Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
As soon as the Goldwyn library migrated from MGM to Warner Home Video a couple of seasons back, I began hoping for more library favorites to show up in remastered versions. This Howard Hawks-William Wyler classic finally has. I've seen it multiple times over the years, and its theme seems to deepen with each viewing. Without directly saying so, the movie makes a great statement about the importance of living life while one can -- but hopefully not at the expense of others.
Savant likes movies based on the multi-generational stories of author Edna Ferber. Most are at least interesting and several are superior pictures: Giant, Cimarron, Showboat. This 1936 Goldwyn production is the also the best opportunity to appreciate the great actress Frances Farmer. The movie is about ambition, success and the loves that get left behind. It works up a potent aura of nostalgia.
The late 1880s. Tireless logging supervisor Barney Glasgow (Edward Arnold) not only has the best record for clearing timber in Minnesota, he has a scheme to use railroad right-of-ways to increase tenfold the rape of the timberland by the lumber companies. Barney talks his boss Mr. Hewitt (Charles Halton) into a partnership worth millions, but it has one catch -- Hewitt wants a husband for his plain daughter Emma Louise (Mary Nash). Carousing with his friend Swan Bostrum (Walter Brennan), Barney meets the love of his life at exactly the wrong time. She's Lotta Morgan (Frances Farmer), a
spirited saloon singer who matches Barney for nerve and swagger. After a brief flirtation, Barney skips out to return to the Hewitts and his fortune. Broken hearted, Lotta marries Swan, "The kindest man she knows."
1907. Barney is now fifty and one of the most powerful paper mill owners in America, making do with his tepid marriage to Emma Louise. His daughter Evvie (Andrea Leeds) wants to marry a lowly paper mill worker named Tony Schwerke (Frank Shields). Visiting the old town for the first time in years, Barney meets Swan's daughter Lotta Bostrum -- the exact likeness of her dead mother. The selfish Barney loses whatever judgment he had. He entertains ideas of "keeping" Lotta in Chicago, or perhaps leaving his wife to marry her. But now there's a new conflict: Barney's ambitious son Richard (Joel McCrea) meets Lotta too and is smitten as well.
Come and Get It is only 99 minutes long, and after one subtracts a lumber-cutting montage prologue seems even shorter. Yet it comes off as a sprawling epic. Beautifully organized into just a few powerful scenes, the story never seems rushed. It has both economy and depth and keeps up a pace without sacrificing content. That's doubly impressive considering that its direction was split between two of the top directors in Hollywood, with very different
styles. William Wyler took over after Sam Goldwyn fired Howard Hawks. One has to think that the movie was filmed in script order. Earlier scenes are more comedic and boisterous, full of the long takes and overlapping dialogue we associate with Hawks. The later dramatic passages involve a full family in a social situation, with more familiar romantic conflicts. They look exactly like the work of William Wyler, especially when a major scene takes place on a staircase!
The story grabs us right away. Edward Arnold's Barney Glasgow is an American success clearly defined as a pirate, demolishing the landscape for personal gain. This is Arnold before he became an all-purpose bad guy in Frank Capra movies; he's more robust than portly and has more energy than anyone else in the picture. Joel McCrea is again the fine but unsung actor. I'm not sure he was ever even considered for an Oscar. As the responsible Richard, McCrea provides a quiet alternative to Barney's selfishness. Barney had to make his way in wilder times and doesn't recognize that his son's lack of aggression isn't a bad thing. Any male will immediately identify with this father-son relationship.
For both comedy relief and sentiment there's Walter Brennan's Swan Bostrum as the 'yumpin' yimminy' Nordic fool stereotype who turns out to be the nicest character in the story. If one thinks of Brennan in terms of his Rio Bravo days, the actor might be hard to recognize. He's as skinny as a rail and seems quite tall. Brennan won an Oscar for this role.
But the irreplaceable component of Come and Get It is Frances Farmer. She positively glows. Jessica Lange did a fine Farmer impersonation in the '80s biopic but the real woman is softer and projects more vulnerability. Just the same, she's credible as a slow-n-easy saloon diva of the 1880s, singing "Aura Lee" (the original tune for "Love Me Tender") in an impossibly low register. Lotta Morgan is much more than The One that Got Away. In just a couple of scenes we see her form her life's commitment, only to watch helplessly as it crumbles before her eyes. It's heartbreaking.
Lotta Morgan is a gambling tout and come-on specialist, the kind of moll that regularly slips customers the Mickey Finn, like the bargirls in William Wellman's Frisco Jenny. A vision in spit-curls, she's aware that she's the best-looking woman in the state but also aware that she's fatally unlucky. Hawks (I'm assuming) gives Farmer the honor of an extreme up-angle shot for her song, the kind of isolated emphasis that always sticks out in his wide shots of held scenes. Lotta is tough on the outside, but clearly would like something better. When Barney betrays her she's left with almost nothing. The fact that we don't see what happens to Lotta makes us feel guilty -- it's as if we've abandoned her as well. Part of the legend of Frances Farmer in this movie is that Lotta Morgan seems a lot like what Farmer might have been herself, a spirited person not comfortable within the confines of her assigned role. Reports of Frances Farmer's personal life conflict strongly -- she may have not been quite the victim attested to in some accounts -- but she definitely ran into trouble with her 'unappreciated' political opinions. Farmer is unique among movie stars but left only a few really memorable performances, of which this is the most notable.
Twenty-three years later Farmer is playing her own daughter -- younger and less experienced but no fool despite being raised in a logging town. After the high spirits of the first section of the film, here's where the ironies and regrets sink in. Barney at first thinks he's seen a ghost and then allows his senses to slip. He threw his heart away when he married for money and now he thinks that he can get it back again, that he's still the unstoppable force he once was. The film quickly reveals his interest in young Lotta to be very wrong, practically incestuous. Even his smirking secretary is too intimidated to tell him off, and Barney's only real friend Swan isn't perceptive enough to see his plans. When Lotta gravitates toward Barney's son Richard, there's going to be trouble.
Come and Get It has a deeply felt sense of nostalgia. In 1936 the 1880s weren't that far in the past - anybody over 55 had lived through them. The hardworking saloon crowds with the singing waiters in the crooked gambling den are perfectly realized. The women don't appear out of place in their corseted dresses; when young Lotta and her cousin Karie enter a 1907 train car, we feel their chagrin - like them, we aren't immediately aware that they're wearing fashions twenty years out of date.
Edna Ferber movies may no longer be in fashion, as her stories acknowledge the sadness of time, and that decisions have consequences that one must live with, forever. Today, everybody insists on having 'options.' Not many of us take great risks if we have a cozy lifestyle, and not many of us commit fully to our most basic relationships. The separate threads of Come and Get It converge perfectly at the end, resolving the characters in the only way they can be resolved. It's still a fine entertainment, eighty years later - and what it has to say about people rings true.
We get a good look at the ugly-mug John Ford regular Jack Pennick in the early scenes, and it's said that Hank Worden is there as well. This picture seems like an unauthorized cultural back story for Savant, for my grandfather came to Minnesota from Sweden in 1907. But black audiences are more likely to resent the presentation of Glasgow's black valet, named Snowflake. The actor who played him is listed as Fred 'Snowflake' Toones.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Come and Get It looks to me like a new re-mastering from Goldwyn's very good elements. MGM's 2005 DVD was okay, but this looks sharper and less grainy in many scenes. I bet there is replacement material here and there, for some scenes do look a tiny bit degraded. But I have to say that, picture and sound, it's great that his picture has survived in such terrific shape. Goldwyn and his late son Samuel Goldwyn Jr. took good care of their library, in general. Please don't tell me if Frances Farmer doesn't sing for herself -- her rendition of "Aura Lee" should be the centerpiece of a montage of Howard Hawks sing-along sequences.
The original trailer included stresses action and gives the mistaken impression that the whole show is about cutting down trees. The long logging montage (credited to Richard Rosson) at first seems like padding, but underscores the secondary theme, of the rape of the nation's natural resources by the Eastern combines in the latter decades of the 19th century. This isn't a bias I've imposed on the movie -- the opening card calls them pirates as well. The Land said, 'Come and get it!' and the takers like Barney came and took. It was surely as natural as, rolling off a log.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Come and Get It DVD-R rates:
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 7, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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