Thursday, February 12, 2009

Pick your character actor

TCM are showing the 1938 melodrama Of Human Hearts at 6:00 AM on February 13. James Stewart is nominally the star, but the accolades go to a slew of Hollywood's great character actors.

Stewart plays Jason Wilkins, the son of a preacher who moves his family west to Ohio in mid-19th century Ohio. Unfortunately, the life of a preacher isn't very financially rewarding, so the family is always hard up for money. This is especially problematic when Jason finds that he likes the town doctor (Charles Coburn), despite the fact that Coburn likes to tipple too much and Jason's parents find the doctor a bad influence. Still, Jason wants to become a doctor, even if it means all sorts of financial hardship.

And it certainly is a hardship, especially after Jason's father (played by Walter Huston) dies. Jason's mother Mary (Beulah Bondi) scrimps and saves, and it never seems to be enough. Worse for her, Jason doesn't seem to be doing enough to show his gratitude. He was originally planning to come back to Ohio to practice medicine, but a little thing called the Civil War intervenes, and Jason decides to serve in the Union Army's medical corps. Eventually, after years of not seeing her son, Mary asks for intercession -- in the form of a letter to President Lincoln. If that seems unrealistic enough, it gets more melodramatic: President Lincoln (played by John Carradine) reads the letter, and actually summons Jason, telling him to go home to Mother.

Despite the fact that the plot is highly unrealistic and filled with melodrama that will cause the audiences of today to howl with laughter, it's really a pretty good movie. It's filled with the great character actors of the era. I've already named several of them above, and haven't included Guy Kibbee as the keeper of the town's general store, or Sterling Holloway in a brief role. All of them are good, but by far the best is Bondi as the mother. She earned a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, the only one in her long career.

Of Human Hearts has never been released to DVD; perhaps it will as part of some James Stewart collection in the future. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast doesn't have such high name recognition now, which is a big shame, since those character actors do just as much to make the films of Hollywood's studio era worthwhile as the stars ever did.

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