Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The "lost" RKOs

Back in June, I recommended Rafter Romance, one of six RKO movies the rights to which were transferred to Merian C. Cooper, leaving them out of circulation for decades. It's airing again tomorrow at 6:00 AM ET as part of TCM's 80th anniversary salute to RKO, followed by another of the six: One Man's Journey, at 7:15 AM.

Lionel Barrymore stars as Dr. Eli Watt. Financial problems prevented him from making it in the big city, so he returns home with his young son to practice medicine in his home town. His first case is a childbirth case, and when the mother dies in childbirth, the father doesn't want the baby, so the good doctor ends up with both a foster daughter, and a housekeeper (played by May Robson).

This isn't a very rich town, so Dr. Watt struggles to pay all the bills while all his clients pay him in any way they can. Our doctor continues to minister to the poor, even as his son grows up to be Joel McCrea, and as other doctors grow wealthy. Barrymore's Dr. Watt would like to go to New York to do research, but it seems as though something always happens to prevent him from doing so. In lieu of this, he insists that his son go on to the bigger and better things as a doctor that he could never have for himself.

The story line here, to be sure, is somewhat old-fashioned and predictable, so we expect that our hero will get his day in the son, although the way it happens is not quite what we expect. The upshot, however, is that we shouldn't really watch this movie for its story, but for the acting in it. Lionel Barrymore had already won an Oscar for A Free Soul, but he's phenomenal here. You can really feel for this poor put-upon doctor whom life keeps throwing a curveball, but takes it with aplomb and dignity. His Dr. Watt is the epitome of the good country doctor making house calls for whom we all hold a nostalgic spot in our hearts, even if the doctors we knew grewing up really weren't like this. May Robson is wonderful, as always; she was nominated for an Oscar the same year as this (1933) for playing Apple Annie in Lady for a Day. Playing the older, motherly housekeeper seems right up her alley: she plays it much the way Ann B. Davis played Alice in The Brady Bunch, ie. the sort of housekeeper that anybody old enough and from a rich enough family to have had a housekeeper might remember the stereotypically good housekeeper. Joel McCrea isn't quite as good as he'd later go on to be; however, it's not entirely his fault as he isn't given all that much to do with his role. Despite the father-son relationship being an important part of the movie, especially the conflict of a father wanting something for his son that the son isn't so certain he wants, all this is clearly being examined from the father's point of view. One of the interesting bits of trivia about One Man's Journey is that the McCrea character marries a woman played by Frances Dee, who would shortly become McCrea's real-life wife, and spend the next 57 years of her life with him until his death in 1990.

As I mentioned with Rafter Romance, these movies never received a DVD release, having been out of circulation so long. In the case of both Rafter Romance and One Man's Journey, it's really a shame, since they've both got stars well enough known for the movies to merit being released on DVD. What this means, of course, is that you'll have to watch the movie when it shows up on TCM tomorrow.

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