The novel has gone in and out of print (it's currently in), but its popularity has never really gone away. In the wake of the 1936 movie, there was a stage adaptation that is still performed every summer ("official outdoor drama of the Commonwealth of Virginia") in Big Stone Gap, Va., where Fox died in 1919. Fox managed somehow to come up with one of those perfect titles. Even if you've never heard of him or his books (and these days, most people outside Virginia and Kentucky haven't), you feel as if you know what the story's about the minute you hear it. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine -- all by themselves, the words conjure up a time, a place, and a heart-on-the-sleeve sentimental romanticism.
The movie Hathaway and writer Grover Jones made for producer Walter Wanger in the late summer and early autumn of 1935 was the last, but not the first from Fox's book; there had been three silent ones, in 1914, 1916 and 1923. There hasn't been a movie from Fox's novel since then. The reason could mainly be changes in public taste -- romantic backwoods melodramas aren't the surefire thing they were at the turn of the 20th century. But it could also be simply that the amazing success of Hathaway's version -- reinforced by numerous reissues over the next 20-plus years -- made it an indelible act to follow.
Or this. Here's the first sight that greeted audiences after the opening credits, and it suggests a canny calculation in the movie's color scheme. Blue was one color that the old two-color system simply couldn't handle; the closest it could come was a sort of turquoise. Even oceans and skies came out a sort of yellowish green. And the credit sequence to Lonesome Pine -- names carved into tree trunks in a thick forest -- seems almost deliberately weighted toward the red range that had been the old Tech's long suit. It's as if the credits are designed to invoke Your Father's Technicolor, to remind you of what Technicolor couldn't do just before showing you what it can do now. The effect, even now, is spectacular.
The first full-Technicolor feature, Rouben Mamoulian's Becky Sharp, also made experiments with color, but it was setbound and stagy where Lonesome Pine was sun-splashed and outdoor-crisp. More to the point, Becky Sharp was a financial disappointment, if not a flop. People began to wonder if Technicolor could justify the extra expense. By the end of Lonesome Pine's second week in New York, the jury was back on that question. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine belongs in the history books for having gone far to prove the viability of color in commercial moviemaking.
And Lonesome Pine outdoes Becky artistically, too. The plain truth is, the subtleties and nuances of Thackeray's Vanity Fair resist compression to the length of a single feature (in Becky Sharp's case, only 83 minutes), while a broad-stroke melodramatist like John Fox is tailor-made for it. Hathaway's movie may not have the reach of Mamoulian's, but it has a surer grasp. And audiences still respond to it emotionally, just as they did in 1936 (and '49, and '56). For that reason, though it's 16 minutes longer than Becky Sharp, it feels half an hour shorter.