My adoration of child star Margaret O’Brien is well-documented on this blog, some would call it creepy. Yet there’s something about her precociousness and wide-eyed wonder that seems angelic without being flawless (à la St. Shirley). This film, with a script by future blacklist victim Dalton Trumbo, was one of several films O’Brien made in the wake of her performance in Meet Me in St. Louis and holds a lot in common with her other roles in stuff like the inferior Tenth Avenue Angel. In the vein of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or To Kill a Mockingbird, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes tells a delicate tale about family and growing up and living the immigrant experience.
The Jacobson’s are a Norwegian farming family with various dreams swirling in their heads. Patriarch Martinius (Edward G. Robinson) wants a barn of his own, while his wife Bruna (Agnes Moorehead) believes he’ll kill himself saving money for something that might never happen. Through it all the Jacobson’s daughter Selma (O’Brien) lives, laughs, and plays with her best friend Arnold (Jackie ‘Butch’ Jenkins) and her baby calf, Elizabeth.
Director Roy Rowland directed O’Brien in three features – this, Tenth Avenue Angel, and Lost Angel (the latter reteaming O’Brien with James Craig) – and Rowland’s trio of films with O’Brien are a tribute to small-town life as seen through the eyes of a perceptive young girl. Our Vines is infinitely better than Tenth Avenue Angel yet not as quirky and comedic as Lost Angel.
O’Brien was slowly becoming the picture perfect child of films centered around the turn-of-the-century or small-town life (the aforementioned Tenth Avenue Angel and Meet Me in St. Louis for example, as well as Little Women and The Secret Garden). Part of this might have to do with her mix of being rough and tumble but still maintaining a doll-like delicacy; she tells Arnold she’ll become a WAC so she can shoot people, but almost exclusively wears pants despite growing up on a farm. The film’s episodic nature explores a year on the Jacobson farm as they struggle and work, moving from one life-defining event to another without any real sense of fear or tragedy. Sure, a mentally disturbed young woman dies and the third act climax involves a neighbor’s barn being set on fire, but this is far from The Grapes of Wrath. Things never happen to the Jacobson’s specifically, just their friends, leaving one to wonder how they’re so lucky, chalk it up to love.
Like The Grapes of Wrath, though, the movie showcases the immigrant experience in terms of parents providing a better future for their children. Edward G. Robinson enjoyed making this film as it allowed him an opportunity to play something other than a gangster or a heavy. As Martinius, he’s warmhearted, generous, and completely besotted with his daughter. Robinson’s moments with O’Brien as the film’s highlights, particularly when, forced to discipline Selma, he can’t do it. When Selma tearfully asks to kiss her father goodnight, Robinson emphasizes how much anguish he feels at telling his daughter to go back to bed; it takes everything he has not to go to her and console her, and risk losing his power in the process. This moment also allows Agnes Moorehead to shine, as a woman who wants her husband to be equal partners with her, and that means making him the bad guy at times. Moorehead’s Bruna is the quiet supporter of both her husband and daughter, standing by and indulging her dreams and expecting nothing in return. She could be the stereotypical “angel in the house” of these types of films, but Moorehead and Trumbo’s script illustrate that the house wouldn’t run without her.
All the adult acting comes from the springboard of the child stars imaginations and the shenanigans they get into. Selma and Arnold have some truly fun adventures that will remind audiences of their own childhood mishaps. When the duo decide to go down the local creek in a bathtub, eventually being swept away, Martinius and Arnold’s father are distraught. When the children are pulled out of the water safely, Martinius hugs Selma while swatting her on the backside. Trumbo and Rowland show childhood as a time of foolish experience that, in hindsight, automatically sounds dangerous but is unknown to the naïve minds of a child. My love for O’Brien is already well-known, but Jackie Jenkins is darling as the freckled-face ragamuffin whose Selma’s best friend. The two aren’t in that world of “boys are gross, girls have cooties” yet, but that’s not to say they don’t get on each other’s nerves. Selma would rather face the wrath of her beloved pa than cave into Arnold’s demands for her roller skates. Jenkins’ smug grin of success makes you want to slap him, but his naïve worldview, sad eyes and smattering of freckles show he’s not bad…he just savors whatever attention he can get.
As a means of appealing to non-Midwest or immigrant audiences the movie includes an outside perspective with schoolteacher Viola Johnson (Frances Gifford) and her relationship with the town editor, Nels Halverson (Craig). The two have the requisite cute love story you’re oft to find in films like this, but Viola’s change from hating the small town to loving it plays disingenuously. The strength of Viola’s character comes through her interactions with simple-minded girl Ingeborg Jensen (Dorothy Morris), but Ingeborg dies so suddenly that the plotline just ends. Ingeborg could have been a Norwegian Boo Radley, but her death apparently indicates little more than uneducated, simple-minded ladies have no reason for existence.
Overall, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes is a delightful family film teaching the benefits of selflessness and imagination, miring itself in the harshness of the farm experience but with enough positive values to prevent events from becoming too depressing. Anchored by the wonderful trio of Robinson, Moorehead, and O’Brien, this one sails under the radar and deserves a peek.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.