Tobacco Road was adapted for the screen in 1941 from Erskine Caldwell’s novel of the same name. The story focuses on the Lesters, an extremely impoverished family of sharecroppers in North Georgia. The film falls somewhere between drama and comedy, focusing on dark and serious social issues but spinning most of them comedically through the behavior of the members of the Lester family and their neighbors. The film is set in the Piedmont region of Georgia, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It was originally set to be filmed on location but fear of a controversy caused the location to be changed to closed sets.
The film follows the mishaps of the Lester family, particularly the family patriarch, Jeeter. Jeeter is a sharecropper who is unable to obtain credit to buy seed and work the field. Although his poverty is largely due to matters out of his hands, he does little to help himself and his family, frequently choosing to nap on the front porch instead. Jeeter is told by the banker and Captain Tim, the son of the Lesters’ previous landlord, that he must come up with one hundred dollars by the end of the week or he and his family will be forced from their home. Jeeter makes several attempts to secure the funds, nearly all of them involving thievery, but ultimately is unable to save his home. At the last minute, Jeeter and his wife Ada are saved from the poor farm by a sympathetic Captain Tim, who pays their rent and gives them money for seed to plant a new crop of cotton and hopefully turn a profit. Jeeter is initially excited by this and goes on about his plans for the money and his new crop, but eventually decides to put off any hard work until the following week and returns to his favorite pastime: napping on the porch.
The film brought an uncomfortable awareness of the conditions in the impoverished counties of the South, particularly the towns in and around Appalachia and the southern mountains. Although the film could be considered no more than simply a goofy and even offensive portrayal of Appalachian people, it undeniably brings to light a number of important issues for the people of the region. While not a particularly sensitive or accurate portrayal, Tobacco Road highlights an often overlooked part of the United States and focuses on the often tragic issues faced by its people.