Sunday, September 23, 2007


These two movies, both based on the same novel, are old-fashioned sentimental family melodramas of the "ungrateful children are sharper than serpent’s teeth" variety. Since the '39 version is virtually a scene-by-scene remake, I'll let its plot summary of the first version stand here for both films. The story begins with the famous Chicago fire of 1871. In its aftermath, Lionel Barrymore (made up, not terribly well, to look like a young man) arrives in town to join the rebuilding boom. He founds a department store which is wildly successful; his wife has four children and dies during the birth of the fourth. Once the children are grown up, Barrymore hopes they will make him proud, with the sons going into the business and the daughter making a good marriage, but they all wind up disappointments. Gene, the oldest (William Gargan), lives the high life in Paris and comes home with a low-class woman who shoots a man while drunk, though Barrymore manages to cover up the incident to avoid scandal. Freddie, the youngest (Eric Linden), has no desire to work in retail, but falls for a lowly clerk (Helen Mack) whom Barrymore pays off to leave his son alone. When Linden openly rebels, Barrymore throws him out and he becomes a wandering bum. Burt, the quiet son (George Meeker), works diligently at his job as window dresser, but is unhappy when his father tries to promote him. The daughter Phoebe (Gloria Stuart) makes a bad marriage with a slimy European prince. The whole time, Barrymore doesn't see that the person who should be heir to the store is right under his nose: his loyal business partner. Gregory Ratoff, who undergoes several humiliations at Barrymore's hand yet continues to hope that he'll be rewarded for his years of service. At the climax, Ratoff is goaded by Barrymore into revealing that he has bought the children's shares in the business; this causes Barrymore to collapse, leading to the inevitable family reconciliation scene, with Linden winding up as the old man's last best hope. All the acting is good, with Ratoff a standout. Of the kids, Gargan and Linden get the most screen time and they're both fine. I wish the lovely and talented Stuart had more to do. Alan Dinehart, as Barrymore's brother, gets a memorable Christmas death scene, and Ninetta Sunderland (Walter Huston's wife) is good in her brief role as the matriarch.

THREE SONS is the B-movie remake. William Gargan appears in both versions, and the only major plot difference is that the uncle (played here by Gargan) is the man who gets shot by the mistress. Edward Ellis is the patriarch, Kent Taylor is the eldest son, Dick Hogan is the youngest, and J. Edward Bromberg is the ignored partner. Two young actors won parts in the movie through a national talent hunt: Virginia Vale plays the sister and Robert Stanton is Burt, who in this version wants to lead a ragtime band, and gets to sing a song. Stanton later changed his name to Kirby Grant (his birth name) and became famous as the star of the TV series Sky King. The acting is mostly fine. Ellis is no Barrymore, but he is more restrained in the role and fits it well; Bromberg is as good as Ratoff was. Gargan is only a few years older than the actors playing the sons, and the makeup used to age him isn't convincing. The earlier film is more atmospheric but the later film flows a bit more naturally. [TCM]

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