We all know the reputation the state of Arkansas has across the country. We hear the occasional joke from our Northern friends about being barefoot or having dated our cousins. Most people know that our state has modernized, but outsiders still see us as a little behind the times.  But as any Arkansan who was alive during the “The Beverly Hillbillies” (1962-1971) era can tell you, things used to be much worse.  As late as 1954, the influential American Mercury published an article titled, “What’s Wrong with Arkansas?”  It  stated that Arkansas had stood for “watermelons, the unshaven Arkie, the moonshiner, slow trains, malnutrition and mental debility, hookworms, hogs, the big fat lie, shoelessness, illiteracy, windy politicians and hillbillies and paddlefeet who cannot seem to pronounce correctly the name of their native state.”[1]

The 1944 movie “I’m From Arkansas” serves as a visual time capsule of the national perception of the state before the 1950s. Directed by Lew Landers, “I’m From Arkansas” was the culmination of Hollywood’s hillbilly-themed comedies that were aimed at making a quick box office buck.  Between the mid-1930s and the end of WWII, Hollywood produced around two dozen films that both romanticized and lampooned Arkansas/the Ozarks.  Lampooning was the primary approach. 1938’s “Swing Your Lady” and “Down in Arkansaw,” 1940’s “Scatterbrain,”1941’s “Arkansas Judge” and “Puddin’ Head,” and 1942’s “Joan of Ozark” all featured the state and its backward residents.  “I’m From Arkansas” might be the most chaffing to Arkansans.  The film is set in Pitchfork, Arkansas (which surprisingly does not exist) where a pig named Esmerelda, after receiving super-fertility from a natural spring, gives birth to eighteen piglets. Apparently that is a lot of piglets. The birthing becomes national news and a variety of characters flock to the town to take advantage. Marcy Klauber, who was educated at Columbia’s School of Journalism and the National Academy of Music in Budapest, and Joseph Carole, who wrote “Babies for Sale” among others, created the screenplay for the low-budget PRC and Madison Pictures.

 

“I’m From Arkansas” stars Slim Summerville, El Brendel, Iris Adrian, and Arkansas’ own Carolina Cotton, the “Yodeling Blonde Bombshell.”  The film is primarily a musical variety mixed with comedic relief (imagine an early “Hee Haw”) that is filled with early country-western music. Summerville, a talented and underrated actor who starred in “All Quiet on the Western Front” and John Ford’s “Tobacco Road,” plays Juniper Jenkins, the standard slow and lazy, yet clever hillbilly made popular by “The Arkansas Traveler.” El Brendel uses a Swedish accent for his character Oly, something he did in several movies even though he is not Swedish. Most of the other characters are caricatures that we all know from any Southern comedy, from “Green Acres” to the “Lil’ Abner” comic strip.

In one memorably condescending scene, Esmerelda the pig disappears and the townsfolk attempt to call her back. Take a look:

The most important artistic contribution of the film is the multitude of well-known actors/musicians who make an appearance as minor characters before their careers took off. Jimmy Wakely, born in Mineola, AR, appears in the film as himself. Wakely grew to “B” level fame in the style of Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers, a singing cowboy with a hillbilly twist. Walter Baldwin, who was the first actor to play Floyd the Barber in one episode “The Andy Griffith Show,” makes an appearance as an attorney. Arthur Q. Bryan, famous for being the voice of Elmer Fudd, is the Commissioner of Agriculture. John Hamilton, better known as Perry White from the 1950s TV show “Adventures of Superman,” plays a meat packing executive. Merle Travis can be seen picking in the background band. Travis, who wrote “Sixteen Tons,” is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the finger picking style “Travis picking” is named after him. Mary Ford, the wife and writing partner of Les Paul, is a member of the film’s Sunshine Girls Trio. Ford and Paul had a series of #1 hits during the early 1950s.

You can watch the entirety of “I’m From Arkansas” here.

Viewed 65 years later, “I’m From Arkansas” seems campy and innocent, a harmless relic from a simple time. And perhaps it is. But one can only wonder what effect the film had on the public perception of the state and how Arkansans of 1944 viewed the picture. Arkansans of 2010 saw the release of another picture set in the Ozarks, “Winter’s Bone.” Unlike “I’m From Arkansas,” “Winter’s Bone” is a dramatic motion picture that has been nominated for the Academy’s Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay with Best Leading Actress and Best Supporting Actor nominees. “Winter’s Bone” has been praised for its honest depiction of the present-day, rural society of the Ozarks. In the film, seventeen year old Ree Dolly is forced to find her deadbeat meth-cooking father in order to keep their home from being seized by the county. The characters of “Winter’s Bone” are poor, desperate, afraid, and often drug addicted. Their society is tight knit, backward, and dangerous. Roger Moore from the Orlando Sentinel said the film has a “ring of unvarnished truth.” Ty Burr of the Boston Globe stated that the “gritty, desperate Ozarks milieu of ‘Winter’s Bone’ feels so real, so right.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called it a “brutally honest movie.”

“Winter’s Bone” is a good movie that deserves all of its critical acclaim. Besides the merit of its story-telling, acting, and cinematography, the film adequately portrays an Ozarks sub-culture that any resident of this part of the country can identify. But we also know that the film is fiction and that its setting and characters do not represent Ozark society as most of us know it. The “clannish Ozark hill folk” that David Edelstein of New York Magazine identifies in his review of “Winter’s Bone” are undoubtedly a minority of our population.

An Arkansas Tradition: teaching young children how to fire a rifle.

Since its inception, Arkansas has been known as the backwoods filled with dubious characters. In 1854, London’s Foreign Quarterly Review reported that the state is, “precisely the spot to draw out in full the national genius for gouging, stabbing, and shooting, elsewhere more or less restrained by the presence of a larger population.”[2] The popular arts have only propagated the image, shaping the way the nation understands our state. Where perception and reality differ is up for debate.


[1] Eugene Newson, “What’s Wrong with Arkansas?” American Mercury (May, 1954), 41.

[2] John Murray, “Domestic Life in the Slave States,” Foreign Quarterly Review (London: Chapman and Hall, 1845), 118.