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Young idealist Richard Miller is selected as valedictorian for his New England high school commencement class of 1906 and intends to inject modern anti-capitalistic ideas into his speech. His father, Nat Miller, accidentally learns of it and interrupts Richard's speech before he can make a fool of himself. The small town later celebrates the Fourth of July with customary fireworks, picnics and the like, with Richard spending time with his girl, Muriel McComber, who promises she will allow him to kiss her one day. When Richard sends poems of love to Muriel, quoting the likes of Omar Khayyám and Swinburne, her father prevents her from ever seeing him again and forces her to write a letter denouncing him. Heartbroken, Richard drowns his sorrow in a local bar, drinking and smoking with a vamp called Belle, and comes home drunk. Alcoholic uncle Sid, who is used to the effects of liquor, nurses Richard back to sobriety, but Richard still must face the uncertain punishment of his father as ... Written by
Arthur Hausner <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Eugene O'Neill's gentle nostalgic comedy got the full blown MGM treatment with Clarence Brown guiding a topflight cast in the standard interpretation of Ah Wilderness. My only complaint is that George M. Cohan who played the father of the Miller family did not repeat his role for the screen. Cohan could not/would not do the film and his loss was an opportunity for Lionel Barrymore who did the part with a sure hand.
According to a book on the Barrymore dynasty, Lionel was upset with Louis B. Mayer for whom he was usually a loyal employee when Brown under Mayer's orders tilted the film and the billing toward Wallace Beery's showier part of Barrymore's alcoholic brother-in-law. Watch the two of them in scenes together as they try and top the other. It must have been one tense set. On stage Gene Lockhart did the part of Uncle Sid.
The young protagonist about whom the action swirls is middle son Eric Linden. Barrymore does some creative interrupting at his son's valedictorian address filled with radical notions. Linden is rather clumsily courting Cecilia Parker and when she puts him off he goes out on one tremendous toot, taking his uncle Beery as a role model.
If there was one thing Eugene O'Neill knew from this life it was alcohol and the effects thereof. Think about all the works he did where substance abuse is at the center. His greatest play, The Iceman Cometh is set entirely in a bar.
Ah Wilderness is like the rest of O'Neill's works, no real plot to them, but deep character studies from a slice of life. Ah Wilderness being a comedy probably was easier to translate to the screen, even so the play which is set entirely in the Miller living room gets moved to the graduation and later to the tavern where Linden ties one on. On stage Elisha Cook, Jr. played the clumsy son.
Mickey Rooney played young son Tommy in this version. Thirteen years later when he was the other side of too old for the part he played the Eric Linden role in a musical version Summer Holiday which proved that O'Neill should not be the basis for a musical even his only comedy.
After 75 years, Ah Wilderness holds up very well and I think O'Neill probably approved of this version with the caveat that it had to conform to the Code. Helen Flint's part as a prostitute who gets Linden drunk and probably gives him a tumble was cleaned up by the Breen office. Given the code parameters, Ah Wilderness was as good as it could get.
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