If you ever thought children are a good old age insurance...
... this movie will make you think again. The film is the story of a rural housewife with a layabout husband and four rowdy children, and she's completely devoted to all of them. We first meet Ma Shelby (Mae Marsh) when she is in her 30's, managing to eek out a living doing laundry during the day and into the wee hours. She's working so hard to provide for her brood that she nods off during the day. Meanwhile her husband claims that this job or that job does not pay enough to be worth his shoe leather, all the while stealing expense money from the small jar in which Ma has stashed the family's meager finances. The best thing we can say about this man is that apparently he doesn't beat or cheat on Ma Shelby. That's the best true statement you could put on his epitaph.
The children grow up, and the story begins to focus more on Johnny (James Dunn), the good son who is devoted to his mother, and his sweetheart Isabel (Sally Eilers). Johnny and Isabel have big plans, but a bad decision by Pa Shelby - whose values have not improved with age - starts a cascade of events that force Johnny far away from home for an extended period of time and eventually has Ma Shelby headed "over the hill" to the poor house in her old age. The term "poor house" is bandied about a great deal nowadays, but until the middle of the twentieth century it was a very real place where the poor, the old, and the unwanted were spartanly warehoused.
Now realize Ma's other three children are alive, well, and close enough to help, they just don't, mainly because of the objections of their spouses. The fact that there are three of them allows them to shift blame from one to the other without feeling personally responsible for Ma. How will this all play out? Watch and find out.
This is a heart rending look at how the elderly being disposable is not just something that started in modern times, but was a recognizable trend some eighty years ago and before, since this film is a talkie remake of an even older silent film. As for Ms. Marsh's portrayal of Ma, there is something just a little unrealistic about how she tolerates being pushed around and aside after a lifetime of devotion to her family, but it does make the final five minutes of the film all the more memorable.
Do note that this film is technically a precode, but not the way that you would normally think of a precode. The precode element is Ma's son Isaac, who is a preacher who steals even from his own mother to hide his unscrupulous dealings with others not so passive as Ma. He is truly his father's son, but unlike Dad he's found a money-making angle and veneer of respectability in his profession of man of the cloth. After the production code began to be enforced in 1934, nobody claiming to be a preacher would ever be allowed to be portrayed as a scoundrel as well.
Highly recommended for the acting of everyone involved and for covering a topic that is still relevant today.
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