18 June 2016 | lugonian
Babbie of Scotland
THE LITTLE MINISTER (RKO Radio, 1934), directed by Richard Wallace, stars Katharine Hepburn in her sixth feature film. Following her offbeat performance as a hillbilly girl in SPITFIRE (1934), Hepburn was brought back to formula material that suited her best – a period piece costume drama the studio hoped that would equal or surpass her remarkable performance as Jo March in LITTLE WOMEN (1933). As much as a sequel to LITTLE WOMEN might have been evident for Hepburn, interestingly enough, a sequel, titled LITTLE MEN (Mascot Studios, 1934), did get made, but for another studio casting Erin O'Brien-Moore as the new but married Jo. So another "Little" story was selected, THE LITTLE MINISTER by James M. Barrie, author whose best known work being, "Peter Pan," a title character that Hepburn might have excelled had anyone ever thought of that particular possibility, but then again ...
Opening title: "The year is 1840 – Our story is laid in the little unweaving town of Thrums in Scotland at a period where life was still simple." The story opens with the Scottish villagers of Thrums awaiting for the arrival of the new minister. The minister, Gavin Dishart (John Beal) comes out of the carriage with his mother (Beryl Mercer) to meet with Mr. Carfrae (Herbert Bunston), the old minister now entering retirement, and settle into his home of many years at the nearby church. During his first sermon, Gavin earns respect from the congregation by standing up against the tough drunkard, Rob Dow (Alan Hale), whom he later guides to a better life against drinking and becoming a better father to his young son, Miscah (Billy Watson). Hearing someone singing on the Sabbath, Gavin goes to the woods to investigate, meeting with a gypsy girl (Katharine Hepburn) to read her the sheriff's warning sign of proclamation, thus her laughing it off and running away. Later the gypsy girl, Barbara, better known as Babbie, tricks the minister into sounding three blasts of the horn that, unknown to him, is to alert villagers of soldiers arriving to round up militant labor leaders. She also goes against the minister for his speaking out for peace by starting a riot against soldiers headed by Captain Halliwell (Reginald Denny), as well as passing herself off as the minister's wife to get past the head guard (Charles Coleman) ordered to have her arrested. Because Gavin is talked out of helping Doctor McQueen (Donald Crisp) from moving an old woman, Nanny (Mary Gordon), from her home and into the poor house, it is believed Gavin's involvement with Babbie, whose possible connection with Lord Rintoul (Frank Conroy), a member of nobility living with his sister, Evalina (Eily Malyon) in the castle on the hill, might disgrace him and lose his position as "The Little Minister."
Not as well known as Hepburn's frequently revived LITTLE WOMEN, THE LITTLE MINISTER, which had gone through several prior screen adaptations in the silent era, two alone in 1921, proved to be a logical choice for the role of Babbie. The casting of stage actor, John Beal, in his third movie performance, might have paved the way for a new and uprising actor on the rise, but while Beal did star and co-star in numerous films over the years, including another with Hepburn in BREAK OF HEARTS (1935), assuming a secondary role to Charles Boyer's leading man status, Beal, not so little for the title role, simply failed to win any iconic stature of a Clark Gable or Tyrone Power. Yet, of all his movies, THE LITTLE MINISTER is qualified to be his best solely because he's its central figure in a major 110 minute motion picture. Overall, it's Kate Hepburn or followers of James Barrie's work to be the sole reason for watching this screen adaptation today.
Others in the cast include Andy Clyde as Wearywood, the policeman who fails to get any respect and authority from the villagers; Lumsden Hare (Tammas Whammond); Dorothy Stickney (Jean); Harry Beresford (John Spens); and in smaller roles, Byron Foulger, E.E. Clive and Brandon Hurst. Aside from actors speaking with Scottish dialects, the feel of merry old Scotland is felt throughout with its scenery and frequent underscoring to traditional Scottish tunes.
Distributed to home video dating back to the 1980s, and much later onto DVD from Turner Home Entertainment, THE LITTLE MINISTER did have frequent cable television revivals over the years, such as American Movie Classics prior to 2001, and Turner Classic Movies. Let's hope someday TCM will show the completed THE LITTLE MINISTER by restoring its closing cast credits normally presented on other cable networks and VHS, as it did with other RKO Radio TCM titles of THE GAY Divorcée (1934), THE TOAST OF NEW YORK (1937) and CAREFREE (1938). (****)