This one plays like an early low budget John Ford film...
... with Charles Bickford playing a part that would have gone to John Wayne ten years later had this actually been a John Ford film. It's even got Ward Bond in a supporting role! Bickford plays Marine Steve Riley, heavyweight champion of the Marine corps with his next fight coming up in a few weeks. He's bound on a train back to the base with his bunkmates when a kid on the train (Billy Burrud as Ulysses Simpson Smith) steals a sandwich from a big guy. The big guy grabs the kid and starts to beat him. The Marines intervene and find out the boy is recently orphaned, and is traveling alone to his uncle in California, who supposedly will take care of him. The Marines buy the boy some food and he so overeats on his empty stomach that he becomes ill and he has to stay in the marines' train compartment until the train reaches its destination. This gives the Marines - and particularly gruff Steve - a chance to bond with the kid. When the train stops, Steve says he'll take the kid to the uncle's house just to make sure he gets there - he thinks his fellow Marines have gone soft.
Well, the uncle has moved and left no forwarding address, but in his place a beautiful girl answers the door - (Florence Rice as Molly Malone). She's sweet and single and friendly and Steve is bowled over at first sight. I'll get back to the romance later.
Now here things get a little ridiculous in the John Ford tradition. Steve's next stop is the orphanage. But the place looks like a prison with a sad line of little boys lined up like inmates all dressed in the same baggy outfit. So gruff Steve does have a heart after all, and drags the child back to the base and the Marines basically adopt the boy, even with the commander's reluctant approval, as he waits for final word on the subject from Washington that never comes. Apparently in 1936 it is OK for a ten year old boy to live in the barracks with grown men, not go to school, and - get this - since his own clothes are ragged they even dress him up like a Marine! Needless to say Ulysses begins to take on the lingo and swagger of his bunkmates who are 10 and 15 years older than himself, and small incident is followed by bigger incident until a final incident puts the child in serious danger.
Steve was planning to leave the Marines when his enlistment is up shortly after the championship fight, so he figures he'll just take Ulysses with him and raise him himself. But in the 1930's, you'll never win an adoption unless you're married. Steve is eyeing Molly for the job of wife and mother - and his way of popping the question is absolutely endearing - but Molly already has a beau, the completely likable - as in no leisure suit - Larry.
So here we have a series of complications you've probably seen in 30's films before. A girl caught between two guys who really loves the child with no mother and too many fathers, a championship fight in the balance with one of the fighters distracted by personal events possibly hurting his chances, and one final complication for Steve as he prepares to exit the Marine corps. How does this all turn out? Not like you'd expect, I'll give you that much.
Billy Barrud didn't make that many films as a child actor, but his portrayal is right up there with any of the other child actors of the 1930's. Bickford is great as the gruff guy with the center that's gooey rather than granite, which has him somewhat embarrassed. Then there is Columbia character actor Thurston Hall as Colonel Gage who has to deal with the problems that come with a child living on base - and there are a lot of them! Hall does so with the humor and heart that mark so many of his performances. Recommended as a fast moving film with some surprises and plenty of heart.
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