For the Free For All Blogathon: Edward G. Robinson in a Non-Gangster Role

I enjoy reading Theresa Brown’s blog about classic movies.  She decided to create a blogathon for today, March 3rd, where classic movie fans could write about any film topic that they wanted to write about.  The more I see of Edward G. Robinson’s work in films, the more I can see what a wealth of acting talent he owned.  Primarily thought of as a gangster due to his early movie roles, he was able to move away from that persona and play a variety of characters.  I  decided to focus on one of his non-gangster roles, a role as far away from a gangster as one could get: the role of a loving, understanding father to a young girl.  Be sure to visit Theresa’s blog, Cinemaven’s Essays From the Couch to read all of the other bloggers’ interesting posts!    

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, was a novel written in 1930 by George Victor Martin.  He based his novel on his wife, Selma’s, recollections from  her childhood of growing up in Benson Corners, WI.  Selma grew up in a community founded by Norwegian immigrants who kept some of their cultural ways and language while also working hard to succeed in America.  The book was extremely popular with the reading public so it was a no-brainer that MGM would come calling and buy the rights to Martin’s book and make it into a movie.  1945 was when the movie arrived at America’s box offices and it did a lot of business.  It even received a medal for “The Most Wholesome Family Movie” of 1945 from Parents magazine( I didn’t realize that that magazine had been around back then!)  Edward G., in  a wholesome family movie? It may be hard to believe but he’s cast as the young girl, Selma’s father, Martinius Jacobson, and he gives the role his all.  Selma was played by Margaret O’Brien, in a very touching part, and Jackie “Butch” Jenkins played her cousin, Arnold.  The always wonderful Agnes Moorehead played Bruna, Selma’s mother.  There’s a side story involving a new teacher in town, played by Frances Gifford and the community’s newspaper editor who has a crush on the new teacher  played by James Craig.  Others in the cast: Sara Haden, Dorothy Morris, Morris Carnovsky, Elizabeth Russell(she of Cat People fame), Arthur Space, Charles B. Middleton( he of Ming the Merciless fame), Louis Jean Heydt,Greta Granstedt, and Francis Pierlot.  The cast was ably directed by Roy Rowland.  Producer was Robert Sisk.  Screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo and this was his last screenplay before being blacklisted in the US government’s infamous hunt for communists in Hollywood.

Selma and her cousin, Arnold

Ingeborg tries to befriend Selma and Arnold

The editor loves the teacher but she hates rural life and yearns to go back to the city

The film is mainly told to us by 3 persons, Selma, her father, and her mother.  Not that they verbally break the fourth wall and talk to the camera/audience, but we see the actions and events of the story through their eyes.  Selma, and to a lesser extent Arnold, are always together either getting into mischief, meeting people, and they have one adventure that becomes very dangerous.  We see and hear these two children discuss WWII as best as two children could understand a war, discuss a young woman in town who they label “crazy” but we soon learn was born with intellectual and developmental disabilites, we learn of their admiration for “the editor” for that’s what they call the town’s newspaper owner, and their love of egg pancakes with honey, which Selma’s mother makes for them for supper.    Through Bruna, we learn of the worry she has for debt.  A neighboring elderly farmer, Bjorn Bjornson(Carnovsky) has built a glorious, new barn, through saving up his money.  Bruna thinks this is a waste of money since the Bjornson’s still have no indoor plumbing and shouldn’t Bjornson have thought of his wife’s comforts first? When Martinius(Robinson) begins to discuss the taking out of a loan to build himself a new barn, he is met with Bruna’s dissenting opinion, given in a polite yet firm manner.  It is a gentle and  sweet moment  to see his change of mind when he begins to talk aloud that he has enough money saved to improve the farmhouse for her and Selma and that a new barn can wait indefinitely.  Bruna is truly shocked by his announcement and can only express herself in tears of gratitude; there are a lot of tears in this film-from Selma, Bruna, and Martinius!

The Jacobsen’s: Selma, Bruna, and Martinius

No dry eyes when Selma recites the Nativity story at church

I was very, very impressed with Edward G. Robinson’s portrayal of Martinius.  He is so good as the wise and gentle father to Selma, and as the loving husband of Bruna.   There were a couple of key scenes that dealt with having to discipline a child and they were so true to any parent watching this movie, I could really relate to Martinius’s hesitations and actions.  The first was due to Selma and Arnold arguing about letting him have a turn using Selma’s new roller skates.  Bruna ordered Selma to give Arnold a turn and when she doesn’t, Arnold calls her a pig.  Selma becomes angry and pushes Arnold to the ground.  Martinius, tired and approaching the kitchen for a break from his labors, is asked by Bruna to take his turn at disciplining Selma for being selfish.  We can see the weariness cross his face and feel that load that he has agreed to take on. Disciplining a child is a task that a loving parent dreads to do, but has to do from time to time in order to keep one’s child from growing up to be a burden on society.  Martinius decides not to spank Selma, but tells her to give Arnold a turn with the skates.  When she boldly says, “No!” I was even shocked! Of course, we know Arnold lies to his Uncle Martinius about calling Selma a name, and that causes her to talk back to her father.  Martinius then gives her one more chance, let Arnold have a turn or no supper and immediate bedtime.  To that threat, Selma defiantly takes her skates off, and is about to carry them to the house when her father stops her, and orders her to give her skates to Arnold, and then she can turn in for the night.  Stung by her father’s discipline plan, Selma calmly hands the skates to Arnold and goes to bed.  Later in the evening, as Martinius is reading the newspaper, and we feel his unease at dishing out that discipline to Selma, she asks him through a heating vent that is in her bedroom floor yet opens to the living room ceiling, if won’t he come up to kiss her goodnight? More unease registers across Martinius’s face but he again sticks to his plan and tells Selma, no, and scolds her to get back to bed.  Bruna saves the skate debacle by reminding Martinius that the circus will be passing through their town at 4:00 a.m.  in order to get hay for the animals at a local feed store, why doesn’t he wake Selma up and take her there to see the animals? Martinius does just that and the bond between dad and daughter is made stronger and renewed.  The other key scene right out of Parenting 101 is due to Selma and Arnold’s reckless idea to take an old, metal tub(not an actual bathroom tub) and put it in a stream and play “boat”, with two large sticks as oars.  The area snow had melted, Spring has arrived, and there are small streams everywhere for kids to play in.  The danger is that the stream they are playing in quickly takes them into the river which is roaring with new water sources, and rising.  Word quickly gets out that the two children can’t be found, but someone saw them playing in an old tub.  The two children’s fathers, fellow farmers, and the editor rush to the bridge in order to be at the ready to catch the tub and rescue the children before it can pass under the bridge.  It is a very intense scene and I was relieved when the children were saved.  Robinson’s reaction is so on the spot.  He grabs his daughter, squeezes her hard, with tears flowing down his face, and then gives her one, hard swat, for doing such a dumb and dangerous thing.  Then he kisses her and carries her home as fast as he can to Bruna.

Martinius and Selma on their way to see the circus animals

I was able to view this film via Amazon’s Instant Rent.   It does appear from time to time on TCM so watch their schedule for it, and they also sell it in their online shop.  So check out Our Vines Have Tender Grapes for a chance to see Edward G. Robinson in a non-gangster role.   

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5 responses to this post.

  1. I love Edward G. Robinson as a gangster, but I also love him in other roles. I bet he’s terrific in this film, judging by your review. And what a great cast for him to work with!

    Also, I didn’t realize Dalton Trumbo wrote this script and that it was his last one before being blacklisted.

    Reply

    • Yes, Trumbo’s last. I also read but didn’t mention that a few critics in 1945 thought the film had some left-leaning ideas in it. I for the life of me, couldn’t detect any when I watched it.

      Reply

  2. So many touching and real moments in this film. MGM did a beautiful job, not the least of which was their casting, in transferring the novel to the screen.

    Reply

    • Yes, the director knew what to do and having such a good cast to work with, he probably didn’t have to give them much direction. I enjoyed your post on Hangover Square, a film I was not aware of. Too bad Laird Creagher died so young.

      Reply

  3. […] Pingback: For the Free For All Blogathon: Edward G. Robinson in a Non-Gangster Role | portraitsbyjenni […]

    Reply

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