Bright Leaves

Laura Clifford 
Bright Leaves
Bright Leaves
Robin Clifford 
A dream about prehistoric plants is interpreted by documentarian Ross McElwee's ("Sherman's March") wife as a desire to return to his Southern home.  McElwee leaves Boston for North Carolina where he visits a movie mad cousin, John, and makes a startling discovery - an obscure 1950 Michael Curtiz film, "Bright Leaf" starring Gary Cooper, seems to chart the life of his great-grandfather, who created Bull Durham tobacco but lost everything to the rival Duke family.  McElwee's exploratory film takes a personal look at the historical, financial and psychological aspects of having roots in the deadly "Bright Leaves."


Echoing several of his past personal profiles, McElwee's new film measures guilt and desire in light of the tobacco industry.  Accompanied once again by former high school teacher, the effervescent Charleen, McElwee ruminates on what it would have been like to have the fortune of the Duke family.  Clearly, the filmmaker is angered that his grandfather's rival purportedly stole his tobacco blend, and the Dukes's 52 room mansion is contrasted with the parking lot that used to house his grandfather's own.  McElwee tries to feel pride in McElwee Park, sitting on one of its two benches expectantly, but clearly few people even know of its existence.

But death hovers over this missed heritage and the filmmaker takes pride in the irony that his great-grandfather begat three generations of doctors, even if the first died of cancer from smoking.  McElwee contemplates his own choice of career and then melds all three subjects by taking his own 12-year old son to act as sound man to interview a cancer patient being cared for by a doctor friend.  He finds a woman who sees no connection between her own tobacco farming and the death of her mother from cancer and charts the unsuccessful attempts of a couple of friends to quit smoking.

But filmmaking is McElwee's addiction and as he meanders around his interconnected subject threads he throws in small moments that are included only because something in them delighted him - a small bit of his son on a beach, an outtake where a dog ruins a bit of his onscreen narration.  Oddly, these detours never seem self-indulgent, just the flights of fancy of a creative intellect.  Kismet crosses his path with that of former Harvard Film Archive curator, filmmaker Vlada Petric, who deconstructs "Bright Leaf" while exposing the mechanics of McElwee's own document.  Another bit of good fortune finds "Bright Leaf" costar Patricia Neal at a local film festival - she agrees to speak to the director but offers little but the confirmation that Gary Cooper was the love of her life, dismissing McElwee's theory that the behavior of actors can be a documentary within a Hollywood film (McElwee has previously given a shot by shot analysis of how Neal raises, then withdraws her hand from Cooper during an embrace).

The very vibrant ninety-plus widow of "Bright Leaf" author Foster FitzSimons assures McElwee that the story could not have been based on his grandfather, but the idea has already taken too strong a hold.  McElwee needs to find his own history not in cigarettes, but on the silver screen.


Documentary filmmaker of the personal kind, Ross McElwee, rambled through history and a bevy of southern belles in his 1986 missive, “Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.” The filmmaker heads down south once again to investigate the possible sabotage of his great grandfather’s tobacco business by the man who became the American Tobacco Company in “Bright Leaves.”

McElwee has learned a great deal about personal documentary filmmaking since his long winded Sherman’s March,” continuing his private perspective as he strives to learn the truth about his family’s history. Things get rolling, so to speak, when the documaker comes across a 1950 Hollywood mellower called “Bright Leaf,” starring Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall and Patricia Neal, about rival tobacco growers in post-Civil War North Carolina.

McElwee, on the belief that the film is about his great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, ruined by his business rival, James Buchanan Duke (of Duke University fame), journeys south of the Mason Dixon once again. While in the heart of tobacco lands he discovers that the Dukes may well have ruined the McElwee family’s tobacco fortunes by stealing their Durham Bull” tobacco formula and repackaging it under the Duke banner, the famous “Bull Durham” tobacco.

This travesty to the family is tempered as the documentarian tells of the generation of McElwee doctors spawned because of the loss of the family business, showing that the rivalry, in the long run, was beneficial to the McElwee clan and to society. Ross McElwee, freed of the Duke demon, turns his camera to the horrors caused by smoking, and the impact of the changing times on the local towns in the heart of the tobacco belt. “Bright Leaves” mixes social conscience with personal journey in an even balance.

I give it a B-.

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