Friday, July 15, 2016


This rarely-seen oddity was based on a popular radio character, and is of interest today primarily because it was one of Bette Davis' first movies. In the 1920s, Philips Lord created a radio show called Seth Parker's Singing School featuring himself as Parker, a old down-home New Englander who waxed philosophic and held sing-alongs—sounds like a non-ironic forerunner of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion. The show was so popular that in 1931 this film was made featuring Lord (who was only in his late 20s) under heavy (and not terribly convincing) makeup as Seth Parker, a man at least in his 50s. What plays out is a soap-operaish tale of small town life in Jonesport, Maine.

Farmer Parker and his wife are well-liked figures in town, frequently holding barn parties and cozy parlor sing-alongs. In between these functions, we are witness to goings-on both comical and melodramatic. The Parkers have a young foster son named Robbie (Frankie Darro) who is happy and well loved, but, in a plotline out of Huck Finn, his blood father, a no-good scoundrel, decides he wants Robbie back, and when asking doesn’t get results, he resorts to kidnapping. Meanwhile, David (Frank Albertson), a seemingly wholesome young man, is in love with Mary Lucy (Bette Davis), but her father objects because David's mother (Dorothy Peterson) bore him out of wedlock. The two have to sneak around behind her dad's back to find time and places for some canoodling. And there's young Lizzie (Sophia M. Lord, wife of Philips Lord), a shrill-voiced spinster who has her cap set for a retired sea captain. Before it's all through, there's a wild buggy chase with Parker using his huge family Bible to thump a bad guy on the head, a taffy pull, the aforementioned barn dance and sing-along, and tolerance and redemption for almost everyone, brought about through the influence of the good-hearted Seth.

Today's viewers are likely to find this slow and rough going. I almost quit at the 15 minute mark myself, as the first 5 minutes are taken up with a long, obvious comedy routine that brings to mind Abbot & Costello's classic "Who’s on First?" bit. Later there's some more effective humor when a young man refers to Albertson's mother as being "like that Mary Mandolin in the Bible." But I was eventually sucked in to these people's lives, even though all the outcomes are predictable. Lord is not especially effective as Seth Parker—he's just too young to play old. His real-life wife, however, is very amusing as the not-so-old maid; I laughed every time she spoke as her voice sounds like that of a young Margaret Hamilton. Albertson is quite good as the most likeable and sympathetic character; Davis isn't bad but it feels like she may have thought she was better than the material—which she was. I always like Darro and he's excellent here. If you don't like soap opera, or don't appreciate these period artifacts, you’ll want to skip this, but I enjoyed it. Pictured are Albertson and Davis (above right) and Albertson and Peterson (above left). [TCM]

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