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Monday, 21 May 2007

The Little Minister (1934) Richard Wallace

Based on a J M Barrie novel, this one is about as Scots as you can get. It's 1840 and we're in Thrums, a small weaving town in Scotland, with tam o' shanters, skinflints and hard drinking; and men being able to order women about along with every other stereotype you can imagine. Life is simple, it says, but the lead is Katharine Hepburn and nothing was ever simple when she was around. She's an Egyptian, or what we would know as a gypsy, Babbie by name, and she stirs everything up for the new minister in town, both by enticing him into falling in love with her and by leading him into all sorts of trouble.

The minister, the little minister of the title is Gavin Dishart, played by John Beal, who has a far more believable Scots accent than Kate's which is truly awful. He impresses his congregation from moment one through berating a big drunkard from the pulpit, no small task given that he's played by Alan Hale looking more like Wallace Beery for a change. It doesn't hurt that he's unmarried and so all the spinsters are all fussing around him, but he's a dizzy sort that falls for all of Kate's wiles. Naturally there's more to the plot than that and she has a lot more depth than we initially expect, but she's still complete wrong for the part, however well she can flit through the woods or wave a lantern about.

Apparently she only took it because Margaret Sullavan wanted it badly. If only she hadn't been so bloody contrary about such things, I wouldn't be having to sit through it now because I'm not trying to catch up on Margaret Sullavan's career. Alan Hale is far better than he ought to be as the ne'erdowell Rob Dow, Donald Crisp is, well, Donald Crisp as the local doctor and there are smaller part for Reginald Denny and Lumsden Hare. Unfortunately they aren't anywhere near enough to make up for the accents, some of which are terrible, and the melodrama, which is even worse.

What amazes me is how Katharine Hepburn came to be box office poison in the late thirties when she was giving superb performances, yet was a major star in the early thirties when the films, like mostly sucked royally and she was often not particularly good either. There's a long string of great films from Stage Door in 1937 to at least Woman of the Year in 1942 that are all joys, including Holiday, which may just be my favourite of her films thus far, and two IMDb Top 250 movies, Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story. Yet what was there any earlier, other than Little Women? This is terrible, worse than Alice Adams but not quite as horrendous as Spitfire. Even lauded films like Sylvia Scarlett disappointed me and even if she gave a solid performance, like in A Woman Rebels, the film itself let her down. The very point at which she became box office poison was the point at which she should have ceased to be such!

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