Friday, June 28, 2013

Barbara Likes Asparagus

Over the next two sessions, we are going to watch two versions of the same story - So Big, from the novel by Edna Ferber.  This week, we begin with the 1932 version, starring Barbara Stanwyck as Selina Peake De Jong.

The story opens in Chicago; Selina Peake's mother is dead, and she is being raised by her father, Simeon Peake(Robert Warwick), a professional gambler.  Simeon is a good man, devoted to his child.  He advises her to realize that "... Life is just a grand adventure. The trick is to act in it and look out at the same time. And remember: no matter what happens - good or bad - it's just so much velvet."  His murder results in Selina having to fend for herself.  She becomes a teacher, and heads to a Dutch settlement in Illinois.  She lives with the family of Klass Poole (Alan Hale), a fairly dense farmer who resists sending his son, Roelf  (Dick Winslow) to school, and is oblivious to the fact that their lifestyle is killing his wife.  Selina forms a friendship with the artistic Roelf (who develops a crush on her), but she falls in love with local farmer Pervus De Jong (Earle Fox), and, much to Roelf's disappointment, marries Pervus.

Stanwyck is, not surprisingly, magnificent.  We see her convincingly age from young girl to old woman.  It should be noted that the old age makeup is very well done.  It is subtle, but it certainly gets the point across that Selina's life has not been easy.  Some scenes that really jump out are the early ones between Selina and her father - both actors really help to demonstrate the strong bond that exists between them.  Another is the scene in the Chicago Haymarket, when the local "fancy women", who feel sorry that Selina and Dirk (Dickie Moore, being very adorable as "So Big", Selina's nickname for her little boy) have to sleep in the wagon, offer them money.  Selina's gracious refusal really tells us so much about the character.  Her later scenes with the grown-up Dirk (Hardie Albright) demonstrate her love and concern for her son, as well as her unwillingness to meddle in his life.  She wants him to see the beauty in life, to have a career that he loves, and not be someone who is only about making money.  Yet, she tries not to criticize, only to love and let Dirk find his own way.


We were also pleased to see  Bette Davis in a supporting role as Dallas O'Mara, a career-minded, independent young lady who attracts Dirk.  One scene that was particularly interesting was a dinner between Dirk and Dallas.  We had previously seen Dirk dining with a wealthy married woman.  She orders "De Jong Asparagus", and comments on the Dirk's name.  He immediately denies any relationship to the produce.  Yet, on his first date with Dallas, he is quite open about his mother's asparagus farm. Dallas' delight at knowing Dirk is from the country is quite lovely, as is the scene when she finally meets Selina. 

George Brent (Roelf Pool) is wasted here.  We don't really seem him until the very end of the film, and only for a short period of time. Of course, this is the beginning of Brent's extensive career.  He would finally get second billing on his next film, The Rich are Always with Us (which we discussed recently).

It is hard to imagine the well-educated, independent Selina with Pervus.  He's rather hard-headed (though NOT like the moronic Klaas Poole), has no education to speak of, and very little ambition.  But, it is obvious that he loves Selina, is willing, up to a point, to learn from her, and wants the best for her and their little son.  But we also know that, in the end, she is probably going to do better financially without him. He is stuck in the past. Selina (and perhaps Dallas) are the future.

Next time, we'll discuss the 1953 version of the film. In the meantime, here is a scene with Stanwyck as Selina (and Noel Francis as Mabel):