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Frank Borzage was one of the prize directors at the Fox Studio in the late 1920s; he became the first director to win the Academy Award for SEVENTH HEAVEN in 1927, one of the essential romances of the silent cinema. But by 1932, William Fox was running into trouble, and the finances of Fox were shaky. Borzage had won his second Oscar for Best Director in 1931 for the Fox production of BAD GIRL; two years later, he was working for Mary Pickford's own production company (SECRETS), Paramount (A FAREWELL TO ARMS), Columbia (MAN'S CASTLE and NO GREATER GLORY) and Universal (LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?). LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? was based on a German novel by Hans Falleda, which had been made into a movie in Germany in 1933. (I haven't seen the German movie.) But LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? would be the follow-up film for Universal's new star, Margaret Sullavan, who had made an impressive debut in ONLY YESTERDAY, directed by John M. Stahl. She was known for being temperamental, and she refused several projects before she agreed to star in LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?
In some ways, LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? is the quintessential Frank Borzage movie, with many scenes and themes which echo his earlier films. There is the young couple, struggling to survive severe economic hardship; there are the effects of the Great War, leaving many with few opportunities. There is even the scene where the heroine appears in a shimmering gown, a radiant moment that is a respite from the general squalor and/or misery (this scene can be found in SEVENTH HEAVEN, in MAN'S CASTLE, in THREE COMRADES). LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? takes its young couple (Sullavan and Douglass Montgomery) through various strata of the struggling working class in Germany during the worldwide economic downturn of the early 1930s. Along the way, they encounter a variety of characters, including Muriel Kirkland as the hideously overprivileged daughter of an employer, Catherine Doucet as Montgomery's giddy stepmother, and Alan Hale as her hearty, possibly shady friend. Through it all, Sullavan's empathetic, luminous performance provides the film with its beacon of hope in the midst of turmoil and strife.
This would be the first of four collaborations between Margaret Sullavan and Frank Borzage. (Just for the record, it should be stressed that this film was made at Universal Studios, NOT MGM, where Borzage would start working in 1937; Universal has been one of the studios which has been notoriously problematic in terms of getting their films on various home-video formats, so it's no wonder that LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? is unavailable, but asking for MGM to release a Universal film on DVD is an object lesson in futility.)
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