This second filming of Vereen Bell’s novel Swamp Water has some radical changes compared to the far superior 1941 [M] Jean Renoir version, and while the 1952 effort does stand on its own, Lure of the Wilderness has one big blunder in Louis Lantz’ overhaul (which we’ll get into shortly).
The core story of trapper Ben Tyler (baby-faced Jeffrey Hunter) who encounters escaped murderer Jim Harper (Walter Brennan, literally reprising his 1941 role) living in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia is still there; Lantz either stuck with the same scenes and dialogue from the novel, or pasted material from Dudley Nichols’ ‘41 script where changes weren’t necessary. Like Renoir, director Jean Negulesco also made excellent use of real swamp locations, using his painter’s eye to extract some lovely compositions, but there are weird moments when the shots feel identical, as do the sets (as though the art department copied them from the ’41 film, or repurposed extant sets and décor from the warehouse).
Lantz also retained Ben’s rival loves – his fiancée / queen bitch Noreen McGowan (Irish import and ephemeral Hollywood starlet Constance Smith), and wild-child Laurie (beautifully lit Jean Peters) – but it was decided to beef up the film’s romance and turn Laurie into a character of equal footing, so when Ben first wanders into the swamp in search of his dog Careless (rebranded from the old name Trouble), he doesn’t just encounter Ben, but tag-teamer Laurie, who’s been living all feral-like for 6 years with her pop.
In the ’41 version, Laurie was a wild child and ward of the town’s general store owner, whereas in the new version she’s essentially Ben’s weathered and untrusting half, or his malevolent Id. Lantz basically splintered and reconfigured Ben into 2 characters: a tired man hungry to return to civilization, sitting on the porch smoking cigars; and in a recombined Laurie, now a leggy swamp huntress, wielding a bow & arrow like a Sheena knock-off, berating her pop for even considering the very idea of leaving their wet & wonderful paradise. More interesting, while both have been living off the land, Ben’s been able to keep his beard trim without the aide of a mirror and razor, and clean-skinned Laurie looks really hot in her 1952 ponytail and tanned pelt miniskirt. Bug bites? Pshaw! She’s immune!
By having Laurie with her father, Ben naturally spends more time in the swamp, and Lantz sets up two hunting montages in which boy and girl compete, laugh, and slowly develop an attraction – a variant on the courting that half-hazardly occurred in town in the prior version. The downside is Ben’s fiancée Noreen has just the bare minimum scenes compared to the ’41 film, and his father Ned even less.
The slimming down of Ned’s role also yielded a major casualty from the original story: his younger, second wife Hannah is gone, as are the scenes where family arguments established the awkward relationship between father and son.
By dumping Ben’s stepmom, Lantz also had no reason to retain her stalking ex-beau Jesse, who played the guitar (which Jim now does, via banjo) and more importantly, was the key witness who could implicate the real murderers and allow Jim to return home a free man. Without Jesse, screenwriter Lantz was forced to play with the facts of Ben’s past, and make him a murderer who just wants a second attempt at a fair trial, which isn’t a reason for him to return to civilization when a) he’s a convicted killer; and b) there’s no one to help clear his name.
Lantz’ solution? Jim admits to killing a man in his first scene with Ben, but the two men who were the prosecution’s witnesses in the trial were secretly responsible for a second murder (some unnamed guy) which they pegged to Jim; Lantz never provides additional details to the how’s, the why’s, etc.
In Lantz’ scriptorial redux, Ben and Jim’s income from swamp trapping isn’t to help Laurie begin her adult life with a small trust fund, but to get a high-priced lawyer (whom we never see) willing to defend Jim in a second trial that is miraculously set to occur by the film’s end. The film’s short running time suggests there may have been extra scenes to explain how this all comes into motion, but Lure was edited for pacing rather than logic, and it gets worse.
The key reason Lantz has Jim deciding to leave the safety of the swamp is presumably so his daughter can live with normal townspeople, which ought to go swimmingly, since her 6 years in the wetlands didn’t hinder her grasp of standard English syntax, weaken her sublime personal hygiene, fracture basic social etiquette, and affect her natural skill in picking up the rules of a waltz on the fly (something she couldn’t do in the ’41 film due to her two left feet).
When Ben, Jim, and Laurie row back to town with their prisoner in the finale, they’re greeted silently by an approving town – a complete about-face from the mob who a few scenes earlier were comfortable watching Ben getting dunked until he coughed up Jim’s location in the swamp. It’s a neat wrap-up that frankly makes no sense, but exists to give audiences closure.
In addition to a loss of plot logic, a lot of secondary and tertiary characters are knocked down to singular or a handful of scenes. The sheriff does pretty much nothing; the general store owner’s now Irish, and although his daughter bears the family brogue, actress Constance Smith loses it most of the time because she can’t grapple with a Georgian accent filtered through her natural Irish gauze. The baby cat Laurie possessed in the ’41 has been replaced with a raccoon that Noreen’s dad allows to forage freely in the store’s rice / flour / nut displays (with pee stains and poopy peppercorns no one seems to mind ingesting), and Noreen’s bitch factor’s been dialed down to a 5.0: instead of gleefully watching her ex-fiancee nearly drown, she’s quickly overcome by guilt and brings Ben’s father to the water’s edge to rescue his son from the two goons (played by Harry Carter and a wiry Jack Elam).
Lure proves Technicolor and a younger, prettier love triangle don’t necessarily improve upon a prior B&W classic. Lantz, however, did fix one awkward transition in the ’41 version: where the story jumped from Ben, trapped in the swamp with Jim, to Ben suddenly arriving home with no buffer for the time jump (nor any explanation on how he got out), Lantz shows Ben trapping with Jim and Laurie before he’s shown the way out of the swamp. That part works swell.
In addition to Edward Cronjager’s cinematography, Franz Waxman adds some great mood music to the swamp scenes, and the score manages to soften the ridiculousness of Ben, Jim, and Laurie (aka Sheena, Siren of the Swamp) as they encounter a crazy animal menagerie of crocs, a bear, cottonmouth snakes, wild boar, fowl, and a feral bull!
Lantz’ handful of credits include Rogue River (1951), Shark River (1953), and River of No Return (1954) – note the common theme? – whereas director Negulesco would eventually settle into a cozy role directing films involving the misadventures and romances of three women in the following variants: How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), The Best of Everything (1959), and The Pleasure Seekers (1964). Perhaps stories of two or four women were simply dramatically flat, or sexually obscene.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan