Monday, December 03, 2007


Aside from having seen the 1933 and 1994 film versions of "Little Women," I am not particularly well versed in the literature of Louisa May Alcott. Still, I'm guessing that this B-budget version of her sequel to "Little Women" does not stick very closely to the novel. Jo March (Katharine Hepburn in the '33 film, grown up into Kay Francis here) and her immigrant professor husband (Carl Esmond) run Plumfield, a boys boarding school which is in danger of being closed down by the landlord, to whom they owe back rent. The film actually begins with George Bancroft, a ne'er-do-well who runs mail-order scams and sells phony elixirs, being left with an orphan infant via a late operative of his. His first instinct is to dump the kid at an orphanage, but he takes a shine to the baby and raises him as his son. Grown into adolescence, Danny (Jimmy Lydon) is well educated in the ways of gambling and hustling, but the state insists that Bancroft, who is always on the road, put him in school, so Lydon is taken to Plumfield. When Bancroft finds out about the school's troubles, he tells Francis that he can invest what little money the school has in order to get the $5000 they need; Bancroft is sincere, but the bank he puts the money in fails. When we find out that his escaped con sidekick, Jack Oakie, has a $5000 reward on him, it's not hard to predict the outcome. Until we get to that ending, the rest of the story concerns Lydon and his slow assimilation to the mannered ways of Plumfield. The most interesting scene involves an unusual punishment meted out to Lydon; instead of getting smacked, he has to smack Francis across the hand with a switch, several times. Of course, he can't bear to beat an innocent, and this is the first step in his reformation from snotty troublemaker to upright young man. A few other minor tragedies occur, primarily the forced selling the boys' prize dairy cow Buttercup ("played" by the original Elsie the Cow of Borden fame), and a fierce whooping that Lydon gives one of the boys (Jimmy Zahner) for claiming that Bancroft cheated the school out of money. The only other character who stands out is Silas, the handyman (Johnny Burke) who entertains the boys with his oft-told tales of past glories. In the original novel and film, the professor was German, but here, he's been made Swiss, probably due to our troubles with Germany at the time. The movie, originally released by RKO but made by an independent company called The Play's The Thing, has slipped into the public domain and the print I saw on TCM was murky and scratchy, so it’s difficult to say how it looked to audiences of the time, but it all felt very low-budget to me, despite the presence of Kay Francis (whose star was slipping) and director Norman Z. Macleod (TOPPER, HORSE FEATHERS). Oakie is fairly funny and Lydon (who was the oldest son in LIFE WITH FATHER) is fine as the delinquent turned saint. [TCM]

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