Wednesday, June 18, 2003

SO BIG (1932)

An adaptation of a "sprawling" Edna Ferber novel (she also wrote Showboat). I haven't read the book but this feels like an abruptly truncated adaptation. It's the story of one woman's life, from her relatively carefree youth to hard working farm wife and mother. A couple of major chunks of plotline seem to have been left out in the film. Barbara Stanwyck is the woman, raised in Chicago by her decent but somewhat shady gambling father. Just as she graduates from college he dies, leaving her with nothing. She gets a job outside the big city as a teacher in a farming community. Although it takes a while for her to fit in, she develops a mentoring freindship with a teenage boy (Dick Winslow); he longs to be educated and has an artistic bent, but his father (Alan Hale) needs him around the farm. Stanwyck gives him books to read and encourages his sketching--they both find some aspects of the rough land to be beautiful. Stanwyck marries and has a son and is sad to see Winslow leave home to find his way elsewhere, but she tries to raise her son to be independent and to go after his dreams. The movie makes an abrupt jump of over 20 years; Stanwyck's husband dies but she runs a business (involving prized asparagus) that allows her to live better--this plotline is very vague, as though quite a bit had been cut out from the book. Her son (Hardie Albright) goes to school to be an architect but decides that there's more money in selling bonds. The neighbor boy grows up to be a well known artist (George Brent) and eventually tracks Stanwyck down to let her know how much she inspired him. Much of the movie plays out like an episodic melodrama, though things rarely get too bogged down in pathos. Winslow is especially good as the young neighbor; Albright's callowness suits his character. Bette Davis has a small role as Albright's girlfriend but she has very little to do. OK, but not a classic; mostly for hardcore Stanwyck fans.

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