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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Wednesday's Child begins promisingly enough. Edward Arnold scales back
his larger-than-life personality just a bit to convincingly play Ray
Phillips, a jovial, loving, but often absent father. Karen Morley, even
more bland and stiff than usual, is cast as his younger, errant wife,
Kathryn. Their son, 11-year-old Bobby, is played by towheaded Frankie
Thomas, who bears absolutely no physical resemblance to either parent.
The rapport between Arnold and Thomas immediately invites the viewer into the story. You can see why the boy would adore his warmhearted, fun-loving dad and yearn to spend more time with him. It's also apparent that there's no chemistry between the parents, so it's not surprising that during her husband's long absences, Kathryn takes up with another man. One day, while playing with his buddies, Bobby sees his mother in the arms of her lover, and his world is shattered. The rest of the film deals with his parents' broken marriage and how Bobby gets caught in the middle. It's a story that is all too common today, but certainly quite scandalous back in 1934.
The film starts to go off track when it moves into the more melodramatic aspects of the story. There is a scene where Bobby's parents stand in their bedroom loudly discussing their marriagewith the door to their son's adjacent bedroom wide open! The boy hears his mother say she regrets having married his father and then giving birth to him. He sees his mother slap his father, and then his father return the blow.
The courtroom scene, where Bobby testifies about his father hitting his mother (but not about his mother striking the first blow) is poorly written and hard to believe. It mainly serves to set up the custody arrangement in which Bobby spends school months with his mother and summers with his father. A hokey calendar montage establishes that the child is miserable living with his mother and her new husband. He can't wait to return to his old house to be with his dad.
And that's where the film really goes awry. Bobby and Ray are delighted to be together again. They make plans for a father-son vacation... just the two of them. But when Ray goes out for groceries, his new girlfriend, Louise, arrives and immediately insinuates herself into the family and their vacation plans. In an instant, Ray forgets all about Bobby's feelings. He's oblivious to his son's growing anguish as Louisea woman he knew nothing aboutcompletely usurps his place in his father's affections. The scene lacks credibility, as does Bobby's physical collapse and subsequent illness.
It goes further downhill from there. Ray Phillips turns into an absolute cad as he and his ex-wife, each absorbed with their new loves, try to foist little Bobby on one another. The boy's doctor suggests an expedient solution to the Bobby problem: pack him off to military school. (Note yet another scene where the adults make painful admissions about the boy within earshot.) At school, Bobby has a hard time adjusting, even when his roommate explains that there are many other boys here under the same circumstances.
In yet another poorly-developed, badly-scripted about-face, Ray Phillips overhears Bobby expressing his unhappiness. He suddenly becomes the good Dad again, deciding to ditch his fiancée and devote the rest of his life to little Bobby. I guess this means he never gets to have his a personal life of his own, unlike his cold-hearted, cheating ex-wife. It's hard to know what to think about the morality of this film.
Too much of Wednesday's Child is centered on the anguish of poor little Bobby. Frankie Thomas is an okay child actor, but not skilled or subtle enough to carry so much of the picture on his young shoulders. Along with the deficiencies in this central performance, the patchy script, tepid directing, sudden changes in the parents' personality and behavior, and vapid acting of Karen Morley prevent this potentially powerful film from rising above mediocrity. A wasted performance from the enormously likable Edward Arnold. Watch Wednesday's Child only if you're one of his fans.
Bobby Phillips (Frankie Thomas) is the collateral damage that results
in a bitter divorce between Mom (Kay Francis) and Dad (Edward Arnold).
Dad's older and travels a lot, Mom's regretful and totally focused on
escape. Bobby goes through the intense grief that accompanies such a
situation and the script heaps on additional sharp sticks in the eye.
We watch Bobby (surrounded by his friends) discover his Mom with
another man and later we squirm with him as he testifies at trial
against one of his parents.
Post-divorce, we see additional grief heaped upon the adolescent Bobby by the hapless Mom and the oblivious Dad. The story is somewhat heavy handed, but overcomes underplaying (to the point of disappearance) by Kay Francis and overplaying by Edward Arnold, whose trademark laugh could have been meted out in much smaller doses here. To its credit, the script doesn't point the blame at one parent or the other, but focuses on how young Bobby deals with it all. The performance given by Frankie Thomas is somewhat uneven, I think,but he was given a lot of dramatic baggage to deal with and a director who seems to have been asleep at the switch much of the time.
Dave Durand, later of East Side Kids renown (?), is the only supporting player worth mentioning here, as he gives an entertaining and energetic performance as Bobby's school chum mentor. Everyone else seems to have had the life sucked out of them by the black hole of Kay Francis' malaise or caught whatever virus made Edward Arnold go into supernova mode periodically.
This movie deals a heavily stacked deck, but is still moving at times, mostly thanks to Frankie Thomas.
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