(director: John Ford; screenwriters: Barry Conners/Philip Klein/Dudley Nichols/based on a story by I.A.R. Wylie; cinematographer: George Schneiderman; editor: Louis R. Loeffler; music: Samuel Kaylin; cast: Henrietta Crosman (Hannah Jessop), Norman Foster (Jim Jessop), Maurice Murphy (Gary Worth), Marian Nixon (Mary Saunders), Jay Ward (Jimmy Saunders), Heather Angel (Suzanne), Francis Ford (Mayor Briggs), Jack Pennick (Soldier); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; 1933)
“The wholesome film speaks volumes for Ford’s talent, but the overwhelming sentimentality drowns it in false poignancy.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
According to Ford biographer Joseph McBride this is arguably the “first great film” directed by John Ford (“Stagecoach”/”Donovan’s Reef”/”The Horse Soldiers”). It’s a beautifully crafted (following along the style of German expressionism) sentimental melodrama that examines heroism and patriotism and motherhood. It’s based on a story by I.A.R. Wylie, the same woman writer of “Grandma Bernle Learns Her Letters” that was the book Ford’s celebrated silent film Four Sons (1928) was adapted from. Writers Barry Conners, Philip Klein and Dudley Nichols handle the uneven screenplay that veers from eloquent moments to moments that are downright embarrassing.
It’s set in the rural farming community of Three Cedars, Arkansas, during WW I. Jim Jessop (Norman Foster) lives with his domineering and possessive elderly widowed mom Hannah (Henrietta Crosman) in their humble family cabin and works without wages tilling the soil. He falls in love with neighbor Mary Saunders (Marian Nixon), but mom refuses to allow Jim to marry her and signs a waiver to enlist her son in the army so he will be unable to marry. Jim goes off to fight in France, but the one night he spent in the hayloft with Mary results in her pregnancy. Hannah delivers Mary’s baby during a snow storm, but refuses to allow the baby to have the Jessop name. The ill-fated Jim dies in France, and after ten years pass the other “Gold Star Mothers” from all over the country go on a pilgrimage to France. After shown the sights of Paris and treated to a beauty salon and a ceremony honoring their sons, a guilt-stricken Hannah refuses to visit the cemetery because she still rationalizes that her son disobeyed her wishes and was not a good son. From here on the wheels came off, as the film became overloaded with sentimentality and felt gooey. While a saddened Hannah walks over a bridge in Paris, she spots a drunken wealthy American boy Gary Worth (Maurice Murphy) about to jump. She stops the boy and takes him to her hotel, where she finds out when he sobers up that, if you can believe, his mother plans to separate him from the pregnant Suzanne (Heather Angel), his dreamgirl, a low-class French girl whom his mother considers not good enough for him. Hannah then meets with the snooty Mrs. Worth (Hedda Hopper, soon to become the noted gossip columnist and become known as a notorious red-baiter) and tells her story. Now with a change of heart, Hannah tearfully visits Jim’s grave at Argonne. When she returns home, she reconciles with young Jimmy (Jay Ward) and receives Mary’s forgiveness.
Crosman (the grand-niece of composer Stephen Foster) was 71 and a noted Broadway actress from the 1890s when she shot the film after signing a long term contract with Fox. Foster would soon leave acting to become a director. Ford’s own mother died on March 26, 1933, in the midst of production, making the selfish mother theme of the film even more significant for him.
The wholesome film speaks volumes for Ford’s talent, but the overwhelming sentimentality drowns it in false poignancy.
REVIEWED ON 12/29/2007 GRADE: B-