Rutherford County Historian Greg Tucker, the Murfreesboro Post, December 22, 2015
“I’d kiss you but I just washed my hair.”
Spoken with a heavy Hollywood-style southern drawl, this classic putdown spurred the career of a movie starlet who became a Hollywood icon. It was written by Harry Harrison Kroll, a Rutherford County educator, author and former sharecropper.
In the early years of the Depression, Kroll lived at 1107 North Maple Street in Murfreesboro and taught at the State Teachers College. Raised in rural West Tennessee by sharecropper parents, Kroll was mildly handicapped by a childhood bout with polio, and received no formal education before the age of 19. While working the “backtrails” as an itinerant photographer, according to his autobiography, he proposed to a schoolteacher who encouraged him to “get eddicated” as a condition of her “yes.”
Kroll eventually received a Masters degree from Peabody College in Nashville and began a long career as a teacher and writer. According to a recent biography, Kroll is Tennessee’s most published author, with over 900 published stories, including several dozen full-length novels and his autobiography.
In his own account of his early years, “I Was a Share-Cropper,” Kroll places himself among the “poor white trash” who were the southern sharecroppers of the early 20th century. Much of his writing explores the life and struggles of families and personalities in this social class.
Kroll’s best known work, written during his years in Murfreesboro, was “The Cabin in the Cotton.” Published in both bound and paperback editions in 1931, it became a bestseller and was made into a movie. The novel presents a steamy romance set in the conflict between a wealthy Mississippi cotton planter and his impoverished and exploited sharecroppers.
The social context of the novel, the author writes, is the interplay of three groups.
“The white aristocrat (landowner) looking upon the black man with a mixture of racial antipathy and, in proportion to the black’s docility, a gentle, wise paternalism; the poor white viewing the black with the antipathy but not the paternalism; the aristocrat looking at the poor white with mixed tolerance and disgust, mostly disgust; the black looking up at the aristocrat but down upon the poor white; and all of them driving…to skin the land of cotton, more cotton, and still more cotton.”
The cinematic style of the Hollywood version of Kroll’s novel reflects the transition of the film industry from silent films to “talkies” in 1932. The male lead is played by Richard Barthelmess, a noted silent film actor. According to critics, his acting in this “talkie” was notably unimpressive.
The innocent and sympathetic girlfriend, daughter of sharecroppers, is played by Dorothy Jordan, a Clarksville, Tennessee native. A veteran of some 20 films, she had experience opposite name actors including Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore. Bette Davis, then a 23 year old starlet with limited movie experience, portrayed the wickedly sexy and seductive daughter of the landowner.
In an interview late in her career, Davis noted that her favorite line in all of her career was in “The Cabin in the Cotton,” delivered in a Hollywood-style southern drawl: “Ah’d love t’kiss ya, but ah jes washed ma hayuh.” This was her breakthrough part, a “premiere performance” as a “bewitching, dangerous vamp.” Remembering this early role, Davis observed, “My part called for me to exude a raging sexuality.”
Davis’ “raging sexuality” in the movie was actually toned down from that of the novel, and even the novel is mild by today’s cinema standards.
Soon after release of “The Cabin” Davis signed on with Warner Brothers and by 1942 was the highest paid woman in America. Her career included two Oscars and ten Academy nominations with a career total of more than 100 films.
“I remember the transition to the talkies,” says Murfreesboro native Mark Womack, “and I remember the premiere of ‘The Cabin in the Cotton’ at the Princess Theater. I was there and Kroll was introduced from the stage. He and his wife were friends of my parents and I visited in their home. He taught English at what is now MTSU.” The premiere was headlined “Elaborate Program Honors Local Author with Showing of His Story, ‘Cabin in the Cotton,’ at Princess” in the Rutherford Courier’s Nov. 10, 1932 edition.
According to “A History of Rutherford County” by Carlton C. Sims, the movie version of “The Cabin in the Cotton” was the first American film to be shown in Soviet Russia.
Later in his career, Kroll transferred to the University of Tennessee at Martin where he continued to write and teach until his death in 1967.
A special thanks to Havan Tucker, Lacey Wakid and the Woman’s Club Library for research assistance.
Rutherford County Historian Greg Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.