NOBODY'S CHILDREN (Columbia, 1940), directed by Charles Barton, is a tear inducing 63 minute drama adapted from a radio program of that same name hosted by Walter White, who also takes part in the story. The main attractions, however, are Columbia's own Edith Fellows and young Billy Lee (best remembered for Paramount's 1940 "The Biscuit Eater"), the round-raced youngster with hair bangs over the left side of his head, on loan-out assignment from Paramount. While the title might lead some to believe this to be one about unwanted children living hopelessly on the streets struggling to survive, as depicted in WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (Warners, 1933), it, in fact, proves to be the opposite, best described by this opening passage: "We gratefully acknowledge the co-operation of the Children's Home Society of California in the filming of this motion picture. To the many who are known as "nobody's children," we respectfully dedicate this motion picture with the hope that they soon will be referred to as "somebody's children."
Set at the Children's Home Society pf Los Angeles, the narrative introduces Patricia Miller (Edith Fellows), age 13, confined to a wheelchair, and eldest child in the bunch. An inspiration to the younger children, she's especially looked up upon by her younger brother, Tommy (Billy Lee), age 9, who hopes to become an aviator when he grows up. Before the basic plot gets underway, Walter White, host of the radio human interest series, "Nobody's Children," interviews numerous youngsters at the reception room, giving their case history to his listening audience in hope these kids be taken into consideration for an adoptive family. Helen Marshall (Georgia Caine), head of the institution, finds she must place Patricia in an institution for handicapped children, causing the separation between her and her brother. With the advise of Mr. White, he's given permission to place Tommy on the radio to become "somebody's child." Soon afterward, Tommy is met by Mr. and Mrs. Stone (Ivan Miller and Dorothy Adams) who take an interest in adopting the both Tommy and Pat, but because of her handicap, the Stones politely cast her off as being too old, and take in little Tommy instead. Before Patricia is to be told by Miss Jamieson (Lois Wilson) about her transfer, another couple, Mr. and Mrs. John Miller (Ben Taggart and Mary Currier) come to the orphanage, take an interest in Patricia, and adopt her as their own. Due to his unruly actions towards the Stones, Tommy returns to the orphanage to be with Pat again, only to find she's no longer there.
Sentimentality is the key factor here, presenting cute and adorable children attracting attention and sympathy for its viewers, not so much from its leading players (Fellows and Lee), but by the brief presence by Mary Ruth as the talented 9-year-old piano playing orphan named Carol; Janet Chapman (former lead child actress for Warner Brothers in 1938-39) playing Peggy, the six-year-old refusing to smile because of her two missing front teeth; and Joel Davis, age 5, another orphan who gets his chance to speak on his behalf to the listener of "Nobody's Children." Walter White, with mustache and sad thin face, resembling that of character actor of film noir mysteries, Whit Bissell, making a rare screen appearance as himself. Mary Gordon, best known for many motherly Irish roles in countless movies, stands out as Mary, the kind-hearted housekeeper. Another familiar face known mostly by film buffs is Russell Hicks playing Senator Lawrence Hargraves.
Edith Fellows, having recently starred in four theatrical episodes of "The Five Little Peppers" (1939-1940), follows the same basic character of Polly Pepper, that of the eldest sibling who looks after the youngest. Not quite having four other brothers and sisters this time around, her role consists of one being both asset and inspiration to many at the institution, especially towards the younger ones who look up to her. Fellow's prime scenes include having to hold in her emotions while talking her little brother into leaving to a good home while she remains behind. Another is having to cope with her handicap, and keeping the faith with a Bible by her bedside. As siblings most devoted to each other, Fellows and Lee handle their parts well. Production values good though underscoring is extremely limited.
Never distributed on home video, NOBODY'S CHILDREN did get its chance to be seen as well as heard in a rare 2007 broadcast on Turner Classic Movies. Heavy sentiment could be one of the reasons this minor Columbia product has rarely or hardly turned up on commercial television. While it really can't compare to the more popular sentimental films from that era, it is a true reminder of what adoption and family devotion is all about. (**1/2)
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