Tuesday, March 7, 2017
Barbara Marries an Immigrant
It's 1909. Mary Archer (Barbara Stanwyck) nervously awaits the return of her cousin (and possible fiance) Jeff (Ralph Bellamy) from Germany. But Jeff's return changes both of their lives when Mary meets his friend, Hugo Wilbrandt (Otto Kruger). Hugo and Mary fall deeply in love, marry, and begin a family, consisting of their dachshund Cammie and their son Teddy (Ronnie Cosby). Hugo begins a successful career as a professor in Rossmore College, and becomes an American citizen. Their lives seemed blessed, until World War I erupts. From that point on, Hugo and Mary are shunned as the enemy, and their happy existence becomes a series of tragedies.
Ever in My Heart (1933), a pre-code film, is almost relentlessly sad; there are parts of the film that are almost too much to bear. Since it begins as an almost lighthearted romance, the ultimate spiral downward makes for an even more intense viewer experience. Released by Warner Brothers studio, which also gave us such socially relevant films as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932, which looked at the American criminal justice system) and Heroes for Sale (1933, which dealt with the problems faced by World War I veterans); this film too is attempting to highlight injustice within the United States. The film, however, came out as Germany was electing a Nazi government, and beginning their persecution of the Jewish population (Victoria Wilson's A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940). As a result, it probably was not perhaps seen in the light which screenwriter Bertram Millhauser had intended.
Barbara Stanwyck was not fond of this picture (TCM article) or any of her films at Warner Brothers; she called them "a series of parts that were much alike - women who were suffering and poor, and living amid sloppy surroundings." That may be true, but she is dynamic as a woman who watches her life crash in ruins about her. We have no doubt of her sincerity when Mary refuses to leave her husband, despite their reduced circumstances. When neighbors, who had been their friends begin to reject them because of her husband's nationality, Stanwyck gives Mary a quiet but determined dignity.
We were enchanted by Ronnie Cosby in the role of young Teddy. He is just delighful in the role of the affectionate child whose life becomes a tragedy. Mr. Cosby's career began with a small role in 1929's Madame X. He worked steadily through 1939, appearing in films such as Broadway Through a Keyhole (1933), Little Men (1934), and the 1937 remake of Madame X. His last appearance was in 1941's Birth of the Blues. He died in 2010, at the age of 82.
Ralph Bellamy is also excellent as Jeff, Mary's first cousin and original intended. Jeff is carefully set up as a contrast to Mary's brother, Sam (played with a certain amount of petulance and jealousy by Frank Albertson). When Sam revolts against his brother-in-law merely because he was born in Germany, it is Jeff who tries to soothe the family. Though Jeff describes himself as passionless, is always a true friend to both Mary and to his rival, Otto. When Mary's family ignore her, it is Jeff who ultimately convinces Grandma Archer (Laura Hope Crews) to take in the starving couple. That Jeff is also a member of the very biased family is sometimes hard to remember - he is much more like the very open-minded Mary than the rest of the Archers. We understand why Mary at one point was considering a marriage with Jeff.
As is often the case, Ms. Stanwyck and Mr. Kruger were not the first choices for the Wilbrandts. Kay Francis and Paul Muni were originally considered (AFI Catalog). Not surprisingly, The New York Times reviewer was not enamored of the film, calling it "meaningless to this new generation" because it was not "news any more that the war propaganda which dramatized the Germans as baby murderers and wife beaters was prejudiced."
This comment by the Times in 1933 is quite ironic, given that Ever in My Heart is much more timely today than any of us might like to admit. Just days before we viewed the film, I heard this report from NPR story concerning US residents, most of the Muslims, who are fleeing to Canada - and to arrest - rather than staying the in U.S. This film is testimony to the fact that these are not new prejudices, and that despite this film's pleas for tolerance and understanding, history keeps repeating itself, with the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and today with a political agenda aimed at a particular religious group.
As we publish this article, the news of Robert Osborne's death has just been announced. It's with a heavy heart that we add our voices to those that mourn this kind, wonderful and intelligent man. I had the privilege of meeting him at a reception several years ago; he was gracious and welcoming. But more than this, I will miss my nightly visit with him on television, where he answered my need for more information, and provided a context and an appreciation for the films that I've always loved. I have learned at the feet of a master; he will be greatly missed.
We will leave you with this trailer and with a reminder that no one in the United States should be forced to state that "they let me be a citizen, but they won't let me be an American."