Saturday, August 09, 2008


This film aims to tell the history of America from after the Civil War to the Depression as filtered through the experience of one family, rather like Noel Coward did for England in CAVALCADE. In 1870's Manhattan, Richard Dix is romancing Ann Harding, daughter of a banker, but her father doesn't approve. When an economic crash hits, the father loses the bank and dies. Dix and Harding marry and head out for the frontier. When they are attacked by river pirates, they wind up in Fort Allen, Nebraska, and are helped by a friendly tavern keeper (Edna May Oliver) and her husband, an alcoholic but equally friendly doctor (Guy Kibbee). They settle there, Dix starts a bank and become prosperous, and they have a family, including a son who dies in an unfortunate train accident. A financial boom period follows, then another bust, but Dix, rather like James Stewart in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, gets the bank through it. There are happy times (their daughter's wedding, their grandson's heroism as a pilot in WWI) and sad (the suicide of their son-in-law), and yet another boom/bust cycle, but as the film comes round to the present (1932), the point is made that the American spirit will prevail.

This is obviously a propaganda film, not for war but for toughing out the Depression, and the family saga aspect suffers a bit; the episodic events whiz by too quickly for us to really get a strong feel for the characters, and the actors aren't given many chances to flesh out their roles. Early on, Harding gives an artificial cheerleading speech for America and ruggedness (and Richard Dix) which is the low point of the film, but otherwise, both actors are up to snuff. I love Edna May Oliver and she's in good shape here, playing a variation on her usual brittle, stiff-backed auntie-type. Kibbee's boozing is mostly comic relief, though it leads directly to the tragic death of the son, in a remarkably well-filmed scene. There are some nicely done impressionistic montage sequences which cover the times between the episodes. The actress who plays the daughter (Julie Haydon) is a dead ringer for Harding. Dix's old-age makeup in the end is some of the best aging work I've seen, and he's also good playing his own grandson. Also with Donald Cook as the weak son-in-law. Recommended. [TCM]

No comments: