Friday, July 30, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Little Man, What Now? (1934)

Having recently watched several films set in WWII Germany, it seemd like the perfect time to watch Frank Borzage's LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?, which vividly depicts the dire economic conditions in Germany which accompanied Hitler's rise to power.

The film opens with a young couple, Hans (Douglass Montgomery) and Emma, nicknamed Lammchen (Margaret Sullavan, in her second film), meeting at a doctor's office, where Lammchen tearfully receives the confirmation she is pregnant. The couple then marry -- this film was released near the end of the pre-Code era -- and so begins their grinding struggle against poverty and outright evil.

Borzage is a poet who creates images of great charm and sweetness, such as Sullavan running barefoot through a park or riding a carousel while tearfully confessing her pregnancy cravings to her bridegroom (she couldn't resist eating all the dinner their meager budget could afford).

Borzage is equally adept at portraying the darker side of humanity, and in this respect I found the film difficult to watch at times. Perhaps part of the problem for me was the stark contrast between Sullavan's ethereal loveliness and her husband's first employer, a physically and morally disgusting cretin. The couple are constantly preyed upon and mistreated, whether it's his stepmother (Catherine Doucet), who turns out to run a bordello, or an idiot customer (Alan Mowbray) who causes the husband to be fired. They are kicked and kicked again, causing the viewer to despair, yet Sullavan's character manages to retain her hope. A kindly landord who houses Hans and Lammchen in a loft -- shades of Joseph and Mary! -- provides blessed relief from the couple's travails.

The young marrieds face many of the same challenges faced by the poor American Depression couple in FAITHLESS (1932), but perhaps it was a bit easier to watch tough Tallulah Bankhead cope with one problem after another. Yet Sullavan's character, I suppose, must be plenty tough on the inside to carry on as she does, emotionally propping up her husband and eternally grateful for small blessings. In some ways the character and their attic home reminded me of the later APARTMENT FOR PEGGY (1948), which is otherwise a much different type of movie.

Douglass Montgomery is perhaps best known as Laurie from the Katharine Hepburn version of LITTLE WOMEN (1933). He is fine in the role as written, but the character's milquetoast personality can be wearing at times.

The film runs 98 minutes. The supporting cast includes Alan Hale and Mae Marsh.

This Universal film is not available on DVD or video; I was able to watch an old recording from American Movie Classics thanks to the great kindness of a friend. (Update: This film has now been released on DVD in the Universal Vault Series.)

For more on Frank Borzage, check out Moira Finnie's post at the TCM Blog. And there's even more on Sullavan and Borzage at Bright Lights Film Journal and Reverse Shot.

As mentioned above, LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? is challenging viewing at times, but it's of interest on several levels, including its portrayal of Germany at a particular downpoint in its history and its place in the careers of Borzage and Sullavan, who would team for three more films.


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