Warmly sentimental, but not too sticky, this modest family drama gets away with a lot by not trying to oversell things . . . and by opening with a murder. The killer? Child star Margaret O’Brien, with a well-aimed rock at an unlucky red squirrel. Seems she’s always missed before. (What a emotional hair-trigger that girl had. Milking ready tears with a sort of trembling terror. It can be a bit much.) It’s a sobering start, quickly followed by an even more uncomfortable scene with a mentally disabled young woman, all but imprisoned on her father’s farm, popping thru a fence to greet O’Brien & her younger cousin. Discordant notes that lend a hard edge to the many lighter incidents on the farm where exemplary parents Edward G. Robinson & Agnes Moorehead, of all people, are raising O’Brien. Moorehead has a rare chance to show a sympathetic side (under a shell of feigned indifference) while Eddie G. is just a peach (as movie dad & actor). Set in a small Norwegian-American community in Wisconsin’s dairy farmland, the pleasantly meandering pace finds plenty of interest in daily life even when the era’s studio production methods and Dalton Trumbo’s on-the-nose dialogue fail to convince. A subplot between glammed up big-city gal Frances Gifford, pulling a stint as a one-room school teacher, and local news publisher James Craig feels extraneous & doesn’t quite connect, but O’Brien’s little pal Jackie ‘Butch’ Jenkins is a trouble-making Penrod type Booth Tarkington would have recognized. The last act is liberally seasoned with melodrama and an impure Frank Capra finale, but you can always concentrate on the range & subtle acting choices Robinson finds. See just how far inward he goes at his darkest moment after having to shoot some threatened livestock. And kudos to megger Roy Rowland for not trying to sell the moment, but letting us spot it on our own.
DOUBLE-BILL: Watch Eddie G. play the dark side of this character in the psychological rural thriller THE RED HOUSE/’49. With Judith Anderson in for Agnes Moorehead. The film’s in Public Domain so beware of cheap knock-off editions. Try the link below for guidance. http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film3/dvd_reviews54/the_red_house.htm