Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Come and Get It

* * *

Winner: Best Supporting Actor, 1936

Director: Howard Hawks, William Wyler
Starring: Edward Arnold, Frances Farmer, Walter Brennan

Come and Get It is a film best known today for featuring the very first performance to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Certainly, that's what motivated to me to seek it out rather than the description I read of the plot, which made the story sound really old fashioned. To my surprise, however, Come and Get It quickly develops into a complex and interesting story. I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised, given that it comes from two of the best directors of all time: Howard Hawks and William Wyler (in case you're wondering, Hawks was fired because he couldn't get along with producer Samuel Golwyn and Wyler was brought in to complete the film).

Based on the novel by Edna Ferber, whose epic sagas about American families also provided the basis for adaptations of Cimarron and Giant, Come and Get It centers on Barney Glasgow (Edward Arnold), who begins the story as a lumberjack and eventually ascends to the level of tycoon. His ambitions have driven him to enter into an engagement with Emma Louise Hewitt (Mary Nash), his boss' daughter and, he hopes, his ticket to being made a partner in the business. Things become complicated when he meets and falls in love with Lotta Morgan (Frances Farmer), but he ultimately stays the course and abandons her, leaving his friend Swan (Walter Brennan) to break the news to her.

Many years later, rich and successful, stuck in a congenial but ultimately unhappy marriage, and having two grown children, Barney pays a visit to Swan. Following Barney's departure, Swan and Lotta had married, had a daughter, and lived happily until her death. When Barney meets their daughter, also named Lotta and also played by Farmer, he's shocked. He sees in her a chance at the happiness he had earlier rejected and, under the guise of helping out his old pal Swan, makes arrangements to move the family, give them jobs at his company and finance Lotta's education. What's most interesting about this situation is that Lotta is no babe in the woods. Though she naively fails to see Barney's obvious lust for her, she does state to her cousin that she intends to use Barney's kindness for what she can get out of it - namely, away from the small lumber community in the middle of nowhere. Her intentions are obviously self-serving and unknowingly cruel, given what we know about how Barney feels for her, but she never seems malicious. Like Barney, she's just trying to get ahead in life by any means available to her and, really, her manipulation of Barney (who is all too eager to be manipulated) isn't objectively any different from Barney marrying Emma Louise to secure a promotion.

Problems arise in two forms. First, Barney's obvious infatuation with Lotta gets the town talking, and second Barney's son Richard (Joel McCrea) becomes infatuated with Lotta himself. The feeling, ultimately, is mutual which prompts Barney to overplay his hand by outright asking Lotta to let him set her up as his mistress. She's shocked by his request and when he realizes how, exactly, she sees him, the look on his face is absolutely chilling. It can't be said enough how superb the acting is in this film from all corners. The characters are allowed to attain a great deal of complexity, making for a story in which there's no real "villain," just people who are, to varying degrees, victims of circumstance.

Aside from the family drama, which could almost be described as a Greek tragedy except for the fact that everyone is still alive at the end, there's also a strong environmentalist subplot. Before Lotta the younger even enters the scene, Barney and Richard are already at odds over the logging practices employed by Barney's generation which have devastated forests. This aspect of the story is given only a little bit of the narrative's time relative to the romantic plot, but it still provides a nice texture to the film and the characters.

Come and Get It far and away exceeded my expectations. It starts a little bit slow but once the story picks up a bit of steam it really takes off and becomes quite engaging. Additionally, the acting, particularly by Farmer, is outstanding, making it easy to forgive any weaknesses in the plot.

No comments: