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I first saw this movie more than 25 years ago when it was shown as a
late night movie in one of the TV stations in the Philippines. I was so
moved by this film. I couldn't choke my tears during the scene when
James Dunn found out about the sufferings of his mother, and how he
avenged it. I was rooting throughout. Because the film was shown at a
very late hour (into the wee hours of the morning), I saw it alone. The
channel always had the sense to show these classic movies during those
times and I was fortunate to have sat through many of those screenings
because it only made me appreciate the classics more.
The following day, I was still overwhelmed by the film that I couldn't help sharing it with my mom who was an avid movie fan herself. I said it was wonderful, and a great tearjerker, and it was really old and in black and white. And it will be reshown at 1pm that afternoon as a filler in that channel.
So there it was for the second time time I watched the movie all over again, this time with my mom and two of my sisters. I didn't cry again through the heartwrenching scenes...but I smiled triumphantly as I saw from the corner of my eyes as my mom and my sisters subtly wipe away the tears on their eyes during those scenes. They sat through the whole movie. No comments..just deep sighs..and muffled sniffs...and I knew...I just knew...this film is a true classic.
Over the years, I never forgot about this film. It was a defining moment. It's fascinating how a movie made in 1931, black and white, fast moving almost like the silents, a setting and set of characters I can't identify with, spoken in a language different from my native tongue, can move me as much as it did.
I can't rate this film any less than 10. Afterall, rating is a personal thing. I just love this film.
September 5, 2007 - I was very pleased to see "egalitari"s post. What a small world indeed. You must love classic movies too. Thanks for your comments.
Wow! I have been looking for information where I can find this film. I saw this movie for the first time when I was a lot younger in the Philippines. I also saw this movie on a late night and once on an afternoon. Could it be possible that the person who also commented here and I saw this movie at the same time during the showing in the Philippines? This movie also made an impact on me specially when the son discovered the difficulties his mother faced. I cried to tears as well. I was also surprised to see male nudity well somewhat nude. As the son dragged another guy on the street his pants ripped clearly showing his bare butt. This must have been before the censors in Hollywood was created. I could be wrong about this scene since this was over three decades ago last i saw it. Its nice to know that someone else saw it other than me. Thanks to the internet. Thanks to IMDb!
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
... 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
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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