Every month, my friend Karen of Shadows & Satin and I go Pre-Code Crazy and pick one gem from this era that you can catch on TCM. With Marie Dressler being star of the month at TCM I’m choosing one of her best movies, Emma (1932), where she plays the hard-working, selfless, kind-hearted housekeeper for a widowed father Fred Smith (Jean Hersholt) and surrogate mother to his kids. Emma was there when they had nothing and when their mother died giving birth to the fourth child. She’s still there years later, after Smith’s lucrative inventions have scaled her duties up to maintaining a luxury mansion and waiting on the pampered adult Smith children (Myrna Loy, Richard Cromwell, George Meeker, Barbara Kent). After all these years, Emma enjoys a brief, most unexpected moment of happiness when her employer Fred Smith declares his love and they marry. But he dies on their honeymoon, and his will appoints her the only one responsible enough to be the executor of his fortune. Emma’s grief is compounded by shock at the extent to which “her” kids will go to contest his will and smear her.
Dressler does wonders with this role, whether she’s in slapstick mode in a malfunctioning flight simulator or picking up everything her busted old luggage has left littered across the train station floor (she denies owning the corset). She’s firm and vulnerable, touched by the romance that’s come so late in her life and devastated by the cruelty of those she loves most. It’s a fabulous, authentic and moving performance, not to mention an Oscar-nominated one, for an actress who gave many of them, and proves that the best comedy talents are powerful dramatic actors too.
One big flaw for me in this movie is that three of these four children–the youngest, Cromwell’s Ronnie is a sweet and fair man who shares a special playful bond with Emma–suddenly whip themselves into such self-centred, shallow, judgmental rage. It’s hard to see how they could be so wicked after being raised by a good woman like Emma, but love of money, and obsession with status and the approval of others can do that. Part of it is the distance from employer to servant that grew along with their fortune. Another part, as we see in the exchange about Mr. Smith not knowing how to take his own meds, is that Emma has cared for this family too well, trained them to be unable to care for themselves, babied them until they see everything as a life or death crisis that only she can fix. It’s not too far a leap to then see her as being responsible for this predicament, or project onto her their own desire for material rewards. Whatever their reasons, it’s heart-wrenching to watch them turn that heartless and vindictive, against a woman who for years denied all her own needs to cater to theirs.
Things escalate to a murder charge and a scandalous court case, and sort out legally before everyone is further sobered and shamed by Ronnie’s tragic death. The Smith kids apologize but I love that this story makes them face the consequences. They don’t get to wound this wonderful woman in the heat of their tantrum, and then go back to normal once they get their inheritance and can afford to be forgiving. No, Emma is big enough to forgive but they’ve damaged a precious relationship and have to live with losing it. In that way, Emma continues her role as their teacher, leaving with them one last lesson in adulthood, civility and life’s true valuables. And instead of being bitter and lamenting all she’s lost, Emma goes on to share her love with a new but very similar family. She comes full circle, saving the life of baby number four in this new home, and only humbly asking in return that they name the boy “Ronnie.” Bring the tissues for that ending, when you watch Emma on TCM June 27th.