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THE GREAT MEADOW is an early talkie "western" about settlers moving
from Virginia, across the Appalachian Mountains into Kentucky. The film
stars Johnny Mack Brown and Eleanor Boardman as a newly married couple
who make the trek to "the great meadow" because of a speech given by
This is a solid film with excellent production values that do not glorify or simplify frontier life in 18th century America. Life is rugged and tenuous with starvation, illness, and Indian attacks all a part of everyday life.
Brown is solid as the impetuous settler who is up to any task of frontier life. He leads the band of settlers across the rugged mountains and keeps them moving despite the hardships. After his mother is killed by the Indians, he foolishly embarks on a journey of revenge. Boardman, who made only a handful of talkies, is quite good as the naïve young woman who trudges forth with her husband, only to be abandoned by him.
The supporting cast includes solid work by Lucille LaVerne (the mother), Gavin Gordon as Brown's rival, Russell Simpson, Julie Haydon, Dale Fuller, Guinn Williams, Anita Louise, Virginia Sale, Sarah Padden, John Miljan, and Helen Jerome Eddy as the woman driven crazy by Indian attacks.
Worth looking for.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Far from boring, the opening minutes of the film take the time to
introduce us to the lives of Virginians in 1777. It helps establish how
folks lived in an established colony. A base line. The film then covers
the trials leading to a new country. This contrast is extreme. The
climb of the mountain is one of the great sequences in film history.
The idyll on the other side is rewarding but still packed with danger
from both the Native Americans and the weather. I don't believe any
other film quite captures how tenuous life was back then.
The dialog is a bit ripe but the actors deliver it with such conviction that I accepted it as the way folks talked in the 1700s. I became invested in them, particularly Gavin Gordon and Elenor Boardman. John Mack Brown simply plays himself. The Great Meadow deserves to be much better known. Turner Classic Movies should show this in the 8 PM spot with commentary by Robert Osborn.
Inspired by frontiersman Daniel Boone, brawny John Mack Brown (as Berk
Jarvis) decides to lead a group of settlers from relatively civilized
Virginia to the great wilderness of Kentucky. Before embarking, Mr.
Brown takes attractive Eleanor Boardman (as Diony Hall) as his wife.
The 1770s terrain is rough, but the bloodthirsty Native Americans
"Injuns" are rougher. It seems like they scalp someone close to Brown.
Ouch. Brown is off to seek justice and leaves Ms. Boardman without a
man around the house...
"The Great Meadow" would have looked much better as a "silent" movie, with sound effects and incidental dialogue. The director of several silent classics, Charles Brabin is clearly having trouble accommodating the changes in style necessitated by the new microphones. So is most of the cast. Brown, who had been fine in silent features, understandably moved from tenuous dramatic actor to "B" western movie star. Boardman, who had been exceptional in silent features, couldn't get a break and retired too early.
**** The Great Meadow (1/24/31) Charles Brabin ~ Johnny Mack Brown, Eleanor Boardman, Gavin Gordon, Lucille LaVerne
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is an interesting period piece in which an extremely predictable
and none-too-deep plot is partially salvaged by compelling history and
several captivating sequences, such as when the would-be settlers are
nearing their destination and have one final mountain to traverse in a
There are many small, thoughtful touches throughout that illustrate the trials and tribulations of early American pioneers, a group and era that are not often explored. Whether it's a close- up moving shot of the pioneers' and their animals bare feet and worn-out pants after months of journey or a static, minute-long shot of Diony and Evan trying to close and secure their cabin door during a blizzard, the little touches are treasures. Early scenes that dwell longer than expected on Diony's emotional farewells to her mother and sister, and small moments while parting from her father and brother, are also surprisingly moving and impressive, especially for a little pre-code B-movie.
These little moments counterbalance the film's just-as-frequent formulaic scenes. Most of the performances are overcooked to one degree or another, but the accents seem surprisingly authentic and the cast works really well together, neutralizing any negative effects of overacting.
In the end, it's a welcome, thoroughly enjoyable tribute to frontier families and the brave pioneer spirit of early America.
One doesn't watch this movie for it's somewhat uninspired acting,
especially by Johnny Mack Brown, who no matter what film he was in only
seemed to have one acting style. However, the realistic portrayal of
the hardships faced by early settlers in the 18th century is the real
reason to view this film. Those problems included weather, terrain,
American Indians, and internal disagreements.
The only two failures of this verisimilitude are Eleanor Boardman's pristine complexion throughout the movie and the hero's decision to leave his family and the other settlers and single-handedly take revenge on the leader of the Indian tribe that had been attacking the fort and surrounding settlements.
The Great Meadow (1931)
** (out of 4)
A group of Virginians led by Berk Jarvis (Johnny Mack Brown) decide to take the dangerous journey to Kentucky hoping for a better life. This film takes place in 1777 and the "quality" of this early talkie will have you thinking it was shot during that time as well. THE GREAT MEADOW is far from being great but there are several very good and exciting moments scattered throughout it. The only problem is that there are some very bad moments scattered throughout it as well. For the most part I think film buffs or fans of early talkies should at least be somewhat interesting in the film. The highlight is without question the various fight scenes that are sprinkled throughout. The majority of the time the settlers are fighting off Indian attacks and there's a pretty tense sequence where one breaks into a cabin with two women. Of course, this here also contains one of the very bad thing and that's the "reaction" of the woman not being attacked. The film starts off incredibly boring as we have to listen to everyone talking about whether they should go on this journey or not but it certainly picks up when we see them trying to get their equipment through the territory. Again, the action scenes are great and it's too bad we've got so many things that didn't work. The screenplay itself doesn't seem to know what it wants to do as the characters are all rather bland and there's really not much direction and there's especially a lack of energy at times. The sound quality is also pretty bland as is the direction. Fans of the lead star will enjoy seeing him here, although his performance makes the character feel like a really dumb redneck. The supporting performances are a rather mixed bag but the majority of them fall closer to bad than good.
Prairie saga with just awful performances in almost every role.
Incredibly slow moving considering the short running time. The
wretchedness of the performances can be partially, but only partially,
laid to the cringe worthy dialogue that the actors are forced to spout.
It's what they do with it where the rest of the problem lies.
Eleanor Boardman comes off best although some big silent screen gestures occasionally slip in to her work here and there. Still compared to the truly dreadful acting of the two main men, Johnny Mack Brown and Gavin Gordon, she's a Duse. That's Lucille La Verne, the voice of the evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, hamming it up as Brown's mother.
If you're a fan of Anita Louise don't be fooled by the prominence of her billing, she has what amounts to a bit in the very beginning of the film and is gone from the picture after that.
All in all a struggle to get through unless you're a student of the early transition from silence to sound.
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