White Banners (1938)
Directed by Edmund Goulding, with a screenplay co-written by Lenore J. Coffee (Four Daughters (1938)), Abem Finkel (Sergeant York (1941)), and Cameron Rogers, this above average drama features Fay Bainter’s only Oscar nomination in the Best Actress category. Typically a Supporting Actress, Bainter won the Academy Award in that category, while losing Best Actress to her co-star Bette Davis, for Jezebel (1938). In this film, Bainter plays a woman with a hidden past that becomes the maid and then trusted confidant of "professor" & would-be inventor (four time Supporting Actor nominee Claude Rains) and his family in a small town. Through her simple philosophy, enduring human spirit, and gentle guidance, she helps her "adoptive" family and others realize their goals until finally her secret motivation is revealed. A heart warming story that plays to the strengths Ms. Bainter’s skills, making one wish the actress had played more (leading) roles in her career, ala Spring Byington (You Can't Take It with You (1938)).
The Wards are a family struggling to make ends meet since the birth of their second child. Marcia (Kay Johnson) is still weak, months after childbirth, and high school chemistry teacher Paul (Rains) makes barely enough to support his family, spending any excess funds on equipment for his experiments. As Paul attempts to invent something that will free them from their poverty, their teenage daughter Sally (Bonita Granville - These Three (1936)) is at that "boy crazy" age, with her current affectation being Peter Trimble (Jackie Cooper - Skippy (1931)). Peter is the son of wealthy banker Sam Trimble (Henry O'Neill) who, unbeknownst to Peter, raised the boy as his own when his friend & current lawyer Thomas Bradford (James Stephenson) couldn't.
Into their lives, and out of the snow, walks Hannah Parmalee (Bainter). While Marcia is struggling to figure out how to afford food for dinner, Hannah knocks on her door trying to sell her a 25 cent apple peeler. Assessing the situation, Hannah volunteers to help the weak Mrs. Ward with her baby. She then convinces Marcia to hire her to take care of the household & handle the meal responsibilities for their current monthly food budget, from which she says she'll still manage to pay herself wages. Seemingly too good to be true, Hannah becomes part of their family and seems to have a particular interest in young Trimble. Peter, who's the scourge of Professor Ward's chemistry class, is actually quite bright. Urged by Hannah, Paul engages Peter in his invention activities and the two of them create an ice-less icebox, a refrigerator with a mechanical compressor in the basement to cool a unit upstairs in the kitchen. Peter's dad assists them with funding. During this time, Peter and Sally become closer and begin dating.
However, tragedy befalls the Wards when Peter allows the Ellis Brothers (William Pawley, Edward Pawley, & John Ridgely) to steal their idea and Sally falls through the ice, while skating with Peter, and catches pneumonia. J. Farrell MacDonald plays the doctor. Again, it is Hannah who is the glue which holds the family together. Eventually, however, her hidden secret threatens to upset the idyllic situation when her past revisits the small town.