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MGM's Warner Brothers Classic Holiday Collection, Vol. 2 collects four very positive pictures that don't necessarily have Christmas themes. That gives WHV the opportunity to trot out this Technicolor gem, a true story about a woman who devoted her life to helping what were known as "foundlings" -- illegitimate children orphaned or discarded.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, social consciousness wasn't a particularly hot commodity. Warner Bros. produced movies with scripts sympathetic to the needs of the under-classes, but films that really stick their chins out about social problems were still infrequent: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Black Legion. As the 1940s dawned MGM kept making movies about fancy people with servants in big houses; when their scripts touched on topical issues, it was often to slam trade unions and the policies of the FDR administration. 1941's Blossoms in the Dust is an MGM picture with an unusually sensitive approach to a social issue that had a strong effect on public opinion. A controversy that hinges on the public sympathy for helpless babies isn't exactly a tough sell, but there's no denying that MGM's picture is on the side of the angels.
Two years after her American debut in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Greer Garson stars as Edna Gladney, a woman from Wisconsin who moved to Fort Worth, Texas and became heavily involved in what eventually became known as the Texas Children's Home and Aid Society. It began in 1906 as an improvised day care center for working mothers who normally would have to give up their children to the authorities. The concept of day care was considered radical at the time; many babies and children from broken homes were separated from their mothers, put in inadequately funded orphanages and forgotten.
Ace screenwriter Anita Loos has probably radically enhanced the facts of Edna Gladney's life for the Technicolor screen. Young Edna Kahly (Garson) is first seen as a debutante enjoying a happy double engagement with her adopted sister Charlotte (Marsha Hunt). But Edna is swept off her feet by Sam Gladney (Walter Pidgeon), a Texan who wants to start a mill and walks around with wheat samples in his pockets. Charlotte's engagement ends in tragedy. Her future mother-in-law discovers that she was a foundling; at that time babies born out of wedlock had the damning word "illegitimate" stamped on their birth certificates.
Tragedy follows Edna through her marriage and her attempt to be a mother. Instead of adopting, she takes in foundlings during the day, allowing their mothers to work and keep their babies too. With the help of Dr. Breslar (Felix Bressart) she enlarges her practice into a charity and starts arranging for adoptions. Years later, Edna is instrumental in pushing through legislation banning the practice of stigmatizing children with the legal brand of illegitimacy: "There is no such thing as illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents!"
Blossoms in the Dust is interesting because a) it promotes awareness of undeniably important issues, and b) it's as rigidly pompous as any MGM film. It apparently had an enormous impact on local fundraising in Women's Clubs. Any film that influences the public to see society's innocent children in a more sympathetic light can't be bad, so it's easy to forgive the movie's overall glamorization and "optimizing" of Ms. Gladney's life. The importance of the illegitimacy issue is strongly dramatized in the terrible fate of Edna's sister Charlotte, long before we see any babies. Like a gentler version of Spencer Tracy's Father Flanagan in Boys Town, Edna goes door to door soliciting nickels and dimes -- it's pretty funny seeing a montage of Greer Garson holding up a cup to various working men, even a farmer plowing his field. Like Father Flanagan, she has an amusing sidekick, a doctor who abandons his practice to stoop and fetch for her struggling Homes for Children.
The movie takes pains to avoid racial offense -- to white audiences. Some of the babies are black, but we never see Edna touch one of them. Former servants Zeke and Cleo (Clinton Rosemond & Theresa Harris) are so attached to Edna that they volunteer to do tend children without asking for pay at first. "Good" blacks in Hollywood movies want to work for the nice white people on basic principle, it seems. As often happens in early Technicolor films, black actors photograph far too darkly; the beautiful Ms. Harris (I Walked with a Zombie, Out of the Past) looks like an inkblot.
The most offensive moment has Edna tell Zeke to take care of two adorable new additions to the baby roster ... she just points to the next room. When Zeke goes in, he finds the two bawling black tots --- sitting together in a packing crate!
The film finds easy targets for audience scorn. The ladies who want to shut down Edna's day care are miserable old bigots. Familiar specialist in screen creeps Marc Lawrence is a border town nightclub owner who ditches his son with Edna, ignoring her pleas to try to be a father to him. Later on he comes back with a lawyer demanding custody. Edna must go to trial, but never fear -- the judge in the case turns out to be the boy's new adoptive father!
Throughout her trials Edna maintains her poise and charm, like ... like Greer Garson. The movie nominates Edna for sainthood, but really cheats on the requirements. Edna begins taking care of children while she still has a family, and the script takes both her son and husband away from her, thereby "freeing" her for social work. Even worse, the inference is made that Edna channels her womanly life force to the public good because her own desires have been thwarted. The script even suggests that she's "too virtuous" to have sex, by giving her a medical imperative to never become pregnant after a troubled first birth experience. Thus Edna Gladney is canonized as an example to women everywhere. Sex and greatness don't mix in a great woman, as far as MGM is concerned.
Blossoms in the Dust helped Ms. Gladney (only 55 when it was released) with further civic projects but probably made an even greater impact by popularizing charity work in general. The movie is a sentimental women's favorite -- lots of adorable looking babies and several sure-fire handkerchief scenes. As for the offensive aspects, well, a step in the right direction has to start somewhere. Critics frequently dismiss Sidney Poitier's impossibly noble characters, but a black superman was needed for any black actors to become stars, and for prejudiced white audiences to begin the slow process of acceptance. For America of 1941 Blossoms in the Dust did just fine.
Warner Bros.' DVD of Blossoms in the Dust is a fine Technicolor transfer with few if any registration problems. Karl Freund was the main cinematographer and the color values are more subdued than is usual for a 3-Strip picture of this vintage. The audio is clear, with a Herbert Stothart score organized like a silent movie -- many passages use brief quotes from familiar and traditional tunes. No extras are included. The disc is one of four titles included in the Warner Brothers Classic Holiday Collection, Vol. 2 (the others are listed above). The box is priced low enough to represent a bargain: even at retail, it comes out to less than eight dollars a disc.
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