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This film has nothing whatever to do with the film of the same title made in 1942, which has a different story altogether. This film set in London is based on the play 'The Old Lady Shows Her Medals' by J. M. Barrie, author of 'Peter Pan'. The film is remarkable for a spectacularly moving performance by the tiny (less than five feet tall) actress Beryl Mercer (1882-1939). Although she was only 48 years old when she made the film, she was made up to look much older and more pitiful. She had played this part on stage and so had learned how to inhabit the character to an uncanny degree. It is hard to believe she is acting. Some people have commented that because of her mannerisms in other films, she was an annoying actress, but I did not find her so at all in this film. She plays opposite Gary Cooper, 29, in his first speaking film role, and you can imagine the contrast of the tiny woman with the six foot two inch Cooper. The story is pathetic in the extreme, and Barrie, who was nothing if not sentimental, obviously wanted to squeeze some tears out of people, and he certainly produced a real tear-jerker here. The story is set during the First World War, apparently rather early in the War, because cynicism amongst the British has not yet set in, and they are still madly, hysterically patriotic, with all the women wanting eagerly to send their sons to fight and die for their country. (No one yet realized that the First World War was fought for no rational reason, but was a totally insane and pointless exercise in futility.) Beryl Mercer plays a cleaning lady named Sarah Ann Dowey who has never been married but has always longed for a son. All her cleaning lady friends, brilliantly portrayed by three wonderful British character actresses (Daisy Belmore, Nora Cecil and Tempe Piggott) boast about having sons who are at the Front, though whether they even have sons is doubtful, and they may have made it all up (Beryl Mercer has recently moved to their neighbourhood and would not know). Mercer is shown early on going round to every support organisation offering her services for her country and always being turned away because she is too old. She is not only depressed that no one will let her do anything to aid the War Effort, but even more so that she has no son to send to fight. She spots a small item in a newspaper about a young soldier in the Scottish Black Watch Regiment whose name is Kenneth Dowey, the same surname as herself. She creates a fantasy where he is her son, and tells her friends about how brave he is, and how often he writes to her. She steals postmarked envelopes from the waste baskets she is emptying and alters them so that they bear her own name and address, and shows them to the other cleaning ladies as the envelopes from her 'son'. She writes to the soldier and sends him cakes. Then he gets a seven days' leave from the Front to return to London, where he knows no one. So he decides to visit the woman to tell her to stop writing to him, as he is an orphan with no family and who does she think she is. However, she offers him tea and cake and is so sweet and pathetic and loving that he takes to her and he accepts her offer to stay in her flat, as he has nowhere else to go. She tells him she has told everyone that he is her son, so he decides to go along with it. She is so proud as she walks along the street with her giant 'son' beside her in uniform. Being in the Black Watch, he wears a kilt rather than trousers, and she jokes about his hairy legs. This is certainly the only time Gary Cooper wore a kilt in a film. All of Mercer's friends in the neighbourhood have their jaws drop at the sight of the amazing 'son' whom none of them had believed really existed. Cooper becomes genuinely attached to her and says that when he returns to his Regiment he will register her as his next of kin, which he does. Cooper experiences what it is like to have a family member for the first time. They go out and have wonderful times together. He even takes her to the grandest restaurant which any of them have ever heard of, which is called the Imperial, where they have champagne and dance, and she becomes tipsy and as she is dancing, she says ecstatically to Cooper 'Oh, Kenneth, I'm flying, I'm flying!' Mercer has an endearing and heart-rending child-like quality. The pathos of her character and the situation could not be greater. They both agree that they will after all be 'mother and son', as they realize they are both what each had always wanted. Then his seven days' leave is up and he has to return to the Front. The rest of the story must not be told because one does not reveal endings on the database. This is a deeply moving film, played with such honesty and innocence by Beryl Mercer, and with such directness by Cooper, that it transcends sentimentality and becomes something much more than that. It is a forgotten gem which should be less forgotten. It is also a record of a time and a place and a mood which need always to be kept in memory, the early days of that terrible First World War, one of the greatest tragedies of the human race. The director was Richard Wallace (1894-1951), who two years later directed THUNDER BELOW (1932) with Tallulah Bankhead, but whose best known film is probably THE FALLEN SPARROW (1943) with John Garfield and Maureen O'Hara.
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