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Driftwood (Allan Dwan, 1947)


The introduction of an orphan and her adopted dog upsets the assumptions of the local folks in Allan Dwan’s wholesome family drama Driftwood. Set in the small town of Panbucket, Nevada, Driftwood features a young Natalie Wood as Jenny, a girl who is orphaned after her grandfather, a reverend, keels over in his remote desert church. After wandering into town (adopting a dog along the way), the foundling Jenny begins to upend conventions with her disarming honesty.  She’s a scripture-quoting wild child, of sorts, with no idea what an airplane or bathtub is, but her entirely precocious manner and complete candor challenges the false manners of the old maids and pompous bureaucrats of Panbucket. Small misunderstandings and mild humor inevitably ensues before the town begins to see Jenny as one of their own.


On one level, between the orphan, the collie and the simple, small-town lovers driven apart by big obligations, Driftwood is a rather square affair. Still, director Allan Dwan is suited for this material. Having had made three films with Shirley Temple by the time he directed Driftwood, he easily coaxes a cute performance out of Wood. The rest of the large cast, peppered with favorite character actors such as Margaret Hamilton and Walter Brennan, is equally well-used. There’s a lot of plot raised and resolved along the way, from a spotted fever scare to a courtroom trial involving the mayor’s bully son to the question of young Jenny’s future, but Dwan manages to shuffle it all along without much fuss. The focus here is on gently satirizing the mores of the small town characters.


“Folks don’t give a darn about how you really feel… that’s civilization,” a prisoner tells Jenny early in the film, but Jenny’s innocence changes that, predictably. Still, despite any formulaic plot contrivances, Driftwood is an eminently likeable film. Visually, it certainly has its moments, which is somewhat surprising given its B-movie status. The opening scenes, set respectively in a dilapidated church and a scorched desert, are particularly evocative. Nonetheless, the film has been designed largely so audiences can focus on its clash of characters, and getting to know them is a pleasure. Of course everything eventually works out, and all wrongs are righted, so by the end of Driftwood little Jenny realizes that the town she’s mistakenly called Sodom and Gomorrah is, in fact, heaven.



Jeremy Heilman