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PILGRIMAGE (Fox Films, 1933), directed by John Ford, is an early but memorable sentimental story featuring Henrietta Crosman in a very rare leading role. Not quite a retelling of the Pilgrims voyaging to America on the Mayflower in 1620 as one might be made to believe, but a drama about an elderly woman with a hold on her son's life, only to live to regret it.
Opening title: "The Jessop Home, Three Cedars, Arkansas." Hannah Jessop (Henrietta Crosman) is a widowed farm woman who works hard in both her daily chores and the upbringing of her young adult son, Jim (Norman Foster). However, Jim is unhappy with his life and wants to leave his existence to enlist in the Army as his friends are doing during the World War. Hannah refuses at first, but agrees to let him go to battle rather than having Jim leaving home to marry Mary Saunders (Marion Nixon), a farm girl living just over the fence with her drunkard father (Charley Grapewin). Having told Mary, "I'd rather see Jim dead than married to you," Hannah signs a waver with permission for him to go. She also disinherits Jim for leaving her to be with Mary. Before he's to leave with the other soldiers by train, Jim is told by Mary that she's pregnant. In spite of the news to his superior, Jim is denied temporary leave to marry her. During a stormy night, Hannah awakens from her sleep calling out Jim the very moment he dies in the trenches, also the very night Mary gives birth to his son. Ten years pass and Hannah still holds a grudge against Mary, even to a point of avoiding any contact with her grandson, Jimmy (Jay Ward), who takes a liking to his late father's dog, Susie. Mayor Elmer Briggs (Francis Ford) and others in his committee select Hannah to go on a pilgrimage to France along with other "Gold Star Mothers" to visit the graves of their military sons. While in France, Hannah refuses to go to the cemetery until she encounters a troubled youth named Gary Worth (Maurice Murphy), drunk, confused and wanting to jump off a bridge to suicide. After taking him to his apartment, Hannah learns the young man is going through the same issues with his domineering mother (Hedda Hopper) over the love of a girl named Suzanne (Heather Angel), the same situation that occurred years before between her and her son, thus, seeing herself for the first time to whom she really is seen through the eyes of Jim.
PILGRIMAGE is a good film, a very good film that has been underrated and forgotten throughout the years. In spite the fact that it's directed by four-time Academy Award winning John Ford, possibly one of the reasons for it never to be selected as one of Ford's top ten best films is due to the fact of having any top marquee names as Marie Dressler, for example. Granted, had PILGRIMAGE been filmed only a few years later, it probably would have featured, for example, Janet Gaynor as Mary; May Robson as Hannah; and Henry Fonda as Jim. Other capable actresses as Louise Dresser or Marjorie Rambeau might have handled the role just as well, but Henrietta Crosman, a theater actress with limited movie roles dating back to the silent film era, was chosen to carry the entire 96 minutes, and she does it quite well. Aside from her strong performance, her scene walking through the cemetery in France to visit her son's grave is both heartfelt and noteworthy. Others featured in the cast are Robert Warwick (Major Albertson); Betty Blythe (Janet Prescott); Louise Carter (Mrs. Rogers, the other mother who shares the cabin with Hannah); and Jack Pennick (The Sergeant). Lucille LaVerne, best known for playing old hags dating back in the silent movie days of D.W. Griffith, nearly steals it with her small performance as Mrs. Hatfield, another Gold Star mother of three deceased sons who not only befriends Hannah, but causes raised eyebrows by smoking a pipe in public. She and Crosman have lighter moments together to an otherwise dramatic story where they show how good there are at a shooting gallery. Marion Nixon and Jay Ward are equally unforgettable as both mother and son longing to connect with Hannah.
A worthwhile story that has had limited television broadcasts throughout the years: WFSB, Channel 3, Hartford, Connecticut (1974); WNET, Channel 13, New York City (1992); and cable channels as BRAVO (1987-88); American Movie Classics (August 1999 as part of its John Ford tribute); Fox Movie Channel and Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 10, 2007). Aside from availability on DVD with John Ford's BORN RECKLESS (Fox, 1933) on the flip-side, PILGRIMAGE remains very much an obscure film that needs to be observed and studied, not for the directorial style of John Ford, but for the best movie performance ever given by the long forgotten Henrietta Crosman. (****)
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