Thursday, September 11, 2014

Kay's Men

Vacations are over, and the Movie Night Group has reassembled for another Kay Francis movie.  This time, we chose another film version of a novel: Little Men (1940), loosely based on the Louisa May Alcott book, which followed the life of Jo March Bhaer (Kay Francis) after the events of Little Women.  And I do mean loosely.  The novel was a somewhat episodic look at six months in the lives of the staff and students of the Plumfield School, which is run by Jo and her husband (Charles Esmond).  The school has both male and female students, some of whom are relatives (Jo's sons, and sister Meg's daughter), as well as other boarding children.  And that is pretty much where any similarity to the novel ends.  Because this film (unlike the 1934 version which was much closer to the book) really is about the lives of Major Burdle (George Bancroft) - a medicine show salesman and con artist, his adopted son Dan (Jimmy Lydon), and Burdle's colleague - petty thief Willie the Fox (Jack Oakie).

While Kay Francis' Jo is really a great effort on her part, she's about the only one in the film that is attractive.  Professor Bhaer is a complete moron.  The film wants us to believe he is an innocent, but  he is, in fact, a complete doofus.  Imagine giving your life savings to a complete stranger because you like his face!  And this, when Professor Bhaer is already in debt because he is unable to approach the parents of the boarding students to collect the monies owed to him and his wife.  Because of Bhaer's stupidity, his home and his school are endangered (in the book, Jo and Bhaer own Plumfield outright - it was left to Jo by Aunt March).  Charles Esmond tries to make Bhaer appealing, but he doesn't have a whole lot to work with. Bhaer is beyond naive, and it is very difficult to get past his disregard for the safety of his family and students.
I suspect none of us would claim to be fans of Jack Oakie, but he is truly out-of-place in this story.  His "comic relief" is not really funny, and his inclusion in the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  Without giving away the ending, his position as a deus-ex-machina is really silly. Our other lead, played by George Bancroft, is a con man and thief.  The only appealing aspect of his character is his love for his adopted son.  What Bancroft brings to the role is an obvious affection for the young man, and a desire that Dan have a better life than what Major Burdle can provide for him.

We are so used to seeing Kay Francis in prestige pictures that this RKO film seems like a very low budget film.  Francis, who was highly paid in the 1930s, was beginning to feel Warner Brothers disinterest in her, as the groomed younger (and lower paid) actresses like Bette Davis to replace her.  This TCM article goes into more detail about the persecution Francis faced: the studio even loaded her scripts with "r" words, so her lisp was emphasized. Despite that, her Jo is a good, strong character.  It's obvious though, that she is not the star - as you can see by the ad below, even a cow gets the same billing as Ms. Francis.

We'll be back next week with a 1940s mystery film. 

1 comment:

  1. I just fired this book up on the Kindle this weekend! A fave story of mine, and I really do enjoy the film, too! Thanks for the reminder; I'll have to see about watching it soon!


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