1 March 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Dressler's swan song
"The Late Christopher Bean" is a weak comedy-drama, notably only as the last film of the beloved character actress Marie Dressler. Like Lon Chaney in his last film (and for similar reasons), Dressler gives a poor performance here, because her body was riddled with the cancer that would soon kill her. But there are still a few flashes of her old brilliance.
The Haggetts are a "respectable" family who have fallen onto hard times but are keeping up appearances. Years ago, they took in a lodger who was also Doctor Haggett's tubercular and alcoholic patient. The lodger was Christopher Bean, an obscure painter who shows no promise of artistic greatness. The snobbish Haggetts look down on Bean. One of his paintings is pressed into service to patch a leaky roof, another consigned to the chicken-house, while daughter Ada paints on the back of yet another. Bean's only friend in the Haggett household is Abby, the kind-hearted cook played by Marie Dressler. Eventually, Christopher Bean dies, broke and obscure ... but not before Abby poses for a portrait. Bean bequeaths this last painting (his masterpiece) to Abby, who treasures the worthless artwork as a memento of her dear friend.
All of the above takes place before the movie starts, as backstory. Time has passed. Christopher Bean's artistic talents have been recognised (after his death, of course), and now his paintings are valuable. The Haggetts, who never had any use for Bean when he lived under their (leaky) roof, now scheme to trick Abby out of the portrait so that they can sell it. Heart-of-gold Abby has no interest in money: she wants to keep the painting because it's her only memento of her friend Christopher Bean ... or was he perhaps more than merely a friend?
Despite her poor health here, Dressler shows a few sparks of her talent in one scene as she recalls how the artist taught her to appreciate colour and light. Near the film's end, one scene is poignant for the wrong reason. Abby's trunk is packed as she prepares to leave the Haggetts' home forever. Dressler (only a few months away from death) repeatedly says good- bye while nobody pays attention.
George Coulouris (in his usual weasel mode, as a confidence trickster) and Beulah Bondi (less sympathetic than usual) repeat their roles from the Broadway cast. Helen Mack deftly handles a role that's in deepest cliché, as the ingenue yearning to elope with a handsome young artist (Russell Hardie) who is of course deeply talented. Just once, I'd like to see a movie in which the handsome young artist has no talent at all. As the head of the household, Lionel Barrymore's performance has an interesting character arc: he starts out as a selfless physician, then gradually succumbs to greed as he learns how valuable Bean's paintings are.
"The Late Christopher Bean" makes some very obvious points which aren't necessarily true. I give this film 3 points out of 10, and one of those points is for Sam Wood's brisk direction.