Filmsite Movie Review
The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)
Pages: (1) (2)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

Marvin's Indebtedness to the Norwoods Especially After Moving Into the Norwood Plantation (And The Strengthening of His Relationship with Madge):

After a fade to black, Marvin returned to the Blake shack in the darkness - it was soon-to-become his former residence. Now fully indebted to Norwood, Sock Fisher and Jake - Marvin's "sore-tailed" step-relatives, saw him at the locked door and were eager to ostracize Marvin for becoming a "suspicious" turncoat - they threw his few belongings stuffed into a suitcase out of the house and onto the porch:

A wonder you come back to the poor folk's shack after cutting a shine up at that dump with them big-guns. Acting a cussed fool, makin' fun of poor folks. They're turnin' you into a lousy spy....Give him his duds. I don't want ya in my home...Go live with Norwood. You think so much of him and that stuck-up girl of his. Get out before I break your neck.

The next day in the company store, Uncle Joe told Marvin that he would be needed for the Memphis job in two to three weeks. He expressed how he felt that it was a mixed blessing for Marvin to be in such a close association with the plantation owner - by living in the enemy camp. He was counting on him to report any of Norwood's harmful intentions:

There's Marvin now right with Norwood. And he'd know every thought and move Norwood makes. If Norwood starts to go after us with the Sheriff or the law, Marvin will know it, won't he? Like a flash, he'll let us know....So now Marvin, everyone tickled to death to know that you're goin' to be right in - well, in the camp of the enemy, day and night....The brunt of everythin' is on you, now my boy. And we know you won't go back on us.

Uncle Joe informed Marvin of another night meeting, and agreed to put it off for a few days, but warned Marvin about creating any undue "suspicion" amongst the uneasy farmers.

Further Troubling Developments: the Murder of a Planter by a Fugitive Planter-Farmer:

In his plantation living room, Norwood was grousing about how Marvin and the authorities hadn't obtained any "evidence" against the tenant-farmers:

No action from Carter. None from the Sheriff. Why can't Marvin get some evidence against these fellows?

Suddenly, Marvin and DA Carter burst into the plantation to report that "a Peckerwood just shot down one of the planters over in Seed County." Vicious bloodhounds and Ezzy Daniels (Fred 'Snowflake' Toones) had already been recruited for a posse. Both Marvin and Norwood joined in the subsequent retaliatory hunt.

Marvin was the first to locate the fugitive tenant named Bill in the swamp and briefly spoke to him, as he begged: "Help me, Marvin. Don't let them get me." Bill explained the reason for his murder of a planter: "I lost my head. He won't give me a cent for my cotton. Said I owed him money." Marvin encouraged Bill to run: ("Run, run, Bill. Run!"), but he revealed their location and the killer was quickly located and apprehended. Marvin looked on in horror but remained immobile as Bill was brutally lynched.

An Act of Arson Against the Company Store - and the Fate of Marvin's Financial Records:

As the posse returned, Marvin and Norwood observed that Norwood's company store was on fire. Marvin's conscience would be further challenged after the desperately-indebted tenants burned down the store in a vengeful act of arson.

To demonstrate his support for his employer, Marvin - as it turned out - risked his life by unnecessarily running into the flames to acquire the financial records. He discovered that the safe had been blown open, and that someone had stolen the accounting books before the fire. Norwood was aghast: - worried that without the books, he wouldn't be able to tally up the debts of his tenant-farmers: "I'm ruined. You hear Marvin? Ruined." He turned to the crowd of tenant-farmers and promised swift punishment for the arsonists and thieves: "Which one of you fired my store? Who stole the books? I'll find out so help me, and when I do, somebody'll go to the penitentiary, and he'll go to stay." He suspected that the Clinton boys and "no-account" Jake Fisher were to blame.

Afterwards in the plantation home, Marvin then admitted, confusingly and to everyone's surprise, that he had a duplicate set of financial record books. Norwood was overjoyed that his business was saved: "My boy, you've brought the blood back to my heart. Cheer up. Don't look so sad. Don't you understand? You've made everything right." However, Marvin was hesitant to turn over the books - he was still upset about the lynching death in the woods:

Made everything right? No. No. What happened out there in the woods tonight wasn't right. Nothing can make that right.

The Passionate Affair Between the Seductive Madge and Marvin:

Shortly later, Madge realized that Marvin was packing up and leaving - he was reluctant to turn against the tenants but also refusing to side with the Norwoods. She hinted that they were all alone in the plantation mansion on a Sunday afternoon, and tempted him to stay with food and wine ("to take the blues away"). She toasted "to the future," and asked: "Doesn't this wine warm your tummy?"; she urged him to stay - with her irresistible charm after leading him to her bedroom:

Madge: You were goin' away, weren't ya? Packin' to leave. Oh, honey-lamb. You mustn't do that. What would father say if he came back and found you gone? And I would cry. Cry. You're for father, aren't you? And you're gonna help him find the men who burnt his store.
Marvin: Oh, Madge, I don't know. I don't know.
Madge: Come up to my room for a minute. I want to talk to you about somethin'. Turn your back and look at those snapshots for a minute while I get into somethin' more restful. Turn your back. (she undressed to entice him, mostly off-screen)

She seductively stripped naked while partially concealed behind a door, as she again sang "Willie the Weeper" to him. The scene ended with a discreet fade to black - as the astonished Marvin blurted out: "Madge!"

Marvin's Family Ties to the Tenants and His Father's Legacy:

Shortly later in the day, Betty arrived on the front porch of the Norwood plantation to summon Marvin. He accompanied her to meet with a group of tenants in a shack, where he learned from Uncle Eph Clinton (Henry B. Walthall), ailing and lying on a bed, that the authorities had arrested suspected family members (the Clinton brothers and Jake Fisher) for burning down the company store: "Early this morning, the Sheriff come arrested my boys - Cleve and Ross. And Sock Fisher's Jake. They're all in jail over there in town now."

The tenant-farmers urged Marvin to wipe out their debts by destroying the duplicate set of records, rather than saving Norwood's business: "The books is burnt up. And we don't owe him nothin'. We sure don't. We're square with him for the first time in our lives." Marvin resisted revealing the location of the second set of books: "I've got nothin' to tell....How can I tell ya? I'm workin' for Mr. Norwood. He's hired me. I can't go back on him like that." Marvin was denounced by Uncle Joe for siding with Norwood:

But you can go back on us, your own folks? You can give us away and cause us to be put behind the bars.

The distrusted Marvin was given a heart-to-heart, guilt-inducing talk by Uncle Eph who tried to dissuade Marvin from sabotaging the tenants' interests or his father's legacy by rebelling against his farmer-roots. Marvin was specifically accused of having become corruptively 'learned' through further education provided by Norwood:

I've knowed your Daddy, son. There weren't a better man that ever walked behind a plow. He oughta be here today. He wouldn't be proud of you, neither. Not with all of your learnin' and your sense. And you're walking' high and mighty with Norwood. And the planters. I ain't proud of ya. But we love ya just the same. And we know how hard it's been on ya. How you are pulled both ways. But son. There ain't but one way that's right. And that's ours. All you got to do to know it Is to remember your Daddy. Didn't Norwood work him to death? Send him to his grave before his time? That's what he done, son. I know somethin' about it. If you go up there to Norwood's house, somewhere, you'll find an old ledger, and in that book is writ down the records of how Norwood cheated your Daddy. Charged him high rates. Took everything. Made him give up all he had from his own hands. From his own mouth. Made you and Liza and your Ma go to bed hungry. Many a night....

I don't want to hurt you, son. But you got to stand with us. We want you to let us have that other set of books. They'll be thrown in the fire and burnt up, too, and the record wiped clean. And we can all make a new start, maybe. Norwood's got aplenty. He's made aplenty out of the sweat of all of us. Give us the books. Will ya do it?

Marvin refused to comply with their demands, and asserted how he hadn't snitched on them or been unfair: "Let me alone, won't ya. I'm not crooked. I'm not spyin' on you. But I'm not goin' to play Mr. Norwood crooked, either. I won't give you the books." The farmers suspected that Marvin's denial was due to his passionate relationship with Madge - with vulgar insinuations: "I know what's in his mind. It's that Norwood girl. He's taggin' around on her coattails, hopin' someday he'll tie up with her."

Speaking for the group, Uncle Joe delivered an ultimatum for Marvin to deliver the second set of books - by the next day at sundown. Otherwise, Marvin was threatened with bodily harm: "You won't be on Norwood's side and you won't be on nobody's side."

Norwood's Cheating by Cooking the Books - the Indirect Cause of Marvin's Father's Death:

Marvin rushed back and studied the books, and realized how his father Tom Blake, who had worked for Norwood for 15 years, was kept perpetually in debt:

  • 1915: "Still due by Blake $1500"
  • 1916: "Due Blake $2600"
  • 1917: "Credit balance due $185 dollars. Interest and carrying charges: $210 dollars. Balance due from Blake."

Marvin confronted Norwood with facts about how his father had been cheated by excessively-high interest rates (30%-40% interest) plus carrying fees. Blake still owed Norwood $25 dollars in 1917 after having a profitable year. Marvin accused Norwood of indirectly being responsible for the death of his father by cooking the books and pocketing any profits Tom might have made:

And the money that might have brought him a little happiness you took away. He's dead. And you've worked him to death.

Norwood defended himself: "It's not all one-sided like that. There's many a thing I did for your father. Things not entered on the book." When he saw that Marvin was in his room and packing up to leave, he rightfully reminded Marvin how he had personally helped his advancement: "I've done a lot for you, haven't I? I saw you had good stuff in you, so I helped you." But Marvin realized that he had made a self-destructive decision to help Norwood: ("You helped me, so I'd help you") - he still threatened to quit and walk away.

Madge (who had been encouraged to help persuade Marvin to stay) interceded and begged for Marvin to remain: ("You wouldn't slide out now....You're not that ungrateful...Hasn't Daddy made you what you are? You'll not go out that door I tell you....You're a fool!"). She was forced to race after him as he stomped away from the house. She urged him to stay - for her sake:

Please wait. Marvin. Please listen to me. You're not goin' off....This is your home now....I won't let you go. What a mess! You've got to stick by Daddy, Marvin. You're like his own son almost. The only help he's got. Please stay. Please. For my sake. I didn't mean to speak hard to you. Honest, I didn't.

She reminded him of their earlier pledged love for each other, mentioned her past unspoken love for him, and vowed that she now openly loved him:

And I'll say now what I wouldn't say then. And what I'll say now is, I love you too, Marvin. I do. And if you love me and want to get somewhere in this world, you'll stick by Daddy. (They kissed)

The DA's Proposal of a 'Show-down' Meeting to Resolve Issues Between the Tenants & Farmers:

The next morning in a Jonesville law office, after apparently not leaving the Norwoods due to Madge's supplications, Marvin met again with the local District Attorney Russell Carter and told him he was being forced to deliver the duplicate set of records by sundown to the tenant-farmers, led by Uncle Joe Wright. He was also facing demands from Norwood for the books. Instead, Carter suggested calling for and organizing a town meeting to settle the issues between the tenants and landlords, to be led by Marvin himself: ("You're the very man to do it!"):

As a citizen, I could call a meetin' of the tenants and the landlords - If you will handle it.

He proposed that Marvin remain in his office for a few days, while he sent out placards to advertise a Court House "Cooperative" Mass Meeting scheduled for Thursday - for a "showdown" between the Planters & Tenants.

The Courthouse Meeting Between Planters and Tenant-Farmers, Led by Marvin to Resolve Issues Between Them:

The objective of the meeting was clearly stated after Carter pounded his gavel on the podium: "The problem before this meetin' is not to fix guilt, but to try to find some way to remedy the unfortunate situation existing between tenant and planter." At the meeting's start, Norwood immediately complained and called for an investigation into the culprits who stole his cotton: "We're here to get at who stole cotton and how much. And what we'll do about it."

Marvin took over the meeting's agenda by summarizing the main problems between the two groups: "Stealin' and murder and burnin' and lynchin'....The planters are against the tenants. The tenants are against the planters. Each side fightin' against the other." Marvin served as a peacemaker between the workers and management, to prevent further deadly confrontations. He explained how each of the two sides provided different but essential functions or roles, and each had legitimate complaints about the other side:

Plantation Owners
Tenant Farmers
"The planters furnish the mules and the land and the feed and the implements. And he carries all the risk of the flood and the drought. And all through hell and high water. I reckon a planter's got a right to charge high interest....We build your tenant houses. Put screens on the doors to keep the flies and typhoid fever away from the children. Give you gardens so they can have balanced food." "Times without number, I've seen 'em out there in the fields. A man, his wife, and poor skinny little boys and girls that oughta be in school...All day long out there in the cotton fields in the hot sun and dust..."
"...Folks talk about buyin' a new car because the old one's a little scratched, where money is spent like water. Four hundred dollars for a jazz band. And that money was sweated out of the blood of my people.... everything belongs to you planters." "Working for what? Nothin'. Nothin' but the long summer. The long winter. And in the end, the grave. When settlin' time comes, they got nothin' left. When advances are paid, and the interest taken out, nothin' for a year's sweat. A man and his whole family...He's had a little old shack down there in the cotton patch to live in. The stores let him have some sowbelly meat, and some compound lard and molasses and corn meal all the year. Some cheap shoes and no-account dress stuff. Charge them four of five prices for it. He's used all his credit and he's in debt."
"We planters take all the risks. Stand for everything. When you're sick, when your crop fails. When you're down and out. Who do you come to for credit, for help? Does John D. Rockefeller help ya? Does Wall Street hear your cries? No, you come whinin' to us planters. We look after your young ones, your grand-daddies and yourselves." "Well, no wonder he gets sore and tries to settle matters some other way. Steal, if necessary. How can you blame him?....You can't forever take from the land and give nothin' back to it. Not if you want to make cotton. You've gotta play fair with the land. You gotta give it fertilizer and work and the plow and attention. A man is made out of the same dirt as the earth is, and he's gotta have attention. You gotta play fair with him. If a planter wants to rob the farmhands, you can't blame the farmhands for wantin' to steal back from him."

Norwood blamed the shiftless, downtrodden lazy farmers for their own problems, refused to take blame for their debts and living conditions, and challenged them to be the first to cooperate:

What do you do? Mess up the house. Spit on the floor. Let your gardens burn up in the sun. I helped you buy a milk cow. So that you could have milk for your children. And you did like Marvin Blake's father. Complained. Saying she didn't give much milk. You wouldn't feed her. Yeah, talk about cooperation. Alright, cooperate then. But don't come bellyachin' and accusin' us planters of every crime known unto high heaven. If you quit lyin' around the front of my store, sleepin' in the sun like a gang of hound dogs, then go to work, straighten up your shoulders, get some manhood in ya. Then, we might talk about cooperatin'.

Marvin proposed a way for the tenants and planters to fix the system and cooperatively agree to a new and fairer contractual, financial arrangement: "Now here's the new term contract, in which the landlord and the tenant agree to work on a cooperative basis. These terms are for a one-year trial." All of the resistant landowners were persuaded and agreed to sign the contract, but Norwood held out - and Madge stood up for him (with pejorative name-calling) and agreed that a new contract was out of the question:

Don't you do it, Daddy. Don't let a Whicker bill white get the best of ya.

[Note: "Whicker bill white" was a term for a poor, rustic white-trash person or servant. In some rural southern areas, it also referred to the "penis foreskin" - a parallel to the other "Peckerwood" (or "peckerhead") slur-label in the film. Whicker bill also seems to have an etymological affinity to the term "hillbilly."]

In fact, both sides had serious grievances - Norwood against the Clinton brothers for burning down his store and stealing cotton, and the Farmers against Norwood for "extortion and fraudulent collection, and mishandlin' the accounts." Marvin vowed to "testify" against Norwood - and put him away in jail just as surely as the Clintons would be tried for their crimes:

Those Clinton boys stole cotton alright. I saw them do it. But you stole their crop, because I helped you do it. You belong in jail as much as those boys do. And if you don't mind, I'll send ya there.

When Norwood threatened to walk out of the meeting, Marvin counter-threatened by pressuring him, through blackmail, that he would expose the facts about the horrific lynching if he didn't sign:

You sign one of these contracts. If you don't, I'll tell. And you know what I'll tell. And you know what the Governor of this State'll do to you and everyone else that followed the bloodhounds that night. There won't be enough money in all the banks to get you out from behind the bars.

Norwood immediately agreed to sign. As the meeting broke up outside, Marvin was congratulated by Uncle Joe, and then indicated that he would be with the virtuous Betty in the future - he promised her: "I'll see you Sunday, Betty." Carter also thanked Marvin for his efforts to create "a new day in this neighborhood," and hinted at a possible partnership with Marvin. Marvin was positioned between Madge (in a convertible) and Betty (in an open buckboard wagon); Madge briefly smiled at Marvin but then looked dejected when he glanced and smiled in Betty's direction.

The film's quick ending appeared to be tacked-on: Marvin redeemed himself after appearing impotent and dumbstruck throughout the entire film, and chose Betty as his girlfriend although most of the most passionate and heated scenes were with Madge, not Betty. The studio's assertion that it hadn't taken sides was questionable. Norwood was undoubtedly the clear villain of the entire film, while the retaliatory responses of the downtrodden tenants (stealing cotton and arson) were easily excusable and justifiable.

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