Welcome once again to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, a series in which two blogger friends (Me and Mike’s Take on the Movies) pick movies for the other to watch & review once a month, hopefully expanding each others’ viewing horizons.
As big an Edward G. Robinson fan as I am I never got around to seeing Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) , probably because sometimes Margaret O’Brien can be just too cute for me (in my defense Meet Me in St. Louis is one of my favourite films), and I suppose I always assumed this was a kid’s movie. Which it is, in a way, but for both kids and adults this is a movie full of lessons, and in the end, as Edward G.Robinson’s character sums up: “we’re all growing.” It was nice to have a little bit of Christmas in August, in this extremely sweet tale of a very small rural area in Wisconsin seen through a year’s worth of children playing, getting into trouble, seasons and finances changing, livestock and property and lives cultivated and lost.
It hardly needs to be pointed out that Edward G. Robinson and Agnes Moorehead are wonderful and watchable wherever they appear, and this is another fine example of their work. As the central couple they hit all the right notes with each other and with their little girl played by O’Brien, whether they’re stern, caring, playful, or wise. Robinson in particular is so adorable as the hard working father who would do anything to make his little girl happy.
One of the earlier lessons he teaches her is puzzling on the surface but important because it sets up something bigger for the end of the film; Robinson teaches O’Brien to share her brand new skates by taking them away and handing them to the obnoxious brat played by Jackie “Butch” Jenkins, who’s just lied in Robinson’s face and denied being insulting to O’Brien. It’s a weird standard of justice where “selfishness” with your own possessions is somehow more a crime than bullying and lying, and the punishment is to confiscate the poor kid’s new plaything. No wonder O’Brien rebels and stomps off, I have to say she was right not to want to share something so hard-earned by her father with an annoying kid who needs to learn some manners; he gladly takes something that doesn’t belong to him, based on a lie. Thankfully this bit, along with Jenkins’ character, is redeemed when the boy seemingly learns his lesson and returns those guilt skates at Christmas (after a few months of enjoying them no doubt).
It’s true though that O’Brien does need to grow, she needs a little toughening up and realism in her life, because she’s sheltered and Robinson sometimes goes too far to protect her from disappointments and normal facts of life that might make her feel bad. But that’s where his acting shines, he makes you understand his love for his daughter and he’s just so sensitive and uncomfortable being the disciplinarian that it’s endearing. I love the scene where he tries to let her win at checkers and she shows him he still has a winning move. It reveals that she’s getting to the point where she doesn’t need to be coddled, and it comes at a key moment, right before she gives the town’s adults a lesson.
When the barn of one of the farmers burns down and he loses his livestock, the cash donations toward helping him rebuild are understandably paltry because these people simply don’t have much money. O’Brien offers her most prized possession, her beloved calf Elizabeth as a donation, setting off a chain of similar and bigger gifts from the rest of the townsfolk. She’s learned and given a valuable lesson compared to the business with the skates, i.e that what you own is yours to give of your own free will, it means so much more and helps so much more, when you choose to give directly to those in need. As Robinson tells the kids, it’s not a bad thing to have pride in what’s yours, and the most valuable things, whether material or spiritual, are only valuable and meaningful when earned and maintained with hard work, and gain more meaning when shared generously.
The generosity of the community is the lesson that finally opens the eyes and heart of the new teacher in town played by Frances Gifford. After being generally negative about and prejudiced against the rurals, she comes to see the error of her ways. She’s come to town as a bit of a crusader, judging everyone there that doesn’t fit her worldview as being backward, “dull and dreary.” She judges their lives and beliefs, which give them great comfort and value, as “suffocating,” because they’re of no value to her. She focuses on the sad, dysfunctional family while largely ignoring the goodness, dedication, modesty, generosity, sacrifice and strength of the rest. She’s a nice and caring teacher with good lessons for the kids, but it’s her love interest, the editor of the local newspaper played by James Craig (who’s really good here) who has the best lessons for Gifford. He tells her “there’s thoughtlessness and cruelty wherever a person lives, they’re just easier to find in a small town,” and even better, “when you’re demanding tolerance, where do you draw the line at giving it?” That’s a very important and always relevant lesson among many for everyone in this story, of every age in every season, who learn about responsibility, sanctimony, and coping with and getting up from hard knocks and tragic losses.
oh, and Jenkins: geese actually do drop bombs.