If you go down to these South Carolina docks, you may well see Ruby Gentry (Jennifer Jones), one of the most unconventional sea captains around, but she was not always that way. Time was when she was a girl from the wrong side of the tracks which nobody in her community would let her forget, and when the new doctor in town, Saul (Barney Phillips) clapped his eyes on her for the first time, he, like most men, was very impressed with what he saw. But Ruby's affections only pointed in one direction, towards local entrepreneur Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston), just back from South America and with romance and money on his mind.
Ruby Gentry was one of producer and director King Vidor's most overwrought melodramas, which coming from this creative talent was saying something. Scripted by Silvia Richards from Arthur Fitz-Richard's story, the racy for its era plot, with its extreme highs and lows endured by the main character, would be something best suited to television soap opera nowadays - actually, never mind nowadays, it's more like a series of Dallas or Dynasty crammed into eighty minutes of searing emotions.
We're supposed to regard Ruby as a force of nature that no man can tame, leading to a wealth of unsubtle metaphors to allude to her situation. Hunting plays a part, so when Ruby and Boake are tracking deer together, she is actually tracking him with a view to bringing him down and capturing his heart. But, as the narration is always reminding us, there's that "wrong side of the tracks" element to contend with, and the hypocrisy of the society portrayed ensures that we're on Ruby's side when she is never accepted as one of the more respectable figures there.
Of course, Jones plays this unbridled nature to the hilt, breathlessly enunciating her lines as if every word were of maximum importance - she's quite exhausting to watch at times. In a flashback, the thirtysomething actress makes for an unconvincing teenager, but we at least find out how she got the Gentry surname as she was semi-adopted by the rich landowner Jim Gentry (Karl Malden) and his not-getting-any-better invalid wife, so when the wife finally passes on Jim decides to make a good woman of Ruby. He reckons without Boake, however, who has already married a society beauty, though the attraction between him and Ruby remains undimmed.
Ruby's life is something of a rollercoaster, as is plain when she goes to a posh dinner with her new husband only for him to fly into a rage when he sees her dancing with Boake, realising then that she will never be completely his. He tries to punch his rival out, but ends up humiliated, and everyone at the dinner knows why, which gives them the excuse to act badly towards her in a "we knew she was no good" manner when tragedy strikes the next day. There's a big theme about when a society has made its mind up about you and given you a bad reputation, you're never going to escape it, a pessimistic viewpoint that serves to make the heroine suffer all the more. Though even when Ruby, who is no Scarlet O'Hara, acts unsympathetically, we can see she is more sinned against than sinning. The film may be over the top, but it really needed to be trashier to be wholly enjoyable - like Ruby, it's too keen on being respectable. Music by Heinz Roemheld.