Journey for Margaret is a movie interpreted in different ways from 1942 to today. For 1940s audiences, the movie is a rousing call to arms for the nuclear family to band together; a condemnation against isolationism and the need for compassion for our British allies as embodied by two orphaned children. For today’s audience, Journey for Margaret is a bittersweet tale of a couple coming together during wartime and embracing two children who need their love. Whereas that plot was originally there for 1940s audiences, Journey for Margaret is hard to swallow today. Its rallying cry prevents the audience from feeling any emotion not conveyed via lengthy speeches, yelling, and patriotic music. Despite its star-making début of young Margaret O’Brien, it’s hard to see her possessing any discernible talent which, thankfully, ended up proving false.
John Davis (Robert Young) is an American reporter living in London with his pregnant wife, Nora (Laraine Day). When the couple loses their baby during the Blitz, the two find themselves drifting apart. When visiting an English shelter for orphans, John takes a shine to two young children (William Severn and O’Brien) looking for a home.
Journey for Margaret is about the end of innocence and the beginning of a new breed of innocence, and that’s encapsulated best through Margaret O’Brien’s début. O’Brien plays the eponymous Margaret, loving the name so much she dropped her given name (Angela) in favor of Margaret; this was a common technique for stars to take on the name of their début character. Sadly, the movie marked the end for director W.S. Van Dyke who famously directed several classics including The Thin Man. Van Dyke was struggling with cancer and heart disease and committed suicide shortly after Journey for Margaret’s completion. Van Dyke’s heartwarming exploration of domesticity remains at the heart of the film, especially incorporating the nuclear family and its resilience to the growing war.
The script’s intentions come off as preachy and overtly patriotic at times, especially when Young gives not one, but two separate speeches where he raises his voice to convey seriousness. Shouting isn’t required to convey a message, so when Young winds it up you take notice, not for the message but to wonder why he’s yelling at you. Margaret O’Brien doesn’t get away from this either. We’re introduced to her character when she’s returned to the orphanage by her adoptive mother. The head social worker says Margaret is allowed to cry, and boy does the kid take it to heart. It’s hard to blame the child actress too much, she was only five years old, but she starts to oversell it and as you watch her ramp it up you’re also wondering why the people around her let it go on for so long.
Coming out in the heart of WWII there’s a distinct air of American can-do spirit, and our all-American couple with the generic name of Davis get a first-hand look at the tragedy of the war they’re entering. American isolationism lasted a long time, all while the British and other Allied countries were fighting for several years. As John witnesses the horrors of the bombing, and the children left behind, he becomes angry and, much like America, can no longer ignore it. His anger is heightened once the Blitz ends up causing Nora to miscarry their first child in their own personal Pearl Harbor. There are a few affecting scenes, particularly one where a small child says her nightly prayers as bombs drop outside their shelter. If anything, Journey for Margaret depicts an oft-ignored element of WWII: the children who couldn’t leave the country and had no one to care for them.
Robert Young is the adult center of the movie, but this is a vehicle meant for its child stars. I say stars, but there’s a reason this film isn’t called Journey for Peter. Outside of her crying sequence, O’Brien is adorable and the movie’s beginnings are similar to Lost Angel, both detailing a man without children coming to terms with fatherhood. Unfortunately, O’Brien’s acting is limited to crying and looking cherubic. She worked far better as a comedic child star than a dramatic one. William Severn is cute, but whenever he’s on-screen I thought I was watching Children of the Damned. He’d work great alongside Charles Laughton from The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Severn has a tendency to look at Young like he’s going to eat him, and I dare you to not shudder when he says “my Mr. Davis.”
It’s easy to tear the movie apart with today’s knowledge. It’s mentioned that the children John meets are emotionally disturbed, yet they’re given to people with no knowledge of how to handle them and are quickly returned. Even Margaret’s third foster parent tells her straight-up “We don’t know what to do with you.” The movie’s happy ending seeks to wipe clean the slate, showing love as the cure for these kids. The third act perpetuates the idea that children are often the ignored ones in wartime, a fantastic element worth exploring, but the script dilutes the whole thing with Davis asking various passengers on a plane to give up their luggage so the children can escape the country. It’s hard to fathom people balking at deciding whether luggage or children are more important. Your iPod or your kids? It’s heavy-handed for a reason, but funny today.
Journey for Margaret is a product of its time and its patriotism comes off as abrasive in parts. Robert Young is a solid all-American lead and Margaret O’Brien is adorable, even though this isn’t the best launchpad for showcasing her brand of talent.
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