This 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”