Vereen Bell

Born - Jan 1, 1911   |   Died - Oct 1, 1944   |   Genres - Thriller, Adventure, Mystery, Drama, Crime

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Vereen Bell was a journalist and author who enjoyed a brief period of success during the late '30s and early '40s. His contribution to movies was limited to his first novel, Swamp Water, which was filmed twice by 20th Century Fox, the first time brilliantly and the second time well. Vereen McNeill Bell was the product of a rural but patrician Southern upbringing, the son of Reason Chesnutt Bell, an influential Georgia judge, and the former Jennie Vereen.

A graduate of Davidson College in North Carolina, Vereen Bell had the bad fortune to enter the work force in 1932 amid the depths of the Great Depression. After trying for a time to survive as a freelance writer, he became the editor of The American Boy magazine in Detroit, a position that he held for two years before returning to his native Georgia, where he married and started a family. Bell began making a name for himself as an author of articles and short stories about the subjects he knew and loved best -- hunting, dogs, and other components of rural Southern life, especially as it was led and understood by men; he became a familiar author in the pages of Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post, and both of his novels initially appeared in serialized form in the latter magazine. In 1940, he published his first novel, Swamp Water, a tale of murder, revenge, and redemption set in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp. The book tells of an encounter between two men, one a fugitive from justice and the other a young hunter, and painted a vivid picture of life as it was lived in rural Georgia. Bell knew his subject well, as he and his family knew the swamp and its surroundings, living in their vicinity. The book was well-received critically and sold well enough to justify being reprinted in an early paperback edition, and its movie rights were purchased by 20th Century Fox.

In 1941, renowned French director Jean Renoir, newly arrived in America and under contract to Fox, made a gloriously lyrical, haunting film adaptation under the same title starring Walter Brennan, Dana Andrews, Anne Baxter, and Walter Huston. Renoir's Swamp Water displays a delicacy and lyricism reminiscent of John Ford at his most eloquent and was a visually stunning movie, partly shot on location in Georgia (where Renoir insisted on directing the second-unit footage himself). The picture began a fascinating interlude into English-language cinema by Renoir, who followed it up four years later with The Southerner (1945), a somewhat similar subject. Bell's family was much enriched at the time of the movie's production by the resulting royalties and fees. In his forward to the 1981 University of Georgia Press reprint, Vereen Bell Jr. recalled that they suddenly had access to a pair of automobiles and a small boat, as well as the attentions of a part-time servant. Bell published one more novel, Two of a Kind, but most of his energy and attention from 1942 onward was devoted to his service in the United States Navy. According to his son, with his wife and family obligations, Bell could easily have remained a gunnery instructor within the confines of the United States, but he insisted on going to the Pacific as an air combat intelligence officer. He was assigned to U.S. Navy Composite Squadron VC-10, which was assigned to the escort carrier Gambier Bay -- Bell was killed in action on October 25, 1944, in the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea, off the coast of Leyte, in which the U.S.S. Gambier Bay was sunk while defending the American naval force against a much larger Japanese force.

A volume of his writing was published posthumously, and in 1947, the Vereen Bell Award for creative writing was established at Davidson College. In 1952, eight years after Bell's death, director Jean Negulesco did a remake of Swamp Water under the title Lure of the Wilderness starring Walter Brennan (repeating his role from the earlier version), Jeffrey Hunter, and Jean Peters. Many of Bell's stories about dogs and hunting have been reprinted, most notably in a volume entitled Brag Dog and Other Stories: The Best of Vereen Bell with illustrations by Margaret Kirmse. Swamp Water, which has been reprinted many times, both as a mass-market paperback and in annotated university press editions, remains the book for which he is best remembered, and its story remains so powerful that it's surprising that some quality-minded producer hasn't gone after it as a vehicle for Billy Bob Thornton, Tommy Lee Jones, or Robert Duvall, among other potential leads.