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MOTHER CAREY'S CHICKENS (RKO Radio, 1938), directed by Rowland V. Lee, from the novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin, is a rarely seen family movie in which the title might be at fault in having little or no recognition. In fact, the background as of how this movie came to be is much better known than the motion picture itself. First off, this was supposed to be another variation of RKO Radio dealing with literary classics. The studio did very well five years earlier with Louisa May Alcott's LITTLE WOMEN (1933) starring Katharine Hepburn and Joan Bennett. Now with numerous hits and misses over the years, RKO Radio was inspired in placing Hepburn in this production, along with Ginger Rogers, whom she had recently appeared successfully in STAGE DOOR (1937) to play her sister. Hepburn bought out her contract and Rogers, of course, bowed out as well. The final result was replacing its proposed major stars with featured performers. Anne Shirley, a resident RKO actress mostly in the "B" picture unit, stepped in for the role of Nancy, and Ruby Keeler, a tap dancing sweetheart of Warner Brothers musicals from 1933 to 1937, surprisingly selected in the second lead as Katharine, making this her only non-musical performance. She's quite effective in period costumes and long dark curls. Although this didn't become a two hour production on a lavish scale, at 82 minutes, with some sudden fade-outs indicating cut scenes, especially towards the middle, the movie on the whole is relatively good.
Set during the Spanish-American War during the late 1890s in the state of Rhode Island, the story centers upon the Carey family: Captain John Carey (Ralph Morgan), Margaret, his wife (Fay Bainter); and their four children whom Mother "Hen" calls her "chickens," young adults Nancy (Anne Shirley) and Katherine (Ruby Keeler); teenager Gilbert (Jackie Moran), and little Peter (Donnie Donegan, making his movie debut), the youngest and most troublesome of the bunch. All the Careys want is a permanent place to live, after many years of moving from house to house. Captain Carey leaves his family after only spending a day with them while on military leave, and sometime later, on his birthday, by which the family celebrates during his absence, a telegram reaches them reading that Carey was killed in action. Mother Carey strives to keep her family together in spite of some hardships and financial problems. Their wealthy Aunt Bertha (Alma Kruger) agrees to take them in, but the family refuses to ever leave their mother. Later, the Careys "claim" a mansion which Mr. Popham (Walter Brennan) rents to them at $60 a year. During the course of the story, Nancy and Katherine each fall in love with Ralph Thurston (James Ellison), a town schoolteacher, who wins one of them while the other becomes interested in loving another, Doctor Thomas Hamilton (Frank Albertson), the son of the real estate man (George Irving) who arrives to evict the Careys when the homestead is put up for sale because of unpaid taxes, with the intention of selling the home to the prospective buyers, Pauline and Clarence Fuller (Margaret Hamilton and Harvey Clark) who intend on moving in with the intrusive Pauline not taking no for an answer.
The supporting cast consists of child actress Virginia Weidler as Lally Joy, a little girl in pig tails who not only wears her shoes on backwards, but has a crush on the teen-aged Gilbert Carey to a point of becoming his shadow; Phyllis Kennedy (who sometimes looks like comedian Judy Canova) as the Carey family cook; and Lucille Ward as Mrs. Popham. Of all the actors in this photo-play, little Donnie Donegan not only gets plenty of screen time in being naughty, but enough closeups to give indication that this little boy must be related to either the director or the person behind the camera. Donegan even gets the film's final fadeout. Not quite the Jackie Coogan-type when it comes to talent, he is best known today for his sizable role in Rowland V. Lee's upcoming project, THE SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (Universal, 1939) starring Basil Rathbone, in which Donegan plays another Peter, but with the last name of Frankenstein.
More amusing than dramatic, especially when the Carey's attempt to discourage their prospective home buyers (Hamilton and Clark) by pretending the house to be haunted, MOTHER CAREY'S CHICKENS comes off better with its casting. After viewing this production on numerous occasions, it's apparent that Hepburn and Rogers would have been all wrong in their parts. Anne Shirley became the ideal choice as Nancy and Ruby Keeler is surprisingly effective as the other sister, but this is Fay Bainter's show, Hollywood's resident mother and title character. Her mother to daughter talks about first love come off remarkable well.
Revamped by Walt Disney as SUMMER MAGIC (1963), with Dorothy McGuire in the Bainter role, comparing these two adaptations makes it clear that, in spite of added songs, color and the Disney charm, along with eliminating the father, thus, introducing Mother Carey as a widow, both films are so different that it's hard to compare them as basis from the same story.
A suitable movie especially for Mother's Day, MOTHER CAREY'S CHICKENS, which formerly played on American Movie Classics for several years prior to 1993, can be seen occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. (***)
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