who begs not to be freed by his master. At the same time, there is no shucking and jiving in Cato—he is a character with his own dignity.
From a modern point of view the most problematic element of the film is the portrayal of the slaves as contented with their lot, simple, and easily misled. They are easily convinced to give up their work, run amok, and steal possessions of their owners—we then see a scene of slaves comically tackling chickens and hogs. When Valette and her brother go to the barn and reason with the slaves, she reminds one of the slaves of how he picked her up and took her to the house when she broke her wrist and the little brother then reminds him of the rabbit trap he has so far failed to make for the boy. The man seems overcome with guilt. In the next scene we see the slaves walking en masse to the house singing “Go Down, Moses,” or some such song. They have completely changed their minds about wanting to be free. There is a similar scene when the old plantation owner decides to go to war and all the slaves come to the house singing “Go Down, Moses.” In general, So Red the Rose holds with the notion that slavery was an enlightened, paternalistic, benign institution, and that slave owners treated their slaves well.
There are a number of emotionally powerful scenes in the film, as when the mother has a “vision” that her son has been killed in battle and Duncan and the head servant go with her out to the battlefield where they discover his body. This precipitates Duncan’s decision to go to war. The scene in which the Northern soldiers prepare to burn the house as the family watches is especially effective.
Valette’s character looks forward to Scarlett O’Hara. Both are of a type that must have predated Stark Young’s novel and Margaret Mitchell’s—the innocent, pampered Southern belle who confronted with the challenges of war must change in order to survive.
The real theme of the film is the struggle for survival in the face of change and the growth and transformation in character that takes place in the individuals confronted with change.
Only one person in the film, a visitor from Texas who is one of the first to die in the war, has a Southern accent. Most everyone has a British accent.