Swamp Water (1941) – reviewed by George

When I saw this listed on TCM I was excited to get a chance to see it again after many years. I could only remember that it starred Dana Andrews, Jean Peters, and Walter Brennan, and took place in and around the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. So you’ll understand why I was surprised watching the film and seeing no Jean Peters. Instead Anne Baxter was playing Brennan’s daughter.
The film is based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Vereen Bell and has a screenplay by Dudley Nichols. It was the first American film directed by Jean Renoir after leaving France to escape the Nazis. The billing is Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews; and Virginia Gilmore, John Carradine, Mary Howard, Eugene Pallette, Ward Bond, Guinn Williams. The music is by David Buttolph.
“The locale of this story is the Okefenokee Swamp in the state of Georgia. Not so many years ago, its seven hundred miles of marsh and cypress were an unknown wilderness to the people who lived around its edges. They knew that its sluggish waters were filled with alligators, and that its boggy forests harbored the deadly cottonmouth snake. They feared these creatures, but much more they feared the unexplored vastness in which a man might disappear, never to be seen again.”
The community of folks in the story is not just rural, but is really out-of-the-way. Some of the folks raise hogs, some trap animals on the edges of the swamp, others run stores. Ben Ragan (Andrews) traps, and the smart way is not to go, even into the edges of the swamp, without other men with you. Each man has a flatbottom boat and a hunting dog, and they stay close, honoring the tradition of respect for each other’s traps. On one such trip Ben’s dog Trouble sees a deer and jumps from the boat to give chase. Ben yells, but the excitement is too much for the dog and he keeps going. The next day, with Trouble still not having come home, Ben goes back alone and walks into the swamp blowing a horn to call the dog. When the dog bays he keeps on going, winding up at the campfire of Tom Keefer (Brennan), a man long though to be dead after vanishing into the swamp following an accusation of murder.
Tom convinces Ben that he didn’t do it, that the real killers are Tim and Bud Dorson (Bond and Williams), who were the accusers. Ben promises to tell no one that Tom is still alive, and to give Tom’s share of their new joint trapping venture to Tom’s daughter Julie (Baxter).
There are plenty of other story threads to follow: Ben’s dad Thursday Ragan (Huston) has finally remarried a very suitable but younger woman (Howard) following the death of Ben’s mother, and she is afraid to tell Thursday that Jesse Wick (Carradine) comes around and bothers her when Thursday isn’t home. Mabel (Gilmore) has her sights set on Ben, even while Ben is falling for Julie, generally mistreated by the folks in the community.
There are alligators on screen, but no attacks are featured; however, 23 minutes in, Tom gets bitten by a cottonmouth. And the quicksand is another reason never to enter the swamp alone.
Buttolph’s music is good on its own, but he also uses recognizable songs very well. The mournful tones of “The Red River Valley” are used as a recurring theme.
There’s something about the makeup – especially on Andrews – that makes him resemble a silent-movie actor. I think it’s the eye makeup, but judge for yourself.
In the end credits the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is thanked for allowing photography of scenes in the actual swamp, and my best guess would be that these are the scenes of men plying through murky waters with mossy trees in the background.
I really enjoyed this picture, but finished watching still confused about Jean Peters’s absence. I scrounged around on imdb.com, and couldn’t find another movie with that exact title. Then I looked up Jean Peters and found a movie called “Lure of the Wilderness” (1952), which turned out to be a remake of “Swamp Water”, starring Jean, Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Smith, and Walter Brennan (reprising his top-billing role with 4th billing). It was directed by Jean Negulesco. I would review it as well, but Netflix doesn’t have it, and amazon.com has only a VHS tape, for which they want $185 !
Wow! After posting this I went back to amazon to check the price on the VHS to be sure to get it right to the penny, and lo and behold, the VHS is not listed and a $20 DVD is! So maybe I’ll review it after all. Maybe.

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