Warner Archive hit the spot with their recent release of Lost Angel. If you haven’t noticed (based on my recent review of her biography and induction into the Hall of Fame), I’ll watch anything with Margaret O’Brien in it. With that, I took a leap of faith with this saccharine gem about a child prodigy. A living fairy tale melded with the “man who won’t commit and is forced to raise a child” conceit turns Lost Angel into a cloying comedy you’ll want to smile along with.
Alpha (O’Brien) has been raised in a scientific institute destined to become a child prodigy. When a newspaper reporter (James Craig) comes to interview her, he fascinates her with his devout belief that fairy tales are true. Intrigued, Alpha decides to temporarily run away in order to ascertain whether the reporter’s theories are true.
A premise like that bodes ill in general with its ridiculous nature, but it works for Lost Angel, in part because Margaret O’Brien sells the character. The movie is fit for families, particularly children who aren’t sold on magic and parents who want their children to remain imaginative for a few more years. With the end of WWII on the horizon, children were left disillusioned after seeing the carnage inflicted on their countries; Lost Angel seeks to remedy that with the story of a child raised to be an adult only to discover her inner whimsy. The plot itself leads to a few ethical conundrums which the script finds excuses to veer away from. Alpha is an orphan, abandoned on the steps of the orphanage, selected by a shadowy government organization that’s never fully defined. They teach her Chinese and a bunch of other things, but there’s no endgame revealed. Is she being groomed as a spy? A Communist spy? Are these scientists even American (they must considering everyone has an American accent)? This leaves you with more questions than answers, but the movie wants to be a simple diversion; a shift away from the horrors of war. Then again, this is negated by the scientists experimenting on the nation’s innocent and unwanted, going so far as to declare their unsentimental reaction to the child for fear they might bond with it.
The shadowy scientists leave the audience no choice but to hope that Alpha will find a family that loves her; enter Mike Regan (Craig). This is one of those 1940s films where the journalist was the arbiter of truth, the man of the people, who can save Alpha, blended with the bachelor fatherhood plotline. Craig is a grittier George Brent, and has a tender friendship with little O’Brien. The script ends up letting him down in moments where you start to reconsider whether he’s acceptable to parent a child. An unexpected development involves one of Regan’s low-life friends arriving – with gun – to have his named cleared. All’s well that end’s well, but what kind of man leaves a small child alone in a house, at night, with the door unlocked! Thank goodness this is the nicest gangster/possible murderer in the world, right?! The gangster story is entirely unnecessary and doesn’t propel the plot forward in any way. By this point, Regan needs to question whether he wants to raise Alpha or not, adding in another story seems to be due to lack of faith in the narrative at hand.
The story is a predictable bachelor realizing his love/need for a wife and kids and thankfully Margaret O’Brien, James Craig, and Marsha Hunt are darling in the roles. When the trio assemble, Alpha becomes jealous of Katie’s (Hunt) relationship with Mike, leading to a hilarious exchange where Alpha becomes downright vicious asking Katie point-blank when she’s going to go away. If O’Brien wasn’t so precious, she’d warrant a smack in the mouth! O’Brien exhibits remarkable comedic timing, producing the funniest film I’ve seen her in, pre-Meet Me in St. Louis. I was busting up when she declares her love for Mike in the middle of a crowded nightclub. It’s a mix of laughter and tears for the audience who are chuckling at Alpha screaming “I DON’T KNOW” in response to Mike’s asking of why she likes him; meanwhile, you want to cry because Alpha’s crying. I couldn’t find actual video of the scene in question, but someone uploaded the Lux Radio edition of the film with O’Brien reprising her role. Scroll to about 25 minutes in and listen to the hilarity.
O’Brien skirts the line between adult and child, but in a way where the two blend in perfect unison. Alpha’s been raised as a mini-adult, but wants to truly prove whether she’s missed out on anything magical about life. O’Brien is perfect as the robotic prodigy, and it makes sense since her persona was built around being the perfect child that anyone would want (dare I say the movie is subversive in that regard?). The girl is articulate for being only six years old, and self-sufficient in a way that some adults aren’t. Of course she’s still conscientious enough to leave a note before running away, and the scientists haven’t eradicated all her childlike tics, evident through her touching her nose every time she lies.
Lost Angel’s title is indicative of the treacly treat it is, but it works on all fronts. Effervescent, precocious, and wonderous is Margaret O’Brien, especially when inserted into a film that explores the simple – and yes, magical – elements of the everyday. It also explores the notion of family, one that can be created if you find the right people. It’s a B-movie anchored by the indomitable will of Margaret O’Brien and a gem you should purchase. Warner Archive scores another home run from me, and continues to cut down on my closet space (and my wallet!).
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