Warner Bros. // 1938 // 103 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // November 2nd, 2013
Teach us to avoid the pitfalls of prejudice, pride, and vanity.
There is a class of western movie that we don't see very often anymore, but was quite popular in decades past: the frontier movie. Today, the closest we come is something like Frontier House, and I don't really miss them, but people once loved them. These weren't stories about gunfights and horse wrangling in the Wild West; they were more concerned with what life was like as regular people tried to settle the land. In general, I'm not a big fan, but one such movie, Of Human Hearts, is a cut above the rest.
Ethan Wilkins (Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) is a preacher who has moved his wife (Beulah Bondi, The Captain is a Lady) and son to a tiny village in Ohio to be the new parson. He tries to give his son the kind of spiritual upbringing he believes is right. But young Jason (James Stewart, Vertigo) wants to save lives, not souls, so he runs away to medical school, becoming an acclaimed surgeon and joining in the Civil War, but in so doing, becomes ungrateful for his parents' sacrifice.
A few minutes into Of Human Hearts, I decided that I hated the movie. It appeared that Dennis the Menace was written into Little House on the Prairie and I started to feel sick. Not only does Gene Reynolds (Jungle Patrol), who plays Jason as a boy, deliver one of the most brutal performances I can remember, the supposed good guy in the preacher comes off as a complete jerk and somebody no child would want as their father. On top of it, the townsfolk are awful people, consciously ripping off the preacher on pay and amenities. Really, the only decent person in it is the mother and she's about as bland as it gets.
Then, about halfway through, the movie started to grow on me. Some of that, certainly, is because Reynolds is replaced by James Stewart, and the level of performance goes up ten-fold by that alone, but I became interested in how unconventional the story seemed. Stewart, once he arrives, becomes the movie's clear protagonist, but he's really no better a person than the rest of the jerks he grew up with. He's a complete ingrate, making his family sell what meager possessions they have to fund his schooling and then never expressing a shred of thanks for it.
There isn't much of a plot, either. It's more about watching Jason as he grows up and gets what he wants and, while there is a necessary and predictable conclusion, it comes about in a truly bizarre manner. Does it make sense? Not at all, but it's interesting to watch and includes an appearance by John Carradine (The Grapes of Wrath) as Abraham Lincoln. The makeup is fantastic, making him look exceptionally close to the real thing and, c'mon Carradine as Lincoln is just plain awesome, way better than Daniel Day Lewis.
Director Clarence Brown doesn't do anything special here, but it's a journeyman piece of work that moves along just fine. Plus, as the man who directed both The Yearling and National Velvet, you know there's going to be some quality animal work. There isn't anything special in the style or execution of the film, but it works just fine.
The DVD for Of Human Hearts is your basic Warner Archive release. The image is clear enough, with minimal damage to the print, but it hasn't seen any restoration work, either. The mono mix is similar, with no overt noise, but no dynamic range, either. There are no extras on the disc, but that's normal.
While I truly hated the first thirty minutes or so, Of Human Hearts turned into a more-than acceptable drama with some parts that I genuinely liked. If you can make it through the painful opening, then you're in for a nice surprise. Mildly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1938
MPAA Rating: Not Rated