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The Waiting Womans Ward of a large lying-in hospital, with all
joys and sorrows, is the place where LIFE BEGINS.
This nearly forgotten drama is a fine little soap opera, replete with comedy and tragedy, all tied into the lives of the maternity staff and their patients. The frankness with which the subject matter is handled points up the movie's pre-Code status.
Marvelous Aline MacMahon, as the sympathetic head nurse, is the calm center of the film, the rock around which all the currents flow. Able to handle any crisis or emergency, she is the mothers' best, sometimes last, friend. Surrounding MacMahon is a bevy of excellent costars: Loretta Young as a convicted murderess released from prison long enough to give birth; Eric Linden as her frightened young husband; brassy Glenda Farrell as a dame who hates children; sweet Clara Blandick as a very mature mother in for her sixth birthing; Preston Foster & Hale Hamilton as thoughtful, compassionate doctors and Frank McHugh as a comically frantic father-to-be.
Movie mavens will recognize Bobs Watson as a wee tyke who wants to see the Stork; Paul Fix as a nervous husband who promises to behave like a `little soldier;' Gilbert Roland as a distraught Italian husband and Elizabeth Patterson as a snooty doctor's wife interested in adopting Farrell's son - all uncredited.
There are a few absurdities in the plot - some of the mothers are obviously much too old; Farrell becomes blatantly drunk in the Ward but none of the staff seem to notice; an obviously psychotic patient is able to wander around at will - but this really only enhances the quirky entertainment value of the film and keeps things from becoming too serious.
Life Begins - and ends - in a typical 1930's maternity / recovery ward,
where we view 48 hours in the lives of several high risk pregnant
women, played by Loretta Young, Glenda Farrell, Clara Blandick (Aunty
Em???), Vivienne Osborne, Dorothy Tree, and Gloria Shea, as they await
to give birth. While the film features plot devices which seem far
fetched today when maternity wards are much more controlled and
restricted, it does offer us a look back in time to see what giving
birth in a typical city hospital in 1932 was like for our grandmothers
and great-grandmothers. I found the film fascinating and exceptionally
Oddly enough, the most outstanding performance in this film comes from a male cast member, young Eric Linden as Jed Sutton, Grace's (Loretta Young) husband. What an actor! As a first time father, Jed is distraught and uneasy with hospital staff who seem to brush off his concerns about his wife as they might brush crumbs off a cafeteria table. I felt his every concern keenly. I'd like to see more of this actor's work. He had a very emotional voice, which was used to unforgettable effect in Gone With The Wind. In that film Eric played the young soldier whose leg was amputated without anesthesia, who screamed "Don't cut! Don't cut!" as Scarlett fled the hospital in horror. Chilling! Another great performance is from Aline MacMahon, who plays Miss Bowers, the nurse. Her character is a salt of the earth type, the kind of nurse we all hope to get for our hospital stays, who breaks the hospital rules constantly in order to show a more humane side of the medical profession.
Loretta Young did another superb acting job here as well, a very authentic and deeply felt performance as Grace. My, she is great in these precodes, I've really grown to appreciate her more as an actress the last few months.
Glenda Farrell played her role of a shrill unwed mother a little over the top for my taste (didn't anyone know back in 1932 that swigging brandy from a hot water bottle might be hazardous to unborn babies' health?) but her character redeems herself in the end.
Also in the cast was an uncredited Gilbert Roland, silent movie star, as a grieving Italian husband. His screen time was brief, but notable.
Life Begins is a must-see precode, try to catch it sometime on TCM, but remember to bring a few hankies to cry into. 9 out of 10.
Life Begins is a wonderful pre-code film starring some of the best of
the era. It is set in the maternity ward of a hospital, particularly in
the room for the women expected to have trouble. In it is an older
woman, a tough unwed mother (Glenda Farrell), a frail young woman, an
Italian woman, and the main character (Loretta Young) who is spending
20 years in prison for murder. Her husband (Eric Linden) is at the
hospital at every second aching to know that everything will be okay.
Aline MacMahone plays the nurse who is great at her job.
This film is highly interesting and entertaining. It isn't terribly shocking in any way, but it is interesting to see such a neglected subject on the silver screen. The acting is brilliant all around. Loretta Young is gorgeous here in her prime. Eric Linden comes out of nowhere and is sincere as can be. His innocence is reminiscent of Michael J. Fox. Glenda Farrell is great as always, a staple of pre-codes and for good reason.
Sort of like a very primitive episode of "General Hospital" set in a natal ward (and one for tough cases at that), this fast-moving programmer has a satisfying emotional impact -- mainly because Eric Linden, as the distraught young husband in the main plot, is so palpably a wreck, and with such good reason. His expectant wife, Loretta Young, is brought to the ward at the beginning of a 20-year prison sentence for offing a lecher who probably had it coming to him; Ms. Young, as always, doesn't do anything to disinvite audience sympathy, and she's a little too good to be true, though sympathetic and lovely to look at, of course. Her difficult pregnancy and relationships with the other girls of the ward form the heart of the movie, and the outcome -- not an entirely happy one -- feels right. Aline MacMahon, "one of the cinema's few perfect actresses," in the apt words of film historian David Thomson, exudes warmth and authority as the head nurse, and Glenda Farrell, as a none-too-willing new mom of twins, gets to croon "Frankie and Johnny" as a drunken lullaby. Frank McHugh figures in another subplot, and he gets to show more range than Warners usually permitted him. It's scaled and paced modestly, and Linden's expectant-dad panic stays with you for days -- this sort of part was often played for laughs, but he's a terrified young kid in trouble, and very persuasive.
I saw this movie yesterday on Turner, and I was unable to stop watching until it was over, even though I sort of could guess what would happen. Farrell was great in her role, and everyone else did a super job. Some of it seemed to stretch the limits, but all in all, I loved it!! If you get the chance to see it, please do! I actually cried at a few scenes, but then I guess if you are a mom you would. Loretta is beautiful, and I was just in astonishment at the very idea of their being unwed moms there, it seemed ahead of its' time. I say, WATCH IT if you can, and don't listen to criticisms. As they say, I laughed, I cried! I thoroughly enjoyed it!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Even in the 21st century, child-bearing is dangerous: women have
miscarriages, and give birth prematurely. Seventy-five years ago, it
was not uncommon for women to die during childbirth. That is the theme
of "Life Begins": a look at the "difficult cases" ward of a maternity
hospital. Loretta Young plays the lead, a woman brought here from
prison (what crime she committed is not germane to the plot) to give
birth; she's conflicted about the fact she's going to have to give her
baby up after birth. She's in a ward with several other women, who
share their joys and pain with each other.
Although Loretta Young is the lead, the outstanding performance, as usual, is put in by Glenda Farrell. Farrell was one of Warner's "B" women in the 1930s, showing up quite a bit in supporting roles, and sometimes getting the lead in B movies (Farrell played Torchy Blane in several installments of the "Torchy" B-movie series.) Here, Farrell plays an expectant mother who doesn't want her children, since they'll only get in the way. She does everything she can to get in the way of the nurses, including smuggling liquor into the ward (this of course during the Prohibition days), and drinking like a fish -- apparently they'd never heard of fetal alcohol syndrome back in the 30s.
Interestingly, unlike most movie of the early 1930s, it's not the women being bumbling idiots getting in the way of the heroic men -- that situation is reversed, with the expectant fathers being quivering mounds of jelly. (Watch for veteran character actor Frank McHugh as one of the expectant fathers.) "Life Begins", being an early talkie, treats the subject with a fair dollop of melodrama, to be sure, but it's quite a charming little movie. Turner Classic show it, albeit infrequently; I've only seen it show up on a few days honoring Loretta Young. But it's highly recommended viewing when it does show up.
Glenda Farrell steals the picture as a reluctant (to put it mildly)and hard-drinking mother-to-be. Glenda appeared in numerous Warner Brothers pictures during the 1930s and she is always a delight. Eric Linden gives a nice performance as the distraught husband of convict Loretta Young. Preston Foster has very little to do as one of the doctors. Aline MacMahon is effective as the motherly nurse. Clara Blandick (she achieved cinematic immortality as Auntie Em in THE WIZARD OF OZ) is a rather mature mother-to-be. Familiar faces such as Elizabeth Patterson, Esther Howard and Paul Fix appear in unbilled roles. Also unbilled, surprisingly, is Gilbert Roland as a non-English speaking father whose child does not survive. In 1932 he was a big enough name to warrant billing, so it was a surprise to see him in an unbilled bit.
A maternity ward for difficult mothers-to-be is the primary setting for
this unusual drama. The main story focuses on boyish expectant father
Eric Linden (as Jed Sutton), who arrives at the "Waiting Womans Ward"
(sic) ahead of his wife, lovely Loretta Young (as Grace). Sounding
desperate, Mr. Sutton begs doctors to take care of the fragile Ms.
Young, a imprisoned murderer. Young is only in the hospital to have the
baby, and Sutton fears she has lost the will to live. Sutton wants to
fight for an appeal or pardon.
Young and Linden are a very appealing couple, with the lesser-known Linden surprisingly endearing. The story takes an atypical, and thought-provoking turn when doctors ask Linden to make a decision about his wife's pregnancy - then ignore his request. Sweet older mother Clara Blandick (as Mrs. West) offers sage advice. But, also watch for boozing baby-hating mother Glenda Farrell (as Florette Darien), the always underrated Aline MacMahon (as Miss Bowers), and the First National/Warner Bros. team.
****** Life Begins (9/4/32) James Flood ~ Eric Linden, Loretta Young, Aline MacMahon, Glenda Farrell
Life Begins (1932)
*** (out of 4)
The ultimate "chic flick" takes place in a maternity ward as various women discuss children, their lives and their hopes for the future. The entire cast including Loretta Young makes this thing worth watching. It's overly dramatic throughout and quite preachy and heavy handled but the charm of the cast makes it worth sitting through. The downbeat ending also packs a nice little punch.
As of now, most of Young's film remain unavailable on DVD so if you want to check her work you'll need to keep your eyes on Turner Classic Movies.
LIFE BEGINS (First National Pictures, 1932), directed by James Flood,
co-directed by Elliott Nugent, is a hospital melodrama set mostly in
the maternity ward. Written by Mary McDougal-Averson, it's something of
a forerunner to the many hospital related themes in later years,
ranging from the "Doctor Kildare/Gillespie" film series for MGM
(1938-1947); to various television adaptations whether being daytime
soap-operas or evening hourly shows. The film itself should be
commented for its originality, by 1932 standards anyway. The assortment
of familiar Warner Brothers stock players is highly impressive to say
the least with the slightly blondish Loretta Young heading the cast.
While essentially the central character, co-stars Eric Linden and Aline
MacMahon stand out for their natural performances, real enough for any
viewer to shed a tear or two along the way.
The opening credits start as the camera pans through the nursery of crying babies before cast and crew are screened and titled as the orchestration underscores the popular tune of "Pretty Baby." Set in an un-named hospital at an undisclosed location (probably California), the plot introduces several expectant mothers (without looking pregnant) leaving their nervous husbands as they're escorted to the maternity ward. Miss Bowers (Aline MacMahon), the head nurse, aside from seeing that everything goes accordingly to rule, also becomes involved in the lives of her patients. Noticing that Ringer Banks (Frank McHugh) is upset and worried that his wife, Gladys (Gloria Shea) might have a miscarriage as she did the first one, sends him out on an errand long enough for he to forget his troubles. Mrs. Greydt (Clara Blandick) awaits for the birth of her sixth child while Florette LaVerne (Glenda Farrell), a showgirl drinking snuck-in liquor from her water bottle, learns from Doctor Tubby (Walter Walker) she's to become the mother of twins. Not wanting anything to do with her babies, she makes arrangements to have them adopted for a price. Jed Sutton (Eric Linden), a youthful father-to-be whose case happens to be different from all the others, enters the scene. It is revealed his wife, Grace (Loretta Young), sentenced to life in prison for murder, is to arrive at the hospital escorted and handcuffed to a stern prison matron (Helena Phillips), and returned to prison after having her baby. As situations begin to resolve themselves, Jed is approached by Doctor Cranin (Hale Hamilton) to make a very tough decision regarding both his wife and unborn child.
While basically a woman's movie with a majority of females in the cast, male actors contribute to the story as well, including Preston Foster (Doctor Brett); Gilbert Roland (Tony, an Italian father); Walter Walker (Doctor Tubby) and Paul Fix (The Crying Father). The uncredited Mary Phillips has a sizable role as Nurse Pinty, while Dorothy Peterson adds some tension and emotion as the mentally-unbalanced patient wanting a baby of her own, even to a point of sneaking out a new-born from the nursery without being noticed. Also seen in smaller roles are Vivienne Osborne and Elizabeth Patterson. Released prior to the production code enforcement, LIFE BEGINS can be credited for its honesty and bluntness of certain situations, especially with one of the expectant mothers addressing herself as MISS Laughton (Ruthelma Stevens) rather than concealing the fact she's not married.
As with most Hollywood themed originals, LIFE BEGINS was remade by Warner Brothers as A CHILD IS BORN (1939), featuring Geraldine Fitzgerald, Jeffrey Lynn, Gale Page, Spring Byington, Gladys George, Eve Arden in the Young, Linden, MacMahon, Blandick, Farrell and Phillips roles. Following its basic pattern, the retelling, slightly longer that its 72 minutes, was less blunt in dialog and situations. Though still quite good of its kind, it simply didn't measure up to the original. Both editions to the Mary McDougal-Averson story can be seen whenever broadcast on Turner Classic Movies cable channel. Regardless of its age, LIFE RETURNS can still leave a lasting impact long after it's over. (**** diapers)
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