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DVD SAVANT

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes
Warner Archive Collection


Our Vines Have Tender Grapes
Warner Archive Collection
1945 / B&W /1:37 flat full frame / 105 min. / Street Date November 17, 2009 / available through the Warner Archive Collection / 19.95
Starring Edward G. Robinson, Margaret O'Brien, James Craig, Frances Gifford, Agnes Moorehead, Jackie 'Butch' Jenkins.
Cinematography
Robert Surtees
Film Editor Ralph E. WInters
Original Music Bronislau Kaper
Written by Dalton Trumbo from the novel by George Victor Martin
Produced by Robert Sisk
Directed by Roy Rowland

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

MGM goes the sweet and gentle route in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, a movie made late in the war. Taken from a book about life on Wisconsin country farms, the film is in the same vein as the heartwarming, earthy sentimentality of the earlier The Human Comedy, William Saroyan's story of wartime on the home front starring Mickey Rooney. It's said that the tiny child actor Jackie "Butch" Jenkins stole the show, and Jenkins is back for more screen time here, a year or so older and at least three inches taller. Second billed behind star Edward G. Robinson is Margaret O'Brien, an endearing moppet with the stage timing and delivery of a half-pint Barrymore; she of course had been a big hit in the previous year's Meet Me in St. Louis. By the end of the war MGM had more child stars than it knew what to do with.  1

Story-wise, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes is a progressive film for MGM. Its loose series of episodes paint a picture of country life as it is. All that's missing is the authenticity that a real location would give. The filming is almost entirely studio bound, with cycloramic backdrops substituting for Wisconsin vistas. Elaborate special effects are used to depict a flood and a fire. But the low-key acting, especially by Edward G. Robinson and Agnes Moorehead, finds a nice tone for Dalton Trumbo's sensitive screenplay. The movie is very effectively small-scale.

Seven year-old Selma Jacobsen (Margaret O'Brien) and five year-old Arnold Hanson (Butch Jenkins) live on adjoining farms and are playmates, although they sometimes don't get along. The precocious Selma asks questions about everything, including about Ingeborg (Dorothy Morris), a mentally handicapped neighbor mistreated by her father and made the butt of town jokes. Selma's kind father Martinius (Edward G. Robinson) would like to build a big new barn, but his cautious wife Bruna (Agnes Moorehead) worries about the farm debts. Selma's new teacher Viola Johnson (Frances Gifford of Cry 'Havoc') hates the small-mindedness she sees in country life, but becomes fond of the young publisher-editor of the town paper, Nels Halverson (James Craig of The Devil and Daniel Webster).

The story calls out for a naturalistic approach incompatible with MGM in 1945, especially under wartime austerity. The production values are excellent but the studio stylization remains. In his original review, James Agee said the film lacked fresh air even as he praised its thoughtful performances. Former short subject director Roy Rowland probably rated this job because he directed Margaret O'Brien's Lost Angel. Rowland certainly handles the kids well but the movie is visually undistinguished. When the story wants to make broader statements about the community in the third act, they don't come off particularly well. Two church scenes are meant to prove the worthiness of country society to the doubting Viola. But they come off mainly as solo opportunities for Ms. O'Brien to be extra-cute for her fans.

The home life vignettes are excellent. Little Selma and Arnold fight over a pair of roller skates, an incident that sees Selma punished disproportionately. She takes her punishment stoically. Martinius gives Selma a calf to raise, and she learns responsibility. Selma is given an allowance tied to the success of the family crops. She orders Christmas presents for her parents and makes fast friends with Nels and Viola. Little Arnold mostly supplies mild comedy relief, moping around the schoolhouse because he's too young to attend. In The Human Comedy Butch Jenkins stole our hearts because he was obviously too young to be entirely "acting". He's not quite as effective here simply because he's older and must have a better idea of what he is doing. The biggest dramatic moment that relates to the kids puts them in jeopardy, always a touchy thing to do in a serious drama. Selma and Arnold use a tin bathtub to play "boat" and are swept away by flood waters. Rowland and Robinson handle the rescue scene beautifully, without phony touches.

Edward G. Robinson rises to the occasion as a convincingly overworked farmer; it's great to see him play a non-abrasive character. He's affectionate with O'Brien yet avoids the tendency to go "cute", to the betterment of their scenes together. Even more welcome is Agnes Moorehead, for once allowed to play a sweet-tempered woman instead of her usual harpy or malcontent. She's bitter and suspicious even in Johnny Belinda.

Martinius and Bruna earn their wings as class-A parents when Bruna learns that a circus train is passing through town, albeit only for a few minutes at four in the morning. Martinius rousts Selma from bed in the middle of the night and then pays an animal trainer to get the big circus elephant out of its truck long enough to entertain Selma. It's a beautiful scene in every way, right down to the trainer's jaded attitude. Nothing that exciting ever seems to happen in rural Wisconsin; Selma will carry the memory of riding the elephant's trunk for her entire life. The scene may remind us all of our lucky childhood moments when parents did exactly the right thing, and the world seemed a perfect place.

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes is a big title in the career of future Hollywood Ten blacklistee Dalton Trumbo. Those who listen to claptrap about communists sneaking propaganda into films need to realize that Trumbo's pictures (which include favorites like A Guy Named Joe) never promoted any ideology stronger than good will toward men. To the film's benefit Trumbo doesn't soften the story into kindergarten-safe mush. He begins with Selma accidentally killing a squirrel, letting us know that things may get serious. He also tangentially refers to a subplot that couldn't be directly addressed under the Production Code, a Kings Row- like domestic crime involving the luckless Ingeborg.

Trumbo uses the romance between Nels and Viola to bring the war into focus. James Craig repeats his function from The Human Comedy by this time volunteering for service, which makes it necessary for Martinius to explain the necessity of war to Selma in a nicely understated scene. The fact that Viola is a stylish woman from the big city doesn't help the film establish a country tone. Bruna is the only country woman given relevant dialogue, and Viola's fashionable wardrobe and hairstyle are an MGM glamour statement. Viola boycotts a funeral because she thinks the locals are hypocrites. Nels argues that country people are no more or less boorish than city folk, a defensive position he takes up more than once. That Viola is eventually won over by young Selma's unselfish example is the thinnest part of the movie.

Trumbo's second high drama scene does become a bit preachy. Martinius envies his neighbor his beautiful new barn, which goes up in flames in an electrical storm. The disaster becomes an all-too obvious learning experience when Martinius must personally shoot all the livestock trapped inside. Selma inspires the congregation to donate genrously to the unlucky farmer, thus learning the meaning of neighborly charity. Martinius learns not to covet things beyond his means. Although the movie never says so, the fact that Martinius can't afford to hire help and has no sons to help him makes building up his farm very difficult. The inadvertent message is that the economically disadvantaged are better off settling for less and giving up on their dreams. Just get the wife indoor plumbing and continue to scrape by.

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes also seems influenced by the sensitive films of Val Lewton, whose The Curse of the Cat People concerns another impressionable young girl learning about the world outside her door. Favorite Lewton actress Elizabeth Russell has a small part in this movie. From our perspective 65 years later, we don't know if her presence is a coincidence or not. Grapes garnered approval from both the critics and the public, encouraging MGM to continue making pictures centered on American families with innocent, open minded small children.


The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Our Vines Have Tender Grapes looks like a new remastered transfer with excellent contrast, sharpness and stability. By 1945 MGM had perfected cycloramic backdrops and rear-projections, and some of the film's most memorable shots are special effects. The final image of Martinius and Selma walking down a path evokes a glimpse into the past, a memory of relatives now gone.

The amusing trailer begins with a little scene that reinforces the idea that MGM is like a big hotel where all the stars live in harmony. Spencer Tracy plays gruff with little Margaret O'Brien, refusing to work with her because she's too much competition -- and telling her to scram. It's a smart ad in that it assumes that O'Brien is a totally unaffected innocent. That's possible but unlikely considering what we now know about the pressure on child performers -- the little actress was by this time on her 4th or 5th big role. Even with the most thoughtful parents she must already have acquired the instincts of a trouper.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 17, 2010

Footnote:

1. It seems logical that the success of these movies encouraged MGM to continue on to the big-budget The Yearling. The Technicolor film made a child star of Claude Jarman, Jr., another wide-eyed kid capable of a wide range of expression. Both The Human Comedy and The Yearling were directed by the sensitive, expressive Clarence Brown.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

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