Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Sunday Dinner for a Soldier (1944)

SUNDAY DINNER FOR A SOLDIER is a heartwarming piece of WWII Americana about a poor Florida houseboat family who are determined to scrape together their meager resources and provide a soldier with a festive Sunday meal.

Anne Baxter plays Tessa, who is raising three young siblings (Connie Marshall, Bobby Driscoll, and Billy Cummings) with little help from her good-for-nothing grandfather (Charles Winninger). The title soldier, Eric, shows up about an hour into the movie and is played by John Hodiak.

Baxter is excellent as Tessa, a genuinely good person who wants the best for her brothers and sister. Baxter was at her loveliest in her '40s films. I've never been a particular fan of Hodiak but he does a nice job in this film, particularly as his character interacts with the children. His joy at feeling like part of a family is very appealing. Sparks flew off camera between Baxter and Hodiak, who married in 1946.

The children are all quite natural and winning, which was particularly noted by the New York Times. Bobby Driscoll went on to work on the Disney films SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946), SO DEAR TO MY HEART (1948), MELODY TIME (1948), TREASURE ISLAND (1950), and PETER PAN (1953). Connie Marshall appeared in several good films, including SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY (1946), DRAGONWYCK (1946), MOTHER WORE TIGHTS (1947), and MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (1948). Billy Cummings appeared in a dozen films as a child including THE SULLIVANS (1944), BELLS OF ROSARITA (1945), and FIGHTING FATHER DUNNE (1948).

Winninger is a character actor I sometimes find on the annoying side, and his character in this one certainly fills the bill, playing a man who has taken his orphaned grandchildren into his home but refuses to grow up.

The supporting cast includes Anne Revere (who is particularly good in an energetic performance as a peppery but sympathetic neighbor), Jane Darwell, Marietta Canty, and Chill Wills. Rory Calhoun can be glimpsed as a soldier near the end, and Robert Bailey plays Tessa's wealthy but dull beau.

The film's unique storyline and setting, combined with an excellent cast, make for a most enjoyable family film. The movie also provides an interesting peek at home life during the war years, which included ration coupons, victory gardens, and helping out the local USO.

The movie was directed by Lloyd Bacon. It was filmed in black and white and runs 85 minutes.

SUNDAY DINNER FOR A SOLDIER has not had a video or DVD release, but it can be seen from time to time on Fox Movie Channel.

2012 Update: SUNDAY DINNER FOR A SOLDIER is now available on DVD-R from the Fox Cinema Archives.


Blogger Moira Finnie said...

It's good to see someone drawing attention to this relatively obscure movie, Laura. While the exclamation of "Grandfeathers!" is repeated a few too many times for me, there are some characterizations and story elements in this movie, alongside some slicker moments.

One of these comes in a beautifully played scene when, after one more chaotic day in their grandfather's household in the decaying houseboat that they call home, the two weary sisters (Ann Baxter & Connie Marshall) snuggle together, getting ready to sleep.

They wind up discussing the absence, (or is it the presence?), of their dead parents. The way that the younger sister (Connie Marshall, whose sad eyes have seen far too much in her brief life), and the eldest child, (Ann Baxter, who gives one of her less affected performances here as the mainstay of a family adrift), try to discuss this without giving in to despair or sentimentality, enabling them both to live with a kind of practical optimism, is very touching. The worried, doubtful look on Miss Marshall's face and her inability to tailor her emotions to the task at hand--as her capable older sister seems to be able to do--made this movie worth my time.

Connie Marshall, who went on to play even sadder children in "Sentimental Journey" and "Daisy Kenyon", and an amusingly precocious and worldly kid in "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House", was clearly an accomplished spellbinder at age 11, when this movie was made. From what I gather, she was one more kid actor who was dropped like a hot potato once her usefulness as a guileless youngster faded.

Overall, I would agree with your assessment that this is intriguing family fare, and still timely given the number of military people far from home. Thanks for reminding me of it.

5:36 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Moira.

I also especially liked the scene you mentioned with the sisters, in which Tessa describes the ways their parents continue to live on. It was beautifully done.

For those interested in learning more, some biographical information on the talented Connie Marshall is posted at IMDb.

Thanks for stopping by, Moira!

Best wishes,

8:17 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks to Rudy for letting me know about his site Connie

Best wishes,

9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Watched the movie last night. It's on DVD now in the Fox Cinema Archives series. I was truly moved by the story and thought everyone played their role nearly perfectly. As always, Ann Revere is a standout.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Maggie, thanks for your comment. I'm glad you reminded me to update my post with a link to the new DVD! It's a wonderful movie.

Best wishes,

8:29 AM  

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