1933-- times are tough, and so is the movie. Catch that cute little number Helen Mack as the beleaguered shop girl Mamie Donohue. We hate it when wastrel Freddie Pardway (Linden) exploits her exhaustion by seducing and abandoning her, just like some n'er-do- well rich man's son. But then, what about that follow-up scene with her and pop Pardway (Barrymore) in his office. It's surprising twists like this that avoid cliché and distinguish the pre-Code era. At the same time, Mack is simply terrific in a brief role and, in my little book, walks off with the movie.
It looks to me like the screenplay is someone's blistering comment on the 1920's, the high-living decade preceding the Depression of the '30's. After all, that's the decade in which the three no-account Pardway offspring mature and cavort, leaving Dad to mind the store and worry about its future. On the other hand, Dad's a part of that heady industrial age between the Civil War and WWI, when the economy took off and fortunes were made. He's a real entrepreneur, with the vision and initiative to start up a booming enterprise from scratch. It's too bad Mom (Ninetta Sunderland in a fine performance) dies too soon to enjoy the success, leaving Dad with four unhelpful heirs to the department store business.
I like planktonrules's (reviewer) observation that son Bert is likely coded in as a gay man. Note that Bert's not only in a traditionally feminine job as a window trimmer, but he's the only one of the four who's private life is left unglimpsed. Apparently, the bold pre-Code era was still in the closet about some things. Also, note the presence of the very Jewish Abe Ullman (Ratoff). He's certainly deserving of some shares in the family business, which caused me to wonder whether Dad's refusal was based on something more than filial devotion. But then, tellingly, Abe does get his revenge.
All in all, this is definitely a movie to catch up with, though some talky scenes expose the stage play origins. Wisely, these are interspersed with clever action montages that summarize time passing and keep events moving. To me, Lionel Barrymore is a matter of taste. Here he's mostly restrained, doing a good job of moving dad Pardway through life's inevitable stages. The ending has the kind of uncertain ambiguity that would disappear from the screen for the next 25 years thanks to the insistently uplifting Production Code. Anyway, if you like this movie, be sure to catch up with another real gem of the same period, the oddly named Employee's Entrance (1933). It's also about a department store tycoon (Warren William), but told in even tougher fashion.