Saturday’s Children (Vincent Sherman, 1940 – and other versions)

Saturday's Children 2This posting is really a follow-up to the excellent John Garfield centenary blogathon. In the last few days I’ve  been lucky enough to see one of Garfield’s rarer films,  Saturday’s Children, and was surprised to realise just how many other versions of the same story have been made. The film was reviewed during the blogathon, but I can’t resist giving my own take on it too. Anyway, after talking about the film itself, I’ll then go on to mention the other versions which have been staged or filmed, ranging from the original Broadway stage play – starring a very young Humphrey Bogart! – right through to a stage revival in the last couple of years. I’ll also post some pictures of some of the other versions. Although I do like discussing endings, I’ve resisted the temptation on this occasion, so there are no serious spoilers in this posting – but, if you just want to know about the other versions, scroll down to the bottom!

The 1940 film starring Garfield, directed by Vincent Sherman, was the third screen adaptation of  Maxwell Anderson’s play. It is often described as a romantic comedy – but perhaps a more accurate description is that it’s a tragicomedy. The way it moves from sweet early scenes to increasingly painful/bitter ones, and eventually lurches into near-melodrama, reminded me of one of my favourite James Cagney films, The Strawberry Blonde, made the following year, which I will be writing about soon for the forthcoming James Cagney blogathon. Both films have scripts by Casablanca writers Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, reworked from stage plays, and both see Warner Brothers ‘tough guys’ cast somewhat against type, in roles which bring out their more vulnerable qualities.

Anne Shirley and John Garfield

Anne Shirley and John Garfield

However, although Garfield gets top billing, the film really centres on the heroine, played by Anne Shirley (the former child actress took her screen name from the character she played in Anne of Green Gables.) I haven’t seen many of her roles but would like to see more, since she is very good in Saturday’s Children as young factory clerk Bobby Halevy. At the start of the film she begins work at the warehouse where her father, Henry (Claude Rains) is a loyal but still lowly employee. Her fellow-worker, the slangy, down-to-earth Gert (Dennie Moore) warns her that the work is boring, but Bobby gets through the piles of invoices with ease and enjoys working for her own living and contributing to the family budget.  The scenes of the two women working are well done and there is a convincing factory atmosphere, with a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. Also, Rains, who starred with John Garfield in several films, gives a great performance here as the weary middle-aged storeman who feels he has been overtaken by younger workers. I especially like some of the father-daughter scenes, but do feel it is a shame that Bobby’s mother, Myrtle (Elisabeth Risdon) is such a stereotyped figure, who seems to have no interests beyond cooking meals and knitting sweaters for everyone in sight.

After a trip to bowling with Gert, Bobby is soon falling for a colleague – you guessed it, Garfield’s character, Rims Rosson. Like Cagney in The Strawberry Blonde, Garfield here plays an innocent, longing for a career he seems unlikely to achieve. His character, Rims (it’s never made clear whether this is a nickname, perhaps deriving from his reading glasses)  hardly sees what is around him in the everyday world, as he dreams of making it as an inventor, turning hemp into artificial silk. Surprisingly, it looks as if Rims’ dream will come true when he is offered a job in Manila. However, his career is sidetracked at his leaving party when Bobby tricks him into proposing, by reciting a script written by her older and more cynical married sister, Florrie (Lee Patrick). Bobby pretends that another young man is keen to marry her, and an unsuspecting Rims speaks almost exactly the lines that Florrie predicted.  Unfortunately, when the young couple are living together, life soon turns out to be much harder and more expensive than they had expected, especially when Bobby is laid off from the factory. “Two can live as cheaply as one… if one don’t eat!” comments Florrie’s downtrodden husband, Willie (Roscoe Karns).

Here is a clip from the film, a scene where Bobby and Rims make a date, which gives the flavour of the humour and delicate romance of the early scenes:

The opening scenes certainly show the poverty of Bobby’s family, living in a cramped apartment where they can constantly hear the neighbours and time themselves by them. (One neighbour’s baby cries at 7am, while another couple always have their first fight of the day at 7.10am). However, this is all shown with a very light touch and the dialogue is so witty that it doesn’t seem too depressing. Later on, however, when Bobby and Rims are living in their own cramped apartment too near to a railway line, with a rent they can’t afford, the problems with noise stop being a joke. And the endless quarrels between Florrie and Willie, which at first seemed comic, take on a darker note, showing what will inevitably happen to Bobby and Rims once they, too, are forced to move in with her parents.

John Garfield, Claude Rains and Anne Shirley

John Garfield, Claude Rains and Anne Shirley

I suppose the film’s turning point comes during the scene where Bobby, who has always prided herself on her honesty, is tempted into tricking Rims into marriage. This is initially  presented as a comic scene, but there is a disturbing note to it even as it plays out. And it becomes increasingly tragic in retrospect, as Bobby accuses herself of ruining both her own life and that of her husband. I did feel that the dice were weighed somewhat against women here, as a woman is shown sabotaging a man’s career – but, against that, there is also the scene where the boss lays Bobby off because, with orders declining, he feels it “only fair” to get rid of married women first. So the marriage ruins her career too – and, once she gets pregnant, she is even more trapped than Rims is. The film also makes it very clear how much pressure there is on Bobby at 22 to find a man and get married before she is “on the shelf” and doomed to plough through those invoices for evermore. “Women only have one weapon – marriage,” claims Florrie.

Anyway, I enjoyed this bitter-sweet film and especially liked the scenes between Garfield and Anne Shirley.  Both of them were actually drafted in quite late on – according to Robert Nott’s biography of Garfield, He Ran All the Way, James Stewart and Olivia de Havilland  were originally intended for the leads but both eventually opted out. The imdb says that de Havilland was put on suspension by Warner for her defiance. I don’t know why they decided against, though they must have had good reasons. The part of Rims seems perfect for Stewart, and de Havilland had already played Bobby in a radio version of the play, the Lux Radio Theater presentation in October 1936, opposite Robert Taylor. I hope to listen to this soon and will be interested to see how it compares.

Humphrey Bogart and Ruth Gordon in the stage version

Humphrey Bogart and Ruth Gordon in the stage version

So what about the other versions? The play certainly feels like a Great Depression tale, but it was actually written before that era and first staged on Broadway in 1927-8, with a young Humphrey Bogart playing opposite Ruth Gordon. The production was evidently very successful and was followed by a national tour. I’ve seen Bogart in a rather similar role as an idealistic young working-class aircraft engineer in the pre-Code drama Love Affair, so I can just imagine him as Rims. (It’s amazing how soft and gentle his voice is in that early role, except for the occasional angry line where you hear the rasp and remember it is him!)

However, Bogie, whose movie career was not yet under way, missed out on the part in the first film version, made in 1929 and directed by Gregory La Cava. Instead, Rims (re-christened Jim in this version) was played by Grant Withers, with silent film star Corinne Griffith as Bobby. I’d love to see how La Cava handled the story, but sadly it doesn’t look as if this film, which had some silent and some talkie sequences,  has survived. Although I haven’t come across any of Griffith’s films as yet, I know she has a devoted following. I have seen Withers in a couple of films where he co-stars with Cagney around this era and find him a rather patchy actor but would be interested to see him in this. Mordaunt Hall reviewed this version for the New York Times and it sounds as if it was a bit like the early talkies spoofed in Singin’ in the Rain – he comments:  “The screen translation of Maxwell Anderson’s prize play, “Saturday’s Children,” is interspersed with dialogue passages that occasionally boom in a disquieting fashion and others that subside into abashed tones so low that the words of the players cannot always be heard.”

Grant Withers and Corinne Griffith in the 1929 film 'Saturday's Children'

Grant Withers and Corinne Griffith in the 1929 film ‘Saturday’s Children’

Gloria Stuart and Ross Alexander in 'Maybe It's Love'

Gloria Stuart and Ross Alexander in ‘Maybe It’s Love’

The play was filmed again in 1935, under the title Maybe It’s Love (confusingly, this was also the title of a totally unrelated Wellman film released in 1930!), with future Titanic star Gloria Stuart as Bobby this time and the largely forgotten Ross Alexander, who tragically committed suicide less than two years later,  as Rims. This version isn’t on DVD, but – as with the 1940 film – I believe it is sometimes shown on the US TCM channel and there are a few clips of it available to see at the station’s website. It looks as if it is more frothy and comic than the Garfield/Shirley version, with the part of the brother-in-law, Willie, built up for Warner’s comedy favourite Frank McHugh. Also in this version there really is another man after Bobby. Here is a link to the trailer, and if you let it go on running afterwards it will play another clip.

Next of course came the Garfield version, and after that there were three TV adaptations – a Lux Video Theater version in 1950 with Joan Caulfield as Bobby and Dean Harens as Rims, a 1952 Celanese Theater episode with Mickey Rooney as Rims (the imdb doesn’t have details of who played Bobby in that one) and a 1962 Golden Showcase episode with a cast which would have graced a feature film – Ralph Bellamy as the father, Cliff Robertson as Rims, Lee Grant as Florrie and Inger Stevens as Bobby. I was occasionally reminded of 1960s kitchen-sink dramas by some of the more downbeat scenes in the 1940 film, so was interested to see that it was remade for television in that era.

Ralph Bellamy and Inger Stevens in the 1962 TV version

Ralph Bellamy and Inger Stevens in the 1962 TV version

The play has since lapsed into obscurity, but I see from a bit of googling that it was staged at the University of Missouri in 2010 – more than 80 years after its first production.  A student newspaper report says : “Director Fonzie Geary said he chose this play because it is one of the lost treasures of the American theatre.”

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12 thoughts on “Saturday’s Children (Vincent Sherman, 1940 – and other versions)

  1. Interesting. I’ve never heard of this film before. However, I do like Garfield a lot, and have enjoyed some Maxwell Anderson inspired films – Key Largo & The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex – so I’ll keep my eyes peeled for this one.

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    • Thank you, Colin. I’m a Garfield fan too and trying to see as many of his films as possible. Some of them have had Warner Archive releases, so fingers crossed for this one. I also like those Maxwell Anderson inspired films and I believe another of his plays, ‘Outside Looking In’ (starring the young James Cagney) at least loosely inspired a silent Wellman movie that I love, ‘Beggars of Life’.

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  2. What a great synopsis, Judy! And I also love knowing about all the other film and screen versions of “Saturday’s Children.” Who knew there were that many takes on this story!

    As you already know, I recently got a chance to see “Saturday’s Children” for the first time. It had been on my “must see” list for a very long time. Sometimes, I end up being disappointed when I finally get a chance to see those longed-for films, but in this case, I wasn’t disappointed at all. I thought the film was delightful. It was a thrill to have a chance to see John Garfield in this kind of role. While I love him in his usual cynical, chip-on-the-shoulder, angry man roles, occasionally, I like seeing a softer side of him.

    Besides Garfield and Anne Shirley’s scenes, I was especially touched by Shirley’s and Rains’ scenes together. I know Claude had one daughter in real life, and his chemistry with Anne in the film made me think he probably had a terrific relationship with his real-life daughter. There was a loving tenderness which, I feel sure, was exhibited off screen as well.

    Funny you mentioned Grant Withers. All I know of him is that he was Mr. Loretta Young for a time. (I had never heard of him until reading Loretta’s bio in January.)

    About discussing a movie’s ending…since I know you do that, I tend to avoid stopping by when you are discussing a film I haven’t yet seen. So if you ever wonder where I’m at, know that I probably haven’t seen the film you are currently highlighting.

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    • Thanks so much for putting me on to this film, Patti, and for all your work in organising the Garfield blogathon. I was amazed to discover just how many versions of this particular story there were – it was clearly one where the appeal continued in different eras. I do agree that it is good to see Garfield playing a different type of role, and also that Claude Rains and Anne Shirley are great in their scenes together. I’ve only seen Grant Withers in a couple of films, both pre-Codes – I’d have to say he isn’t very good in ‘Sinners’ Holiday’ as he still plays the part as if it was a silent film (though to be fair I can make out what he says a lot more easily than I can make out Cagney’s very fast and high-pitched lines in the same film!), but he is very good in ‘Other Men’s Women’ a couple of years later, again with Cagney.

      On spoilers, I do try to flag it up if I’m discussing an important plot point, but often that seems to be the thing most people want to talk about in comments, so I thought it was best to put up a warning! No worries at all if you prefer to steer clear until you have seen a film – I often do the same thing myself. Thanks again, Patti.

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    • Thanks, Ruth – I love both Garfield and Rains, so this was a must for me, and it is definitely a very strong role for the latter. Hope you get to see it – it is occasionally shown on TCM in the US.

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  3. I forgot to mention that the Garfield bio I have (Body and Soul: The Story of John Garfield, by Larry Swindell) says that Jane Bryan was originally scheduled to have been the female lead, and Garfield was thrilled, as he had been wanting to work with her. However, Jane left her career to marry and have children, so they had to get someone else. Garfield originally supposed Warners was going to put Priscilla Lane in the role, and that would have been okay, except that they would then try to put the Lane sisters in the film as well, and that was NOT okay with him. So, he pressured the studio to borrow Anne Shirley from RKO.

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    • Thanks for this additional info, Patti. I’d also heard of Jane Bryan being in line for the part at one time – it seems as if the studios nearly always considered several actors for a lead role before coming up with their final cast. I’ve seen quite a few of Jane Bryan’s films but must admit I don’t remember her roles all that well, so don’t find it as easy to imagine her playing Bobby as I do with Olivia de Havilland or Priscilla Lane (I do really like her, though I can see Garfield’s point in wanting to avoid another Lane sisters movie.)

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  4. Pingback: The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, 1941) | Movie classics

  5. My Garfield essentials:

    They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

    Dust Be My Destiny (1939)

    The Sea Wolf (1941)

    Out of the Fog (1941)

    Tortilla Flat (1942)

    The Fallen Sparrow (1943)

    Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943)

    Destination Tokyo (1943)

    Between Two Worlds (1944)

    Hollywood Canteen (1944)

    Pride of the Marines (1945)

    The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

    Humoresque (1946)

    Body and Soul (1947)

    Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

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    • That’s a great list of Garfield films, John – I’ve seen most of them but still need to catch up with ‘Dust Be My Destiny’, ‘The Sea Wolf’ and ‘Tortilla Flat’.

      I’d add ‘He Ran All the Way’ and ‘Force of Evil’ as two more essentials. Thanks for the comment!

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