30 Years of Coens: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Homer meets Preston Sturges meets bluegrass

Touchstone Pictures

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski. The landing page for the whole series is here.)

Notes on O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

• From the beginning, the outsized influence of Preston Sturges had been evident in the Coen brothers’ work, especially in comedies Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy. But O Brother, Where Art Thou? was their first full-fledged homage to the director. The title is borrowed from the movie-within-a-movie that the protagonist of Sturges’s masterwork, Sullivan’s Travels, intends to make about the “common man”—only to discover that the common man would much rather have him continue making lightweight comedies. Thus the Coens’ film: nominally a movie about the travails of a trio of chain-gang escapees making their way across Depression-era Mississippi; in fact, a picaresque musical romp and arguably their lightest cinematic fare to date.

• One could make the case that over the years, the Coens were inspired as much by Sturges’s career as they were by his films per se. After a successful run as a playwright in New York in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Sturges moved to Hollywood, where Paramount paid him a lavish $2,500 per week. But he was frustrated with what the studio did with his scripts. (Yes, he was in his way as much the inspiration for Barton Fink as Clifford Odets was.) So he famously sold his screenplay for The Great McGinty (a script that went on to win an Oscar) to the studio for just ten dollars—provided that he was allowed to direct it. He thus proved a model for the Coens themselves, who throughout their career have been exceptionally diligent about maintaining creative control over their work.

• Though Sturges provides the movie’s essential inspiration, the title credits twice advertise that its tongue-in-cheek narrative frame is “based upon The Odyssey by Homer.” The references, tenuous as they may be, are all there: Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) is Odysseus—called Ulysses by the Romans—trying with his companions (played by John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) to return to his wife “Penny” (that is, Penelope, played by Holly Hunter) before she marries a suitor. (Everett even wears a long gray beard—i.e., disguises himself, like Odysseus, as an old man—when he makes his final approach.) On the long journey home the trio overcome the challenges posed by the blind bard Tiresias (the seer on the hand-pumped railcar), the Lotus Eaters (the baptismal congregation), the Sirens (the women washing clothes in the river), Polyphemus the Cyclops (John Goodman’s malevolent Bible salesman), a near drowning, and so on. The two gubernatorial candidates the trio encounters are named Menelaus "Pappy" O'Daniel (Charles Durning) and Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall)—though thematically the “Homer” role probably matches up better with Mr. Lund (Stephen Root), the blind radio station manager who records the boys’ rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Even the song itself is related to the name Odysseus, which in some readings derives from the old Greek verb to “lament or wail.” The idea of updating a classical tale to modern Mississippi was apparently inspired in part by the Howard Waldrop novella A Dozen Tough Jobs, which offered a contemporary version of the 12 labors of Hercules. (Waldrop is name-checked by the character of Penny’s fiancé, Vernon Waldrip.) Rounding out the principal references, Everett’s accompanist and sometimes-companion Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) is loosely based on famed blues singer/guitarist Robert Johnson, who was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent.

• As had been the case before, the decision to make O Brother after The Big Lebowski came down in large part to casting availability. The Coens had originally intended to alternate comedy with drama by producing The Man Who Wasn’t There—for which they also had a script—after Lebowski. (One can’t help but wonder how many production-ready scripts the Coens have on hand at any given moment.) But they wanted Clooney for O Brother, and he had an opening, so that took precedence. It would be the first collaboration between the Coens and Clooney, who described himself as a fan of all their films and accepted the role without even seeing a script. Among other opportunities, it gave Clooney the chance to take his first real stab at screwball comedy, a box he was eventually going to have to check if he wanted to validate the by-now-ubiquitous comparisons between him and Cary Grant.

• Durning’s “Pappy” O’Daniel character is based on at least two real-life Southern governors of the period. The principal one is Texas governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a flour magnate who came to prominence by hosting a radio show backed by his old-timey band, the Light Crust Doughboys. (He went on to win a U.S. Senate seat in a special election in 1941, in the process becoming the only person ever to beat Lyndon Johnson in a contested race.) There’s also a hint of the “singing governor” of Louisiana, Jimmie Davis, who recorded a popular rendition of “You are My Sunshine” in 1940. (He also claimed to have co-written the song, although—this being Louisiana—that claim has been disputed.)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an eminently enjoyable movie, but it also stood as the Coens’ least ambitious to date, at least from a narrative standpoint. The film’s plot is extremely loose and episodic, and its intersection with politics “pretty primitive” by Joel’s own admission (especially, I’d add, relative to the sophisticated undercurrents of The Big Lebowski). But the movie was genuinely groundbreaking in two areas. It was the first feature film ever to be digitally color-corrected in its entirety. The Coens envisioned a dusty, sepia-toned South distinctly at odds with the lush greenery of Mississippi in the summer, so it fell upon cinematographer Roger Deakins, working with the firm Cinesite, to desaturate the color and turn the greens into yellows and browns. Among other contributions, Cinesite also provided additional digital tins of Everett’s pomade to the flood scene to augment the real tins that were shot underwater. But it was another firm, Digital Domain, that supplied the virtual cow that was run over in the chase sequence with Baby Face Nelson. It was in fact the “same” cow that they’d developed for the 1999 movie Lake Placid, in which it served as a snack for a giant crocodile. Ah, the hard life of a digital cow …

• But the principal importance of O Brother resides in its score, a collection of gospel, folk, delta blues, and bluegrass curated by T Bone Burnett, with whom the Coens had also collaborated on Lebowski. The soundtrack went to the top of the Billboard chart, won a Grammy for album of the year, inspired the documentary Down From the Mountain, and played a significant role in the modest re-popularization of bluegrass music. On a more personal level, it belatedly introduced me to the music of the great Alison Krauss, who’s won more Grammys than I own matching socks. She appears on “Down to the River to Pray,” “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” and the soundtrack version (though not the one played in the film) of “I’ll Fly Away.” Dan Tyminski, of her band Union Station, sings the lead vocal on “Man of Constant Sorrow.”

• The movie continued the peculiar pattern by which the Coens’ “biggest” pictures—O Brother, like The Hudsucker Proxy, cost in the vicinity of $25 million—somehow came across as their least ambitious. The similarity between the two films ended there, however. Where Hudsucker bombed with the moviegoing public, O Brother made more than $45 million in domestic box office, by far the most of any of their works to date.

Et Cetera:

Where I rank O Brother, Where Art Thou? among Coens films: #10 (out of 16)

Where I rank its soundtrack, curated by T Bone Burnett, among Coens soundtracks curated by T Bone Burnett: #1 (out of four)

Best line: “Lots of respectable people have been hit by trains. Judge Hobbie over in Cookville was hit by a train.”

Best visual: The trio walking down a dusty road beneath Spanish moss, as we hear the Kossoy Sisters’ version of “I’ll Fly Away”

Best sound: The squeak of the handcar coming down the tracks

Notable locale: Mississippi

Notable Influences: Preston Sturges, Homer, Howard Waldrop

Things that roll: Underwater tins of Dapper Dan

Dream sequence(s): Not explicitly, although several scenes have dreamlike qualities

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: No

Number of characters who vomit: Zero

Pomade of Choice: Dapper Dan (not Fop)

John Goodman going berserk: Yes

Next up: The Man Who Wasn’t There