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This is a biography of Hetty Green, the Witch of Wall Street, a woman
who went head to head with the other robber barons of the Gilded Age
and who usually came out ahead. They had to change the name for fear of
lawsuit by her heirs. It was the common, if apocryphal story of how she
made her son go to a free clinic, rather than pay a doctor that sent
the lawyers at the studio screaming for a cover name for the character.
In truth, Mrs. Green was a monstrously greedy character who, if she did not sell tainted pork to the Union Army, as did her fellow Robber Baron, Armour, did go to free clinics herself, rather than pay for medical treatment. She also forged her aunt's will and tried to bribe the judge in the case, but those are mere trifles in her story.
Almost inevitably, the writers soften her character, making her more sinned against than sinner in love, and the anonymous benefactress of scrubwomen and so forth. Doubtless people would have refused to see the real story, because there was no real story beyond a woman living a tough life, going head-to-head in the man's world of Wall Street and doing it well. Enough of a story for me, perhaps, but not enough to sell the studios.
The performances are sterling, and May Robson is having a lot of fun playing an out-and-out villainess, much as Edward Arnold would the next year, playing Jim Fisk, the man who precipitated the Panic of 1869. That's softened too. Still, actors love playing villain. They have fun, and the audience does, too. So have some fun and see this one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
May Robson stars as wealthy woman Hannah Bell in "You Can't Buy Everything" from 1934, in the days when studios cranked out these kind of films with assembly-line precision. Robson portrays a very wealthy woman who does not live like one. She is a notorious cheapskate, living in a seedy apartment, wearing old tattered clothing, making her sick young son stay in a free ward in a hospital, and guarding her money in the bank like a hawk. Hannah has become a bitter old woman, stemming from a beau (Lewis Stone) who rejected her from 30 years earlier. Her vendetta against him borders on the pathological at times, and when her now grown son (William Blakewell) wants to marry he ex-beau's daughter, trouble ensues. Hannah tries to destroy her ex-beau, through a bank scare in the early 1900's, alienating her now married son. This is not a perfect film, but May Robson is wonderful, as she was in every film from this era. There are some fine supporting performances as well. The ending is a bit on the fairy-tale side, but Robson is the main reason to watch.
I saw this movie over 40 years ago and could never remember the title. I was fascinated by Ms Robson's acting. I finally went to Turner Classic Movies and wrote a short summary of what I remembered. Needless to say they were showing the movie the following week. I had several friends watch it with me. We all loved it. My cousin, who was in pain with Cancer, watched and forgot her terrible pain for the whole movie. That is the magnitude this film had. My other friends that watched the film, either hated black and white films or hated old movies before the 1960's. They both sat still and watched the entire film, without taking a restroom break.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In the list of many legendary now deceased New Yorkers is Hetty Green,
known back in the late 1800's as the stingiest woman who ever lived, so
cheap that she would probably squeeze a nickle until the buffalo
pooped. Probably due to the threat of a lawsuit, MGM's version of her
alleged story was changed to a fictional character named Mrs. Hannah
Bell, an embittered widow who amasses a fortune after losing hers
thanks to bad business deals her fortune-hunting late husband had made
with her money. She so resents banker Lewis Stone that she pulls all of
her money out of the bank he's taken over, and when her son (William
Bakewell) falls in love with Stone's daughter (Jean Parker), Robson
determinedly vows that the marriage will never take place. But nothing
is shown to indicate what Hannah did to try and prevent the marriage;
The next scene automatically skips to a wedding in a church, and Robson
standing by watching her son and his new wife board a carriage to head
off to their European honeymoon. When the market crashes, Robson pays
off the creditors of Stone's bank, pretty much bankrupting him, and
when the newlyweds return, confrontation between mother and son leads
to possible permanent estrangement.
While always feisty and often imperious, Robson never played a character with such a mean spirit, and even if she isn't as notoriously cruel in her cheapness as the real Hetty Green was, she certainly ain't no "Lady For a Day" here. The wonderful thing about the depression as far as movies were concerned was the abundance of stories given to older actors, and Robson would obviously be the first choice for this part since MGM's very popular Marie Dressler was ailing around the time of the making of this film and would die the year of its release. But even Dressler, whose wide eyes expressed a huge heart underneath some of her character's imperiousness, could ever play such blatant cruelty. Robson, even with her lovable nature, was more adept in exploring the darker side of the human soul, and really digs into what makes this character so harsh. Bakewell has a rather dark demeanor, so it takes some time to accept him as a romantic lead.
The film really goes out of its way to explore the dark days of New York at the turn of the century, starting some 20 years before when a younger Hannah (still played by Robson) took her pre-teen son (Tad Alexander at this point) to the hospital and checked him into the charity ward. A few times, Hannah does allow her heart to take over her purse strings, such as when she encounters an almost toothless cleaning woman and gives her money to see a dentist. But even with those momentary lapses of humanity, Hannah isn't somebody you'd consider the "grandmotherly" type. In the end, though, she atones as predicted, while the real life counterpart seemed to get more tight with her money as she aged, even living in slum like apartments to avoid the taxes a mansion would give her and not paying her electric bill, thus having to live off of cold soup.
Mary Forbes is excellent as Robson's old friend who tries to bring her out of her bitterness with little success (until the end), while Stone never looses his cool, even when Robson momentarily brings him down. Other memorable character performances are Reginald Mason as Robson's doctor and Claude Gillingwater as one of Robson's banking associates. Maybe one day somebody like Kathy Bates or Shirley MacLaine can play the real Hetty Green (that would be a story worth telling), but in the meantime, we have the Hollywood golden age version which fictionalizes much of the tale but still remains a memorable drama of an era we'll never see the likes of again.
May Robson plays Hannah Bell--the cheapest and nastiest woman in Manhattan. The film begins with her taking her son to a charity ward--and you soon learn she is one of the richest women in Manhattan and is just too cheap to get the boy better treatment! You also see that she's not just cheap but amazingly bitter and just plain nasty. Much of the film consists of watching this horrible lady treat those around her with contempt. Why she is so bitter and how her ex-fiancé relates to this is an interesting thing you learn late in the film. You also see how tough it is to be the son of this wretched woman, as her son (now grown) is miserable because of her nasty ways. All in all, a fascinating portrait--especially because it's based on a real woman--the infamous Hetty Green. Green did several of the things you see Robson do in the film (such as seeking her boy treatment at a clinic for indigent patients) and was, by all accounts, a horrible old miser. But, being a Hollywood film, the film also tacks on a redemption and happy ending--something that did NOT happen to Green. All in all, a fascinating film and a dandy acting job for Robson who is in top form playing a cranky old prune. Worth seeing.
On the surface, this appears to be the story of Hannah, a female
Scrooge, based on a true person.
It's really the story of Kate and the doctor, as they see the events unravel before their eyes.
That is good, because Kate and the doctor are the characters we can identify with. We study the mystery of Hannah's hate with them.
So it isn't important what the facts of Hannah's life are, and why she lets her hatred destroy her relationship with her only child, the only person she cares for.
What is important is that this is the story of Kate and the doctor trying to learn why Hannah has this hate, because they are interested in free health and dental clinics. That's why they are the true main characters here. Much as Hawkeye Pierce, Bronco Lane, and the Virginian are the main characters in their TV shows, this is a movie in which the main characters are the sane observers, representing the "Everyman" while the story revolves around a "guest star" with issues.
Hannah definitely has "issues". The film does a good job of developing the story, and giving us the romance angle of her son and the daughter of the man she hates.
Very good storyline about what greed does to us. Maybe more of todays generation needs to see this movie. The cantankerous Hanna was well played. Lewis Stone was a very good actor. I remember him as Andy Hardy's father.
The story opens in the late 1800's with May Robson taking her son to the hospital, where she portrays herself as poor and unable to pay. It soon becomes evident that she is actually a very rich woman, albeit a penny-pincher. As her son grows up she continues her tightfisted ways but learns a painful lesson in the process. A sweet story with a good moralistic message.
story has interesting twists of romantic history of main character. The image of tightwad is dispelled as she is deep down caring and sharing except with herself and her son. The ending is predictable yet unfolds with a turn to make it enjoyable.
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