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A widow with four children is forced to make ends meet, and ends up in an old New England mansion where they finally find happiness. That is all that really happens in this 1938 RKO Radio feature starring Fay Bainter, Ann Shirley, Ruby Keeler, and Ralph Morgan. For the first few reels, we get to meet dad (Ralph Morgan, brother of "Wizard of Oz" Frank Morgan), but he is killed off in the war. By the clothing the characters wear, I'd have to assume this was sometime in the late 18th Century, making this around the time of the Spanish/American War. Ruby Keeler, who took the role after Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers both refused it, plays the oldest daughter who gets teacher James Ellison, while Ann Shirley is the younger sister who loves him from afar, but is forced to accept his love for her sister's sake. When wealthy Bostonians Mr. & Mrs. Freeman (Harvey Clark and "wicked witch" Margaret Hamilton) buy the house they were renting from under them, the family and their friends (including shop owner Walter Brennan) scheme to scare the Freemans out.
There isn't much plot in this naively charming film, and that is the main flaw of an otherwise alright time filler. Bainter, who won the Oscar the same year for "Jezebel", is excellent as mother, and Morgan makes the most of his few scenes as father, but Keeler and Shirley's characters just aren't interesting enough to make the love for the same man (Ellison) interesting. Also, Shirley is paired with the son of the owner of the house (Frank Albertson), and that romance is never lifted off the ground other than several hints here and there. Brennan, another Oscar Winner that year, makes the best of a comic relief part, while sympathy for ailing youngest son Gilbert Carey (Jackie Moran) seems forced. Child actress Virginia Weidler gets a few smiles as the clinging Lally Joy, the pig-tailed pre-teen who follows older son Peter Carey (Donnie Dunagan) all over the mansion's estate. Alma Kruger is seen briefly as Morgan's imperious Aunt Bertha, the wealthy relative who refuses to lift a finger to help the widowed Bainter after the children decide to stick by their mother. As the wealthy Freemans, Harvey Clark and Margaret Hamilton provide comic relief as a stuffy couple with the female half of the pair obviously henpecking the male half. Hamilton, as always, makes the best of a stereotyped role, filling her trouble-making character with a tongue in cheek indicating the ridiculousness of such a personality.
"Mother Carey's Chickens", which could be called a poor man's "Little Women", is the type of sentimental story that was filmed over and over again during the silent era, 30's and early 40's. While there are a few good things about the film, it is not one of those 30's classics that says anything special about the era it takes place in.
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