A woman walks into a barn to milk her cow, and the animal knocks over a lantern. Suddenly a furious montage of burning buildings and headlines fills the screen—courtesy of “transitional effects” by the great Slavko Vorkapich, master of dazzling montages. It’s the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, for which that poor cow is still taking the rap. Sensing opportunity, Daniel Pardway (Lionel Barrymore) arrives in town and opens a department store called Bazaar, and almost sooner than it takes to tell, years pass with every scene until he’s a prosperous retailer with four children and a dead wife. Another transitional blink, and the kids are grown.
The rest of the movie follows Pardway’s disappointments as one child after another succumbs to pre-Code scandals of adultery, divorce, unwed pregnancy, and whatnot. The uninteresting daughter (essentially a skipped character) is Gloria Stuart, known today as the old woman in James Cameron’s Titanic. Helen Mack has a much better role as the seduced and abandoned shopgirl who proves a tough cookie. One son (George Meeker) disappoints because he’s not as interested in running the business as he is in decorating the displays, a quasi-shameful revelation that causes Pardway to pronounce “decoration” with a twinge of distaste; this feels coded as an implication on sexuality (and certainly this son isn’t seen getting married or knocking girls up), although he’s not the stereotype embodied by Franklin Pangborn as the prissy photographer.
Meanwhile, Pardway’s faithful, apparently Jewish manager Abe (Gregory Ratoff) feels resentful at sacrificing his own life for the store without a partnership. As scripted by Lester Cohen from his novel, this tough-minded epic of personal decline amid wealth doesn’t shirk on early Depression-era commentary on Pardway as a self-absorbed, exploitive capitalist who reaps what he sows (overworked employees on Christmas Eve, etc.) and whose spoiled children are undone by modern values that leave them unappreciative of his hard work. Barrymore has no problem being sometimes unsympathetic, and that makes it all the more interesting. (In the same year’s Looking Forward, it’s Barrymore who plays the unappreciated worker in a big store whose owner has an awful family.)
The clip at which John Cromwell directs this 80-minute generational saga can be partly credited to the ingenuity of Vorkapich. Not only does he provide standard scene-setting explosions like the superimpositions of wild Paris, but he’s seemingly responsible for executing such clever ideas as conveying one character’s decline in fortunes by the simple device of showing his shoes and trousers walking through various scenes. As for the gliding overhead shots of crowds of shoppers, perhaps Cromwell and Vorkapich worked in collaboration. Cromwell made many smooth emotional dramas, but here it’s Barrymore and Vorkapich who provide the one-two punch.