#65 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
With the feeling of a filmed play adaptation from the original stage production by Maude Fulton, John Ford made The Brat as cinematic as he could. It’s a similar spot as Hitchcock’s Juno and the Paycock, though Ford was able to use some advances in sound technology to keep the camera from staying in one place to just film dialogue. He makes the most of the limited locations, but the sixty minute runtime works against the film, taking on enough to easily fill 100 minutes but having to skip through everything to fit it all into the abbreviated runtime.
The movie is most interesting at the beginning, and it has most to do with the fact that it’s a film made during both Prohibition and before the advent of the Hayes Code, and that it’s set in contemporary times. Once the Hayes Code began to be enforced in 1934 the portrayal of alcohol, prostitution, and any kind of depravity could no longer happen directly, especially in films set in contemporary times. The opening sequence of The Brat is of a paddy wagon showing up at a police station, offloading a bunch of arrests including a prostitute, and they stand next to a room where police are smashing champagne bottles. Made three years later, this scene would have been vastly different. None of it really feeds into the overall film, though.
The central character, the never-named Brat (Sally O’Neil), has been arrested because she ate a meal in a restaurant and failed to pay. It’s the middle of the Depression, and the Brat was simply unable to pay because she had no money. Thankfully for her a friend of the judge, a novelist named Macmillan Forester (Alan Dinehart) is sitting right there, getting material for his next book. He likes the Brat’s spunk, convinces the restauranter to drop charges, and pays for the meal himself, taking the Brat up to his country home upstate.
Up there, Macmillan has a younger brother Stephen (Frank Albertson), a drunk who has few prospects beyond his inherited ranch that their mother (Mary Forbes) won’t allow him to take possession of. There are also two women hanging around the house (Virginia Cherrill and June Collyer) vying for Macmillan’s hand in marriage as well as the butler (J. Farrell MacDonald) and the local bishop (Albert Gran). The Brat enters into this insular world, and she’s overwhelmed by the wealth, comfort, and general callousness, especially towards Stephen.
There’s been a thematic point, perhaps just a motif, running back through Ford’s films of small town or country folk, who are generally poor, having better moral character over big city people, who are generally rich. It comes up here in a way where the Brat (from the city, but poor) enters the world of the country fold (who are rich) and lays in on them with some common sense and common courtesy regarding how they treat people. A love triangle develops between the Brat and the two brothers with the Brat failing to notice that Macmillan’s exterior is a thin veneer barely hiding his scheming and duplicitous ways.
Near the end of the film, I was imagining this getting made a few years later with someone like George Cukor at the helm and a cast of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and perhaps Rosalind Russell. The wit and performances would have been stronger and maybe even been able to propel the light little story into something akin to classic status. There are definite bits of amusement here and there to be had, like when the judge at the beginning decides that the appropriate punishment for a husband isn’t to go to jail but to go home to his wife or the servant of the house trying to save the Brat from the scandal of the subject of one of Macmillan’s books, but the comedy never really seems to drive much. They’re funny moments in a movie more interested in skipping along to the next plot point, one of which is a cat fight between the Brat and one of the other girls who wants to see Macmillan, a moment worthy of a good guffaw.
The Brat is fine. It’s not good, it’s not really bad. It’s kind of milquetoast and bland, too short for its own good, but Ford is able to stretch himself cinematically, which is a bit of surprise. The camera is far more active here than it had been since the silent era, and it even happens during dialogue with the camera moving in on people as they speak. It’s more of a curio than something to seek out for entertainment value, though.