(director: Edmund Goulding; screenwriters: from the Cosmopolitan magazine article White Banners by Lloyd C. Douglas/ Lenore J. Coffee/Abem Finkel/Cameron Rogers; cinematographer: Charles Rosher; editor: Tom Richards; music: Max Steiner; cast: Claude Rains (Paul Ward), Fay Bainter (Hannah Parmalee), Jackie Cooper (Peter Trimble), Bonita Granville (Sally Ward), Henry O’Neill (Sam Trimble), Kay Johnson (Marcia Ward), James Stephenson (Thomas Bradford), William Pawley (Joe Ellis), J. Farrell MacDonald (Dr. Thompson); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Hal B. Wallis/Henry Blanke; Warner Brothers; 1938)

“Good acting goes a long way in covering up many of the film’s plot holes.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An old-fashioned inspirational type of story based on the Cosmopolitan magazine article White Banners by Lloyd C. Douglas. This is another in his “better living through faith” short stories. His novel Magnificent Obsession was wonderfully handled in the film of the same name by Douglas Sirk.

“White Banners” centers around a struggling inventor and his genial family, as they battle through their failures to pay the bills and the patriarch’s disappointment in not inventing a better icebox. It’s set in an Indiana small white picket fence town in 1919, and is charmingly directed by Edmund Goulding. He knows how to pull all the heartstrings. It feels like a genuine small town experience or what Hollywood has sold us as being genuine, or at least this viewer’s perception was that its sweetness and religious homilies and steadfast belief in faith and family values weren’t overworked into the melodrama enough for me to sour completely on all the good common sense it kept making.

On a snowy January day, the ditsy Ward family argues early in the morning if it’s Friday or Saturday. If it’s Saturday as perky 14-year-old Sally (Bonita Granville) tells her mother Marcia (Kay Johnson) — then she could sleep late and would not have to go to school. Sally’s father Paul (Claude Rains), who has been up late in his lab working on his invention, enters Sally’s room and when asked to break the deadlock states it must be Saturday because they had fish last night. But he’s proven wrong when he checks the date on the local newspaper, as he rushes out of the house because he must also go to the high school where he’s employed as a chemistry teacher.

Housewife Marcia is home alone minding their baby when a peddler knocks on her door, and after first turning her down she then feels sorry for this older woman who is shivering in the snow and invites her inside to warm up. She then buys an apple peeler for a quarter and soon, as if on cue to show what a nice sport she is, the butcher delivers lamb chops and takes it back because she doesn’t have the money. The homeless woman, Hannah (Fay Bainter), feels grateful to her for her kindness and tells her not to fret and teaches her to make a meat pie from left-overs. When the family dines on this meal they’re all impressed, and Hannah falls in love with this warm family and decides to stay. She also has a secret reason for prolonging her stay, and therefore figures out a way for staying on as an affordable housekeeper by cutting the family monthly food bill down from $80 to $60 and thereby she’ll live on the wages of $20 a month. Hey, that’s a good deal for the Ward family anyway you look at it. And, as for Hannah, well she won’t starve or be lonely or homeless.

Hannah polishes up the stored furniture in the cellar and sells it to a local merchant named Mr. Sloan for $50. She then takes a keen interest when Sally tells her she has a crush on the handsome, bright, and athletic Peter Trimble (Jackie Cooper), the spoiled son of the richest man in town–the banker Sam Trimble (Henry O’Neill). Peter is being disciplined by his teacher, who happens to be Sally’s father, for his schoolboy pranks. Hannah sees this as an opportunity for Peter and Paul to get together and work on the invention together, as the older man could counsel the science whiz kid who got a little wild because his mother just passed away. Hannah believes the lessons he learns by doing something constructive will be better than any punishment.

The two work on inventing an icebox without ice that needs no drip pan, and when they design a successful plan they are only left waiting for the parts to be delivered to see how it works when constructed. Thereby the equal partners will get Peter’s banker father to back their plan and he will bring along as the moneyman his closest friend from Chicago, a bachelor tycoon named Thomas Bradford (James Stephenson). But when the professor is out, the untrustworthy Joe Ellis (William Pawley) delivers the parts and against the older man’s orders Peter allows Joe down in the basement. Joe steals the plans and a valve, and delays them enough so that he beats them to the patent. To make matters worse, Peter can’t face the truth so he lies about letting Joe into the lab.

As if there weren’t enough melodramatics, Sally falls through the ice and is in critical condition after following Peter’s urgings to go out on the ice, as he is also blamed by the family for this mistake in judgment. When she recovers, Dr. Thompson suggests she go with her mother to a warmer climate for a holiday in order to help her recover faster. Hannah stays to take care of the professor and minister inspirational advice, telling him to not waste his energy fighting but instead go back and try to invent an even better product. She says he will have a renewed energy to succeed after facing such a bitter disappointment and by not wasting that energy on his anger, he therefore will be an even stronger person. The two inventors get together again and succeed in inventing an iceless icebox (refrigerator) that requires no machinery and is based on applying the principles of coal with heat and hydrogen. They then get a midnight visit from Mr. Bradford to inspect the invention, but Bradford’s visit alarms Hannah.

Warning: spoiler to follow in next two paragraphs.

It turns out Hannah’s secret is that she was a servant in the wealthy Bradford household and had his child, but he left for abroad and never received her letters and therefore remained ignorant of events. After birth of the child she gave it up for adoption to the Trimbles, as Mrs. Trimble’s baby died at birth unknown to her. Her husband felt the news would crush her and by somehow adopting a baby to replace it she would never have to know it was not hers (the film never adequately explains how this adoption took place and how the secret was kept from Mrs. Trimble). Hannah was satisfied that her son would be well-provided for in such a comfortable and loving family and gracefully retreated from the scene. She only reappears now to see how Peter is doing, after learning of his mother’s death.

Trimble has just signed papers giving Bradford custody of Peter if anything should happen to him. Bradford suspects that Peter might be his son, learning that Peter was born the same day as his son would have been and his friend already has told him that Peter is not his son. But at the Ward house, Bradford sees that Peter is happy and well-adjusted and decides to follow Hannah’s advice and not tell Peter who his real mother and father are. I was not convinced that this was a good idea. This is especially so after the whole idea of the story is to live a truthful and honest life. Everything here is settled by continuing this lie. This lie, supposedly to protect the feelings of Peter, seemed to defeat what the film was trying to say.

Good acting goes a long way in covering up many of the film’s plot holes. Claude Rains is convincing as the little bit nutsy but sweet professor; while Fay Bainter is equally convincing as the martyred woman, self-sacrificing herself for the happiness of her child. While both Bonita Granville and Jackie Cooper give lively performances as teenagers in love. The film gets its title from its religious message that the white flags of truce can be used by the courageous and strong as white banners.

White Banners Poster