Margaret O’Brien is scrambling up the ranks to becoming one of my favorite actresses, and in watching Tenth Avenue Angel you understand why she was so popular; she is able to elevate a non-existent plot to tolerable lengths with her effervescence and blithe spirit. None of this makes the actual film tolerable or particularly memorable, but once O’Brien is on-screen, it’s easy to gloss over the issues.
Flavia Mills (O’Brien) is a girl growing up in the dark times of the Depression; the only thing she knows are the various superstitious stories her mother has taught her in order to keep Flavia’s hope alive. Flavia has been told that her Aunt Susan’s (Angela Lansbury) boyfriend, Steve (George Murphy), is returning from a trip around the world when he’s really been in prison. With Steve’s arrival comes a series of challenges that will test the beliefs that Flavia has learned.
For a film with little plot, it was hard to coherently boil down the narrative for the above synopsis. The script is a pastiche of aphorisms that Flavia is able to dispense amongst the handful of people who live on her street. The script, and the audience, is supposed to root for Flavia as her strength in her mother’s little white lies are tested, but the problem within the narrative is far too dull to create an impact on Flavia’s worldview because no genuine problem exists until the final minutes. Steve’s release from jail is never properly set up, outside of his working in some unexplained shady business with gangsters, and we’re told that he’s gotten in with them again. I expected a darker story about a little girl’s beliefs triumphing over gangsters, but Steve isn’t the central character and he gives up being a gangster after thirty seconds with no repercussions. In fact, outside of O’Brien, the adult characters are on the periphery of the plot. They walk through and dispense “wisdom,” but none of their actions engage in the plot, nor do they do anything to influence it. O’Brien carries the entire film and seems to be skating through scenes in hopes of finding something to do.
It’s a triumph to O’Brien’s acting abilities that she’s the reason you can stick with this film at all. Flavia is close with her community, and always quick to help a friend; she’s best friends with the downtrodden blind newspaperman, Mac (Rhys Williams). Her moral center is strong, a by-product of her mother’s love, and she believes wishes and miracles are around every corner. O’Brien is just as devout in her beliefs here as she was as Tootie in Meet Me in St. Louis. She’s endearing, precious, and joyous throughout every scene; when she laughs, you laugh and when she cries, you cry. I found myself comparing her against the cynical, real-world demeanor of Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street. Speaking of that film, I have to wonder if the year-long delay in Tenth Avenue Angel’s release was because of Miracle. The two aren’t carbon copies, but both deal with miracles and earnest little girls; both films culminate with a “Christmas miracle” although Tenth Avenue Angel’s threatens to result in the death of Flavia’s spirit as personified by her sickly mother. The stand-out moment is Flavia giving a speech dressed up as Lady Liberty. The little girl is darling with her star-spangled costume, but the impact is a bit on point when the camera abruptly cuts away from the girl to a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to remind you this is a Depression piece. The rest of the cast is flat and barely intersect with the story. They perk up when O’Brien is around which is a shame because Angela Lansbury is wasted as the pining Aunt Sarah.
There’s effort put into furthering Margaret O’Brien’s career and this is the only reason to check out Tenth Avenue Angel. The movie continues to prove how amazing O’Brien was for a child star, and her hopeful optimism is beautiful to watch and truly believable. If the material of the script was better this movie could be gold; instead, it’s a missed opportunity to further it’s tiny leading lady, but she’s up to the challenge and creates a character you want to love.
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