[14 March 2014]
Margaret O’Brien was a cosmically, even ironically self-possessed child actor who concentrated her full attention like the seasoned trouper she was, whether listening and watching or leaning forward to enunciate her lines with breathless intensity. She Sure Was Acting, and it went beyond charming into a spellbinding tension between the artificial and the totally credible. Her general preternaturalism made her effectively emotional when required to burst into racking sobs or deliver a tear-stained restraint.
Aside from lending support (such as playing Judy Garland’s little sister in Meet Me in St. Louis), she carried several vehicles herself, beginning with the sentimental WWII orphan story Journey for Margaret. This established her ability as a star in her own right, and was followed by an even more effective vehicle crafted specifically for her precocity, Lost Angel. Here she plays Alpha, an orphan raised behind the walls of a New York institute according to a scientific schedule designed to make her a genius.
She’s drilled in various skills and raised more or less without emotion or a child’s sense of play. She falls hard for wise-cracking, irresponsible reporter Mike Regan (James Craig) and without further ado, she breaks out of the joint and tracks him down to learn more about dragons and flying carpets and the other twaddle he was patronizing her with. Alpha learns that people are interesting and that liking them “gets easier and easier.” There are conveniences and contrivances galore, especially the parts about the escaped killer (Keenan Wynn) who’s really innocent and holes up in their apartment until Mike can catch the real culprit.
Isobel Lennart’s scripts reflect a worldview in which people are kind and thoughtful and considerate, everyone from police on horseback to cigarette girls to bums in the park, and in which the “conflicts” often arise from the impulse to help people. The problems presented are the question of how to make everyone happy. Outright negative or antagonistic characters are rare, as almost everyone can be understood or converted. Women are rarely rivals, and here Alpha’s childish jealousy over Mike’s girlfriend (Marsha Hunt) quickly resolves into friendship. The fuddy-duddy scientists who raise Alpha aren’t unfeeling monsters but are genuinely concerned for her welfare, and she likes them too. The only unregenerate figure is the true killer, who registers less as a character than a sleight-of-hand plot convenience.
If Lennart is my personal favorite among unsung screenwriters, Roy Rowland is on my list of unheralded directors who are subjects for further research. His diverse output shows a real strength for Americana. He and O’Brien followed Lost Angel with one of Hollywood’s finest films of the 1940s—let’s say in the top 100—Our Vines Have Tender Grapes.
It’s one of several wartime slices of Americana, this time set in Wisconsin Norwegian farm country. The war is a distant but real threat referred to periodically. Edward G. Robinson gives another great performance as husband of Agnes Moorehead and father of O’Brien, who’s paired in many excellent scenes with child actor Jackie “Butch” Jenkins (The Human Comedy, more Americana). This is a nothing-happens, year-in-the-life movie scripted with brilliant credibility and sensitivity by Dalton Trumbo from a novel. A local tragedy is developed offscreen without as much detail as the book surely gave, but this lack of information reinforces the unsavory possibilities of mystery from a child’s point of view.
One moving scene is O’Brien’s recital of the Nativity story at Christmas, which is almost subversive in its absence of supernatural elements except for the angels singing at the end. A later scene echoes this, also set in the church and bringing out a buried lesson of the Nativity about what gifts you can afford. I had to restrain myself from bawling when the newspaper editor (James Craig, also from The Human Comedy ) reads his father’s decades-old editorial. This movie is beautifully shot in terms of outdoor (or apparently so) locations and deep focus, and scored liltingly without treacle by Bronislau Kaper.