Ruby Gentry Misses the Mark, to Say the Least.
By Kristin Battestella
I like Charlton Heston and I like Karl Malden, and thus I was willing to hold my less than love for Jennifer Jones in check for the 1952 southern melodrama Ruby Gentry. Unfortunately, the clichés and bad acting make this one a not so enjoyable hot mess.
Dr. Jim Gentry’s (Malden) invalid wife Letitia (Josephine Hutchinson) dies and he quickly marries the poor, socially unacceptable Ruby (Jones). Of course, Ruby is in love with Boake (Heston), of the once high and mighty Tackman family. Unfortunately, his family disapproves of Ruby and he must marry rich to save their plantation. Once fate has given Ruby the means to have her cruel way with the townsfolk who previously despised her, however, then not even Boake can stand in her way.
Ruby Gentry starts off on the wrong foot with unnecessary narration, a whole lot of telling instead of showing, and flashbacks that suggest the story told before the movie begins is the one we want to see. These tools and all the repeat dialogue reiterating the social divides and back story seriously slow down the 80 minutes here and confuse the current events. What is the point of this tale and where is it headed? Director King Vidor (The Champ, War and Peace) takes too long to introduce the players and the budding love triangles, yet Ruby Gentry never fully clarifies its outlandish circumstances and incoherent plot. Is this film about Ruby and Boake, Ruby and Jim, or Ruby’s bitchy takeover and lame revenge? As soon as the audience remotely cares about a situation, Ruby Gentry haphazardly moves on to the next soap operatic element. With Jennifer Jones at its fulcrum, Ruby Gentry patterns itself exactly like Vidor and Jones’ Duel in the Sun, right up to its ridiculously similar finale. Personally, I would have much rather seen a film solely about Boake and Jim with an absentee Ruby haunting their antagonism. It doesn’t seem like there would be a lot there, but it has to be better then the feigned tawdry or would be classic comeuppance here.
Prior to his Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments fame and glory, Charlton Heston was very young, almost too young in Ruby Gentry. Though not grown up in appearance or southern dictation, Boake is still dangerous to encounter on a dark, swampy night. He’s jonesing for Ruby, but it’s too creepy instead of romantic or scandalous. Chuck Heston knocking on your backwoods bedroom door late at night – it’s played too stalker for the viewer to enjoy this increasingly ridiculous would be couple. We know this relationship won’t end well thanks to this headstrong, cat scratching violence, and the turbulence grows stupid fast. Boake is smart to not marry the titular crazy. However, after they’ve apparently been getting it on, Ruby Gentry somehow switches to a rapacious buildup before sending the duo hunting together where somebody else shoots at them. I just don’t see the hair brained character motivations here.
Likewise, the young Karl Malden (I Confess, Streets of San Francisco, On the Waterfront) doesn’t have much to do and what Jim Gentry does have is all over the place. The good doctor seems a step above this backwater crowd, yet there’s an amoral touch in his marrying Ruby while his first wife lies barely cold. Unfortunately, the bizarre narration takes over most of Malden’s action, allowing no room for character development, and ultimately, a barely there presence in the movie. Jim Gentry is hardly seen even liking Ruby, yet he just has to have her so badly. Why? Likewise, Barney Phillips (12 O’clock High) as fellow doctor and narrator Manfred is fairly pointless, and Ruby’s creepy guitar playing relation James Anderson (To Kill a Mockingbird) is too dirty and touchy feely. Ironically, Josephine Hutchinson’s (Son of Frankenstein) first Mrs. Gentry is the nicest, classiest character – but she is done away with far too quickly in Ruby Gentry.
I admit to not being a fan of Jennifer Jones (The Song of Bernadette, Love is a Many Splendored Thing). Film after film, I see her woefully miscast against better leading men, and her Ruby looks and sounds totally out of place against Malden and Heston. Granted, that may have been intentional here. However, her southern accent and immature ways are stereotypical, even offensive. The performance feels very inappropriate, indeed, as if Jones is mocking slow persons and insulting southerners. How old is Ruby supposed to be? To see her knowingly or unknowingly lead men on isn’t alluring in any way. It’s uncomfortable to watch these backwater men drooling and even feeling up what appears to be a special needs minor. Unfortunately, this aspect fills the majority of Ruby Gentry, and those who were able to get past the Duel in the Sun parallels might be put off by this element. A more skilled actress could have brought more conflict, sympathy, or even an Oscar worthy performance, but as Ruby grows in her cruelty, Jones becomes more annoying. What exactly is the audience supposed to like about Ruby? Temptation incarnate and wild or sexy my foot!
Though fitting to the film, the looks old and invoked poor production really feels too backwoods dusty for the audience to enjoy. The southern locales and wildlife scenery are charming, yes, but Ruby Gentry isn’t a colorful, sprawling epic looking the part of the torrid swamp. Cool cars and too little too late upscale dressings and typical fifties finery can’t save the cliché melodrama. The instrumental guitar chords, sweeping music, and onscreen ballads are also misused thanks to some seriously over the top soap opera crescendo cues. I must say, this exaggerated fail doesn’t even qualify Ruby Gentry for my beloved Hokey Heston category, for it’s neither corny enough nor badly bemusing to enjoy. Once I realized the level of negativity in my composition, I almost didn’t want to finish this review – that’s never happened before!
If you like bad fifties films or need an example of run of the mill mid century melodrama, this is it. Even bad old horror movies can be a lot of fun, but after watching Ruby Gentry again, I seriously wonder why this near pointless excursion was even attempted. Fans of the cast will especially cringe.