Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Little Men (1940)


Cast:
Kay Francis ... Jo March

Jack Oakie ... Willie the Fox
George Bancroft ... Major Burdle
Jimmy Lydon ... Dan
Ann Gillis ... Nan
Carl Esmond ... Professor Bhaer (as Charles Esmond)
Richard Nichols ... Teddy
Casey Johnson ... Robby
Francesca Santoro ... Bess
Johnny Burke ... Silas
Lillian Randolph ... Asia
Sammy McKim ... Tommy
Edward Rice ... Demi
Anne Howard ... Daisy
Jimmy Zahner ... Jack (as Jimmy Zaner)

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod.
Produced by Gene Towne.
Based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott.

Screenplay by Mark Kelly.
Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca.
Film Editing by George Hively.
Art Direction by Van Nest Polglase.
Set Decoration by Darrell Silvera.
Costume Design by Edward Stevenson.
Second Unit Direction by Sam Ruman.
Associate Art Direction by Alfred Herman.
Sound Recording by John E. Tribby.
Special Effects by Vernon L. Walker.
Musical Direction by Roy Webb.



Released December 7, 1941.
A production by The Play's The Thing Productions Inc.
An RKO Release.


Background:

Katharine Hepburn struck career-winning gold with her portrayal of Jo March in RKO’s production of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1933). Alcott’s follow-up to Little Women, Little Men, was brought to the screen by RKO in 1934 with Ralph Morgan, Dickie Moore, and Erin O’Brien. (Interesting side notes, Moore played opposite Kay twice on screen with Passion Flower [1930] and My Bill [1938]. O’Brien later replaced Kay in a stage tour of ‘State of the Union’ in the late 1940s.) Unfortunately, the New York Times was correct in their review of the film, dismissing it as “too obviously rigged for tears and laughs.”

Kay’s free-lance career had been stellar prior to Little Men. She virtually walked off with In Name Only (1939) from Cary Grant and Carole Lombard, held her own against the temperamental Deanna Durbin in It’s A Date (1940), and surprised audiences with her appearance opposite Randolph Scott and George Bancroft in the Universal Western, When the Daltons Rode (1940). But Little Men was not worthy of Kay’s talents, and besides, the role of Jo was already so identified with Katharine Hepburn that it was impossible for even the best actress to convince audiences she was indeed matching Hepburn’s portrayal all the way. When people talk of the unmentionable movies of Kay’s post-Warners career, it’s the films like Little Men they’re talking about.

Jack Oakie was the star of Paramount’s Let’s Go Native (1930), which featured Jeanette MacDonald as Oakie’s leading lady and Kay in a supporting role. The two play well off of each other, as do Kay and George Bancroft, who made their fourth and final film appearance in Little Men. Their first pairing was in the comedy sketch “Impulses” in Paramount on Parade (1930), and they were costarred together in Scandal Sheet (1931) and When the Daltons Rode before appearing in this film.

Borden’s own Elsie the Cow was borrowed for the film, and apparently the milk manufactures insisted on a parade in Los Angeles, headed by Kay Francis, as a welcoming for the cow’s arrival (talk about real diva demands…). Filming began in July, 1940 and was completed in August. Released December 7, 1940 to unenthusiastic reviews (and as a second-rate programmer), Little Men was semi popular enough with children and adults to gain attention, though clearly the entire cast was worthy of better material.

Webmaster's Review:



Despite hating society as a whole, especially children, corrupt Major Burdle realizes he has no other choice but to take in old pal Lefty’s son. He names the boy Dan, and, to the surprise of Willie, keeps the boy into his teen years, when he comes to realize that now is the time to send Dan off to a good school.

Dan doesn’t know that Major isn’t his father, and Major threatens Willie into keeping his mouth shut that the boy is really Lefty’s.

Plumfield is the chosen place of learning for Dan’s education, though he does not want to leave the man he believe is his father behind. The school is run by Jo and her Swedish husband. At Plumfield the children learn about everything from the basic subjects to yard work and music.

Unfortunately, Jo and her husband are in a financial predicament. They owe the bank about $5,000, and don’t have the means necessary to raise the money. On top of these financial problems, Dan does not get along with the other children. They see him as an outsider, and pathetic fistfights with the other boys and, yes, girls, push him further and further away from his classmates.

Perhaps Plumfield’s star piece is Buttercup, a cow that the bank is willing to take for $300. Jo insists that, even though they desperately need the money, she will never permit the selling of Buttercup. She tries to get Dan to learn how to milk her, but he is resistant in learning how to work the farm.

Jo tells Dan that they don’t punish children in the usual way at Plumfield. Instead of her spanking him, she hold out her hand and tells him to hit her with a stick. He hits her once, and she tells him to go harder, but he throws down the stick and begins to cry.

I’m not sure what this is all about, but the scene comes close to turning this movie into one of those pseudo-bondage flicks.

Financial strains force the bank to take the Plumfield house away from Jo, in a package which includes the selling of Buttercup, too. One of the boys suspects that Dan’s father was in on the bank’s taking of the house, and this leads to another ridiculous fight between adolescent boys.

Major decides to con money into Jo’s pocket, which leads to his ultimate arrest. Willie, a wanted man, tells Jo to turn him in, and take the $5,000 reward and use it to keep Plumfield open.

This is one of the most unusual movies Kay Francis ever made. She’s so miscast, though, in a way, that’s what makes this click for her fans. In all of her costume movies, she seemed a little too-modern for the period wardrobe, and here again she stands out as slightly unusual.

Her hairstyle is also distractingly unattractive.

She doesn’t have any real opportunities to act, and just walks through this one without doing anything. She does try to give off her usual sweetness and light, but it fails to work in this one. In terms of her career, Little Men sticks out like a soar thumb, which is even more misfortunate because it’s one of her most accessible films.

If only Give Me Your Heart was as available as this one.

Jack Oakie and George Bancroft are good to watch, and the perfect choices for their assigned roles. Bancroft is especially good, and I like the way he goes about hating the world. Probably the most believable actor in the movie, his character is also one which undergoes a major change throughout the movie, as does Jimmy Lyndon as Dan.

While the Plumfield school is beautiful to look at, and the sets are pretty realistic while also being nice to look at, the cinematography and sound recording are not up to the quality of the other films being produced in 1940. It places this movie between the A and B range. As mentioned, the sets were obviously a little more costlier than the other B movies of the time, but everything else seems to have been rushed through.

Little Men was the third and final of three movies Gene Towne produced. Towne spent most of his Hollywood career as a screenwriter, working on scripts for Goldie (1931), with Jean Harlow, and Eternally Yours (1939), with Loretta Young and David Niven.






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