Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bright Leaf

Bright Leaf (1950)
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Loosely based on the rivalry of tobacco tycoons Washington Duke and George McElwee, Bright Leaf follows tenant farmer Brant Royle, who returns home after his family is driven from its farm by tobacco baron Major Singleton and becomes a rich and ruthless tyrant himself. Royle and Singleton battle for their respective empires while Royle becomes obsessed with the Major's beautiful but devious daughter, Margaret. In the process he betrays Sonia, a business partner who loves him. The film, one of many epic melodramas produced by Hollywood at the time, was widely forgotten after its first theatrical release in 1950. Bright Leaf gained new attention in 2003, when it played prominently in the documentary Bright Leaves by filmmaker Ross McElwee, a descendant of the man whose life was reflected in both the novel and film. See clips at Turner Classic Movies.

Bright Leaf, Foster Fitz-Simons (1948)
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Hopefully, the book is better than the movie, which is two-hours long and overly so by at least half. Somewhat redeeming features are shots of tobacco fields, a tobacco slide being pulled by a mule, tobacco being auctioned at the turn of the twentieth century, and actual footage of an early cigarette manufacturing machine.

Bright Leaves (2003)
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McElwee family legend has it that the Hollywood melodrama "Bright Leaf" starring Gary Cooper as a 19th century tobacco grower, is based on filmmaker Ross McElwee's great-grandfather, who created the Bull Durham brand. Using this legacy as a jumping off point, McElwee reaches back to his roots in this wry, witty rumination on American History, the tobacco business, and the myth of cinema.

"Many try to imitate but none can duplicate the documentary poetry of Ross McElwee, whose thoughtful, personal projects have always been grounded in autobiography. Bright Leaves is McElwee at his simultaneous deepest and lightest, digging at his family's roots on North Carolina's tobacco industry, and harvesting a rich (and sometimes richly funny) film about personal choices , about generational legacy- and also (always his signature) about his love of movies and his devotion to the craft of making them, a commitment he honors with the care he shows each person who faces his camera lens. This is mature, reverberating work from a homegrown, bighearted, quintessentially American documentarian" (Entertainment Weekly).

Part mystery, part ethical inquiry, and part home movie, this brilliant and frequently hilarious documentary explores the cruel twist of fate that has led some to make their fortunes from tobacco, and others to die from it. McElwee returns home to the tobacco farming country of North Carolina to investigate a bit of family lore: that his great-grandfather, who developed the formula for Bull Durham tobacco, might have become very rich had James “Buck” Duke not stolen the formula from him - a saga that may have been the basis for Michael Curtiz’s Bright Leaf, a 1950 Gary Cooper melodrama. - Museum of Modern Art

"To describe Ross McElwee's documentary film Bright Leaves as a study of the tobacco industry in his native state of North Carolina would be a little like calling a Virginia Woolf novel a manual of etiquette. By the end of this reflective, wise, often hilarious movie, you feel as though he has slapped a huge chunk of raw, palpitating life onto the screen. Birth, death, illness, family and social history, childhood and old age, moviemaking, geography and commerce are among the topics Mr. McElwee weaves into a dense but surprisingly orderly bundle of information, memory and conjecture. Bright Leaves leaves you feeling invigorated by the boundless curiosity, humor and high spirits of its creator." -Stephen Holden, The New York Times


Internet Movie Database

Ross McElwee Website

Turner Classic Movies



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