#14 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
This is Howard Hawks’ first movie about getting old. I’m not sure if there will be others, but this feels like a small landmark in his filmography. It’s also a movie where Hawks was fired from the production with only a couple weeks left to go and replaced at the last second by William Wyler. There’s some debate on how much Hawks directed and how much Wyler directed ranging from the final half hour to about ten minutes of footage. Hawks, apparently, strayed from the source novel by Edna Ferber far more than Samuel Goldwyn, the producer, was comfortable with. There does seem to be a quick snap towards the movie’s larger story in the final section, and Wyler has different visual inclinations from Hawks that makes some of his sections obviously different from what came before. Anyway, that’s mostly just film geek stuff. Is the movie any good? Well, yeah.
It’s the story of Barney Glasgow (Edward Arnold), a hardworking forester in Wisconsin in the late 19th century. He has dreams of becoming one of the richest men in the state through forestry and an act of Congress that grants land parcels out in specific increments that he looks to take advantage of with the help of his boss, Jed. Along for the ride is Barney’s best friend, the Swedish Swan Bostrom (Walter Brennan). After a successful logging season in an incredible sequence of footage of real logging operations, in particular around the dropping of thousands of logs into the river to ride south to the sawmill, Barney gets Jed to agree to his plan with the promise that Barney will marry Jed’s daughter, Emma Louise.
To celebrate, Barney takes Swan and his men to a casino where he meets Lotta Morgan played by Frances Farmer. Lotta is a beautiful woman with a wonderful voice (although the actual sound design has an odd echo effect that may have been an intentional effect considering the setting) that Barney instantly falls for. After a raucous fight with the owner’s hired hands in response to Barney winning big on a bet in a crooked game, the three escape and Barney and Lotta acknowledge their newfound love for each other. This is allowed to grow for a short time until Jed sends Barney a telegram demanding his presence in order to marry Emma Louise. Shaken by Barney’s abandonment of her, Lotta marries Swan, and the action skips ahead twenty years.
In those twenty years, Barney has become the richest man in Wisconsin, just as he had set out to do. With two adult children, a son played by Joel McCrea (Richard) and a daughter played by Andrea Leeds (Evvie), he has a faithful but dispassionate marriage to Emma Louise. Swan has stayed up in the Iron Range, Lotta has died, and their daughter, also named Lotta (and also played by Frances Farmer), live quiet lives with dreams of more. After a letter to Barney, Swan entices his old friend upstate for a hunting trip. Barney arrives, happy for the break, but is ready to go back home when hunting becomes untenable until he sees the younger Lotta. Being played by the same actress as her mother, the younger Lotta is obviously a spitting image of her mother, and we can see Barney swept up in dreams of rekindling a romance long since dead but perhaps salvageable right where he left off.
Lotta is not some naïve little girl, though. She wants out of the Iron Range, to get an education and a job down in Milwaukee, and she also knows that it takes money. Here comes this rich man, a friend of her father, and he’s instantly paying her a lot of attention and buying her dinners, dresses, and taking her, her father, and her aunt to Chicago for a good time. He’s her ticket, and she doesn’t mind if he’s old enough to be her father.
Meanwhile, Barney’s son has developed a paper cup, sanitary and easily disposable, with a worker at the paper mill. This worker is also engaged to Barney’s daughter, coincidentally. Now, if there’s really a flaw in this movie it’s that this subplot, which becomes fairly important in the movie’s final act, gets ignored far too much in the first hour or so. It doesn’t get the attention it really needs to flesh out early, so when Richard comes in and starts wooing Lotta under Barney’s nose, it feels unsupported. Anyway, Richard and Lotta meet and begin to fall for each other, obviously, and it’s about here where I think the switch between directors happened.
It’s not a jarring change, but, no disrespect to Howard Hawks, William Wyler was the more sophisticated visual stylist. He had a way with depth in his image apparent in movies like The Big Country and The Little Foxes that came together naturally, never feeling out of place, but instantly showing a number of characters in frame, implying relationships simply through their positions. This pops up in the later parts of Come and Get It in ways that are not present in the first hour and some minutes.
Anyway, Barney jealously guards Lotta, finally declaring his intentions to make her his mistress in Chicago explicit, an idea she suddenly finds repellant especially after having begun falling for Richard. Emma Louise gains some suspicions during the big dinner Barney puts on for all of his employees every year, but when it becomes obvious that he’s lost after overhearing Lotta’s impression of him to Richard, he has to accept that he’s old.
This quiet acceptance of his age, his position that he chose, and the life he’s lived is handled with tact, providing an emotional denouement around Barney that’s surprisingly effective. Considering how creepy he becomes as the movie goes along, this sudden reversal as he realizes the limitations of what he can control and accepts it is the key to the audience suddenly coming back to his side. He loses, and he accepts it.
Performances are solid all around with a special note to Frances Farmer for her double role as the mother and daughter Lottas. She plays two distinctly different characters, and she plays them well.
While I do feel like the movie is very good on its own and worthwhile, it’s mostly interesting for the behind the scenes drama that led to the change in directors about two-thirds of the way through filming. It doesn’t make the movie any better, but it adds an interesting dimension to the final third as the eagle-eyed audience member tries to pick out which scene could have been directed by which director.