Of Human Hearts (1938) – full review!
“Of Human Guilt” would be another apt title of this rather heavy handed drama which set in another time could also have been titled “Call Your Mother”. It was co-produced & directed by Clarence Brown the six time Academy Award nominated director whose early sound career included some pretty risque pre-code dramas like A Free Soul (1931) but migrated to more family oriented ( sometimes Technicolor) dramas like National Velvet (1944) for the rest of his directorial career with few exceptions. Looking at the chronological list of his films this one looks like the midpoint between the genres. Bradbury Foote wrote the screenplay for Honore Morrow’s novel (Benefits Forgot) about the ungrateful son of a self sacrificing mother and his preacher father. Still fairly early in his career James Stewart got the unenviable assignment of playing the son whereas Walter Huston plays his stern father and Beulah Bondi earning her only Academy recognition with an Supporting Actress Oscar nomination plays his mother. Gene Reynolds gives a pretty good performance himself as the younger version her rebellious son. Other fine support is provided by Guy Kibbee Sterling Holloway John Carradine as President Abraham Lincoln (!) Gene Lockhart and 60 year old Charles Coburn (in his feature film debut) as a doctor who likes to drink too much (where did this stereotype begin anyway?). Ann Rutherford Charley Grapewin and even an uncredited Ward Bond (among others) playing a heckler in church that Huston’s character must physically evict also appear briefly.
Reverend Ethan Wilkins (Huston) along with his wife Mary (Bondi) and son Jason (Reynolds) travels from Maryland to assume the preacher’s duties in a small rural Ohio community in the 1830’s. Once he’s there skinflint storekeeper George Ames (Kibbee) successfully persuades the town folk that the promised Wilkins $400 per year plus living expenses is too much effectively forcing the preacher to accept $250 instead. (Clem Bevans plays Elder Massey). While Ethan takes it in stride he also makes Ames and Jim Meeker (Grapewin) know that he won’t be taken advantage of any further when they try to sell him an old horse. Mary quietly accepts the injustice and hand-me-down clothes as payment while Jason bristles with embarrassment. Ames’s son Chauncey (Charles Peck) makes matters worse by bragging about his largess and other privileges not afforded young Wilkins. Somewhat estranged from his father Jason finds a friend in the town’s often drunken old doctor Dr. Shingle (Coburn) who gives him a medical book to read after his preacher father had taken away some inappropriate magazines he’d also received from the doctor. Jason is immediately captivated by the book and even sews up a wound on their injured horse Pilgrim.
Years later after another row with his father and with assistance from his mother Jason (now Stewart) decides to leave for Baltimore and the medical school from which Dr. Shingle had graduated. Rutherford appears briefly as Jason’s neighbor and “girlfriend” Annie Hawks (Leatrice Joy Gilbert had played this character as a child); Sterling Holloway plays the now grownup Chauncey. Once in Baltimore Jason learns from the medical college’s chief doctor Lupus Crumm (Robert McWade) that Dr. Shingle had been an embarrassment to the establishment because of his drinking and hence they’d removed his name from the school. However Jason is able to convince Dr. Crumm to allow him to do odd jobs working as an assistant to Quid (Lockhart) the janitor. Quid is able to help him with his schooling & Latin somehow. Constantly needing money Jason is forever writing home to his mother for financial assistance; she in turn selflessly sells one of her treasured heirloom after another to support her son. He returns home just once and reluctantly at that to see his father on his deathbed barely making it home before the reverend dies. Three years later his doesn’t return home after his graduation and instead writes that he needs more money. His mother gives her wedding ring to Ames before Dr. Shingle forces the ailing storekeeper to give it to him as payment for services so that he can return it to Mrs. Wilkins.
The Civil War breaks out and Jason signs up with everyone else joining the Union Army to work alongside Dr. Crumm. He writes to his mother asking her to sell Pilgrim so that he can buy a uniform. In contrast to his mentor Dr. Crumm Jason learns to save soldiers’ limbs wherever possible in lieu of removing them unnecessarily for expediency. He’s summoned by President Lincoln (Carradine) who initially complements him for his military service before he makes him feel guilty for not writing to his mother during the past two years of the war. Realizing what an ungrateful selfish sap he’s been all these years Jason finally writes her a letter on the President’s own stationary before returning home himself. The icing on the cake is the fact that he’s able to return Pilgrim obtained from an officer (Minor Watson) whose arm he saves from amputation to his mother at the same time.