A vague history of the tobacco industry is crammed between an uninteresting love triangle and a much better tale of obsession in 1950's Bright Leaf, starring Gary Cooper. In Bright Leaf Cooper's relationship with Donald Crisp ignites many more sparks than does his affairs with either Lauren Bacall's madame or Patricia Neal's socialite, who happens to be the Crisp character's daughter.
First the bad. The romances are flat. Cooper's Brant Royle knows Bacall's Sonia Kovac from way back as the "best little cigarette girl" he'd ever seen from the old days in his family's cigarette shack. But when Brant arrives back in Kingsmont, years after Major Singleton (Crisp) had crushed the Royles and driven him and his father out of town, it's not Sonia who he seeks out, it's Singleton's daughter, Margaret, played by Cooper's real life flame, Patricia Neal. Brant hates Singleton for waging war on his family's small tobacco farm and driving the Royles away, but there's an envy in that hatred that makes a trophy of Margaret.
While Margaret is cold towards Brant, Sonia just about jumps out of her clothes to have a message delivered inviting him over. Sonia presides over a house of ill-fame with Rose, a totally wasted Gladys George, where she introduces each of the girls as a cousin.
Sonia wants Brant, Brant wants Margaret, Margaret plays coy and so Brant plays with Sonia to pass the time.
Bacall's Sonia is the most likable of this trio, but that isn't saying much.
Before we come to Brant's relationship with the Major it's time to talk about the most interesting part of Bright Leaf: the history, not always in the film, but behind it.
The cigar dominated the cigarette entering the last half of the 19th century. Despite tobacco use moving from commonplace to reviled from then to now we still associate the cigar with prestige. Being a classic movie fan the image is continually hammered home by big business men smoking cigars and working class chain-smoking cigarettes.
Chewing tobacco was the rage across the United States in mid-19th century. According to the Tobacco Timeline at tobacco.org only 6 of 348 Virginia and North Carolina tobacco factories even manufactured smoking tobacco in 1860. That same source remarks that many period writers would credit Allen & Ginter's cigarette displays at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial as the birth of the cigarette.
In Bright Leaf, the Major frowns upon cigarettes, stating "I deal in cigars, sir, nothing less." Major Singleton controls tobacco in Kingsmont, his Singleton Tobacco business even named on the sign welcoming strangers to town. It's this resistance that causes Singleton to dismiss visiting inventor John Barton (Jeff Corey) without a second thought when Barton comes trying to peddle Singleton his cigarette making machine.
In the mid-1870's Allen & Ginter offered a reward of $75,000 for a cigarette rolling machine. Until one came along cigarettes had an insurmountable growing pain. Hand rolling not only cut profits, it held back productivity as even a skilled hand roller could only turn out just 4 cigarettes per minute.
In 1880 21-year-old James Allen Bonsack received a patent for his cigarette rolling machine, which was installed and rejected as faulty by Allen & Ginter and other cigarette manufacturers. James Buchanan "Buck" Duke took a chance on the Bonsack machine and leased two of the machines in 1884. After some tinkering by Duke's and Bonsack's mechanics the machine was perfected and cigarette production soared to 200 cigarettes per minute! With demand met and an overflow of product creating new demand consumption skyrocketed. Duke slashed prices to kill competition and took over the tobacco industry.
Gary Cooper's character has $40 in his pocket when Bonsack, er, John Barton approaches him. Barton had watched Royle stand up to Singleton and thought he might be just the guy to put his cigarette rolling machine over.
Royle rushes Barton over to Sonia's place, seats him amongst the girls while he tries to put his charm over on his old friend. Sonia's sharp and sees pretty fast that Royle wants something. Since she's hit it somewhat big since he'd left town she knows it's money he's after, not her. She turns him down flat and then coincidence brings along a bit of a hub bub as the townsfolk brandish the proverbial pitchforks against traveling medicine show man Dr. Monaco (Jack Carson). The Doctor's chased towards Sonia's place where a brawl erupts on the front stoop that culminates with Royle and the Doctor back to back fending off the angry locals.
Sonia bails Royle out of jail in the next scene and Royle pushes his luck to get her to pay Barton and Monaco's way out of stir as well. Try as she might Sonia can't resist Royle and though she says the arrangement is to stay strictly business she is willing to fund the cigarette rolling machine. Dr. Monaco, or actually Chris Malley when he's not hustling locals, is invited into the business because he charmed Royle through the night and came up with a fantastic slogan about Royle Cigarettes being fit for a King (Royle, get it?).
Soon after the Bonsack machine sputters, churns and begins spitting out rolled cigarettes, putting our four friends in business together.
In history Buck Duke takes control of his four largest competitors and absorbs them into the new American Tobacco Company in 1890. Duke is President of the firm, of course. The A.T.C. monopoly owns the cigarette market, absorbing smaller competitors over the years until the government broke them up through Anti-Trust action in 1911.
But business dominance isn't Brant Royle's main motivation, or if it is it's only as a means to an end. The tobacco wars play themselves out in Bright Leaf through the fictional relationship between up and coming Royle and Major Singleton, the old tobacco establishment himself.
See, Bright Leaf opens with Coop riding into town on horseback, teasing us into thinking this might be a Western, but he's actually returning from the city to claim his late uncle's cigarette factory. Singleton's grip on the local industry has rendered his inheritance all but worthless, though after hearing about Royle's run-in with his daughter Singleton does offer Royle a fair buy-out price just to try and get rid of him. Royle's incensed because the ruthless Singleton had previously driven his father out of business, out of town and into his grave. He has no price.
Once Barton's machine starts working and the Royle Tobacco Co. is in business, Brant Royle concentrates his obsession on crushing Major Singleton.
Saturday in Kingsmont is Public Auction Day, when all the tobacco manufacturers come to bid on fresh bright leaf tobacco. They're cigar men, like Singleton, with business costs far surpassing that of Royle's new mechanized operation. The action we're privy to seeing finds Royle winning every lot at 15¢ per pound. Singleton arrives with hopes of exerting himself and opens the bidding at an unheard 25¢/lb. Royle bids him up and lets him have it at 35¢/lb. While Singleton manages to make a brief point and win the cheers of his cigar cronies, it's obviously not a price that he can keep paying.
Royle heads out and spots Singleton's daughter in her carriage. He tells her he's driving prices up today in an effort to make cigarette tobacco worthless tomorrow, but cigar tobacco will retain value and so his competitors will still have to pay.
Margaret Singleton seems mildly excited by all this, though as much as we're exposed to Margaret our verdict is that she's a spoiled and bored rich girl looking for excitement. Time and again it's boredom that gets Margaret into trouble and that trouble is typically made by teasing Brant and then rubbing the interaction in her father's face. When she finally makes a date with Royle it's at a time her father and the other big tobacco men are around to receive him. Royle storms off and meets Margaret outside of Singleton House. She warns him not to harm her father, but Royle's desire for Margaret won't stop his seeking vengeance.
In fact, Royle's desire for Margaret is just part of his game, but the character never realizes that for himself.
Bright Leaf soon follows history with Royle gaining tremendous wealth and absorbing his competitors into a growing monopoly. All but Singleton. The large picture window of his huge offices overlooks Singleton House so he can keep his eyes on the prize. The once dirt poor boy has always wanted a big mansion like Singleton House. The more successful Royle becomes the more obsessed he becomes with gaining more power. He begins to casting off those who were along for the ride from the start. He's dismissive of Barton in the same insulting manner that Singleton was at the beginning of Bright Leaf. Chris is the hold-out, but finally the Jack Carson character tells Royle that he's "a man with a sickness."
It's inevitable that Royle will soon eclipse Singleton but as the scenes between Gary Cooper and Donald Crisp are some of the best of Bright Leaf I won't spoil them for you here. Suffice it to say that Royle not only wants Singleton's business, he wants his daughter in the bargain and no man is going to take kindly to that. Royle slowly invades Singleton's space, a telling scene coming when Singleton comes upon his sister, Tabby (Elizabeth Patterson), smoking Royle's and she pleads his forgiveness but he exits sternly without a word.
Crisp's Singleton is an old-fashioned man whose life is based on pride and honor, what Royle refers to as a "Gentleman's Code." As Royle plays outside that code he pushes Singleton hard, too hard in the end.
Sadly the women aren't much in Bright Leaf. Lauren Bacall's Sonia comes off as too needy and by the time she stands up for herself we don't really care much anymore. Patricia Neal's Margaret may be the most repugnant and certainly most vindictive character of the bunch, but overall the movie suffers from the plodding triangle. Bright Leaf would have been far more interesting had they taken the women out, concentrated on business and business relationships, even if the Royle-Singleton relationship remained very personal.
Jeff Corey is fun as Barton for awhile and then the real stars just sort of eclipse him and he's trotted away out of sight. Jack Carson is great as always leaving me wishing for more Jack Carson while suffering through some of the other characters inefficiencies. Gladys George is totally wasted, she wouldn't bring a mention if she wasn't Gladys George. Elizabeth Patterson's Tabby has that one great scene pleading Crisp's forgiveness, but then she's relegated to the background.
If it wasn't obvious to this point, for me Bright Leaf revolves around the Gary Cooper and Donald Crisp characters.
Crisp doesn't do more or less than he usually does, the only difference being a slightly awkward accent from the American South. Cooper is less likable than I can ever recall him and I loved it! The problem with Cooper being a total jerk in Bright Leaf is that we're left disliking Patricia Neal's character even more. If your star is going to be a swine, then he should be the dirtiest pig in the pen, no? Even the Crisp character who Cooper's Royle battles with isn't given very many likable moments.
The characters are all very human and the story seems very real, but this doesn't leave viewers with a whole lot to cheer for. Except Jack Carson.
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From Warner Brothers, Bright Leaf was adapted for the screen from the novel by Foster Fitz-Simmons. Director, Michael Curtiz. 110 minutes. Bright Leaf is available as a DVD-R release as part of the Warner Archives Collection.