Friday, June 11, 2010


I guess the generation gap wasn't invented in the 60's for us baby-boomers; this Frank Capra family melodrama (his first talkie, though technically, it's a hybrid with alternating sound and silent sequences) starts with the premise that the younger generation will always try to escape the ways of the older generation, though this film argues that's not always a good thing. At the center of the story is the Goldfish family: Pa, who operates a junk & trinkets cart on the Lower East Side, Ma, their daughter Birdie (who has a crush on the musically talented neighbor boy Eddie) and their son Morris, the one who will exemplify the film's thesis. The prologue, set when the kids are young, shows a resourceful Morris saving the family's meager possessions from a fire for which he was partly responsible. Several years later, Morris (Ricardo Cortez, at right) has established Goldfish & Son, an upscale antique store; his family lives with him in comfort on Fifth Avenue, but Ma (Rosa Rosanova) and Pa (Jean Hersholt) are not happy about Morris's assimilationist ways, especially when he changes his last name to Fish. Birdie (Lina Basquette) and Eddie (Rex Lease) are still an item; Eddie falls in with thieves and becomes a front man for a robbery. He agrees to give himself up, but he marries Birdie first. Morris kicks Birdie out; she has a child and manages to save some money so, when Eddie when is released, they buy a small music store. Ma and Pa don't know what's become of Birdie because Morris won't let them see any of her letters, but Pa soon finds out where she is and goes to find her. In the melodramatic final sequence, Morris, ashamed of his parents looks and ways, refers to them as his servants in front of some of his hoity-toity friends; the two leave the house in the pouring rain vowing not to return, and Pa becomes seriously ill. There is a family reconciliation at Pa's deathbed, but it's too little, too late, and in the last scene, Ma goes to live with Birdie and Eddie, and Morris is left, rich but alone, in his fancy apartment.

Despite the title, this isn't really about young/old generational problems (the young Eddie and Birdie always side with the older generation), but specifically about assimilation and loss of identity, social issues which are still with us. The film would have been more powerful if it had a larger canvas; the focus remains tightly on the five main characters and we rarely see anyone else of consequence. Therefore, both Morris's attempts to rise above his past (and his ethnic background) and Ma & Pa's attempts to escape the future that Morris wants for them remain two-dimensional stories. Though Morris has the most screen time, it is Eddie who winds up the more fleshed-out character; his hopes and failures are clearer and more keenly felt. Still, Cortez commands the screen here and does a good job with an unsympathetic role; he's not evil, just too single-minded in his pursuit of the American dream. Lease (pictured at left) went on to have a substantial career as a supporting player in B-westerns. The switches from silent to sound throughout the film aren't too jarring and the film remains quite watchable today. [TCM]

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