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Marvelous Mae Marsh (as Ma Shelby) is a hard-working wife and mother, toiling to help husband James Kirkwood (as Pa) make ends meet and raise four children - there's eldest Joe Hachey (he's Isaac), who can recite Bible verses by heart; trouble-making Tom Conlon (he's Johnny), whose delinquency invites Pa to think "spare the rod, spoil the child"; plus tattletale brother Julius Molnar (he's Thomas) and selfish little Marilyn Harris (she's Susan). The children are routinely slapped around, and even whipped. Thanks mainly to Ms. Marsh, the they somehow grow into happy young adults, but not for long...
A Christmas gathering turns into tragedy when Mr. Kirkwood sneaks out to transport some bootlegged liquor - with the automobile owned by son James Dunn (as Johnny). Turned good as he grew up, Mr. Dunn takes the rap for his dad, and is sent to prison. Henceforth, there are more tears than laughter for steadfast mother Marsh. Kirkwood meets his maker. Children Olin Howlin (as Isaac), Edward Crandall (as Thomas), and Joan Peers (as Susan) let Marsh down, again and again. Growing old, feeble, and unwanted, Marsh is sent "Over the Hill" to the poorhouse, where she is put to work scrubbing floors...
You should be able to guess the ending before the curtain closes. The nicely presented "Prologue" gives a clear indication of where each character is going, but there really aren't many explanations for the root of this family's trouble, when you think about it - the heroine played by Marsh isn't given enough motivation to make her continued heedlessness work for the character. She borders ignorant. As if that wasn't enough, the son, called upon for story salvation, loses his appeal during the scene when he drags his brother through the streets until his bare buttocks are streaked with blood. The story needed some script work.
It worked better as a silent picture, "Over the Hill to the Poorhouse" (1920), earning then star Mary Carr some "Best Performance" accolades in 1921. Marsh and director Henry King certainly saw Ms. Carr in the original, and recognized its potential as a sound re-make. The idea didn't quite work this time, but the basic plot became a success later on. This was Marsh's first "talkie", and she gives Mr. King a lovely performance. That Marsh was a star so early must have made 1930s audiences think her ancient, but she was still a young woman in when this film came out, and not quite ready for "old lady" roles.
Other notable cast members include Dunn's adult sweetheart Sally Eilers (as Isabel Potter), little Billy Barty as one of Marsh's grandchildren, and faithful George Reed as a likely family retainer. And, Kirkwood seldom gets any credit. He was a popular leading man and character actor alongside Marsh in D.W. Griffith's "Biograph" silents; and, Kirkwood's scenes with Marsh are outstanding. Considering the Griffith connection, Marsh's last words for King are interesting. "Isn't Life Wonderful?" recalls her former director's 1924 film, but some scenes looks more like Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946).
****** Over the Hill (11/29/31) Henry King ~ Mae Marsh, James Dunn, Sally Eilers, James Kirkwood
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