23 November 2008 | lugonian
A Thanksgiving Story
MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH (Paramount, 1934), directed by Norman Taurog, is a wholesome story about a poor family sticking together, staying together, through thick and thin, under the guardianship and courage of Mrs. Elvira Wiggs as portrayed by Pauline Lord (1890-1950) in her film debut. From the novel by Alice Hagan Rice, her characters were first transferred on stage followed by three three silent screen adaptations: (World Wide, 1914) with Blanche Chapman; (Paramount, 1919) with Mary Carr; and as LOVELY MARY (MGM, 1926) starring Bessie Love, Mary Alden as Mrs. Wiggs and Viva Ogden as Miss Hazy, the role she also played in the 1919 film. Paramount would redo the old chestnut story once more in 1942 featuring Fay Bainter with Hugh Herbert and Vera Vague in comic support. What makes this 1934 adaptation most noteworthy is the presence of second billed W.C. Fields as C. Eldsworth Stubbins, whose character isn't seen until 56 minutes into the story, and the third billed ZaSu Pitts as Tabitha Hazy, each offering uplifting moments to an otherwise sentimental drama.
The story unfolds in the town of Masonville, Ohio, at the turn of the century. Elvira Wiggs (Pauline Lord) is a poor but devoted mother of five children, Billy (Jimmy Butler); Jimmy (Georgie Breakston); Asia (Carmencita Johnson); Australia (Edith Fellows); little Europena (Virginia Weidler), whose husband, Hiram (Donald Meek) has left them three years ago seeking fortune in Alaska. Living in a shantytown shack purchased by Hiram for which he owes a $25 mortgage to store owner Mr. Bagby (Charles Middleton), Elvira supports herself by washing and ironing for others. Even with the help of business-minded son, Billy, she's unable to come up with the much needed money used in place for extra mouths to feed being their dog, Klondike, and Billy's newly adopted but broken-down horse, Cuby. Regardless of the circumstances, Mrs. Wiggs continues to have a positive outlook on life as she prepares a good old-fashioned Thanksgiving dinner, even it it's leftover stew. Bob Redding, editor of the Masonville Daily Courier, and Lucy Olcott (Evelyn Vanable), his fiancée who lives in a mansion across town, are taken in by the Wiggs family and do all they can to help make their Thanksgiving more pleasurable. Lucy provides them with a traditional Thanksgiving turkey while Bob arranges for Jimmy to be hospitalized under a doctor's care for his bad cough and burning fever, and arranging for Billy to acquire theater tickets for the family so that they can attend a show at the Opera House. While there, the Wiggs family is entertained by comics (Shaw and Lee's "Why did the chicken cross the road"), circus acts and musical interludes to such songs as "Glow Little Glow Worm," "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" and "Listen to the Mockingbird." The passing of her Jimmy fails to dampen Mrs. Wiggs' spirits as she continues to be a good neighbor to Tabitha Hazy (ZaSu Pitts), a spinster lady who cannot cook, by secretly providing her a home cooked meal to serve her proposed mail order husband, Mr. Stubbins (W.C. Fields), as well as keeping her family together when the mortgage deadline and having their home foreclosed by Mr. Bagby draws near.
While not quite an artistic achievement, MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH, in spite of its much needed background music and slow pacing, is a friendly sort of a movie. Remembered most as a W.C. Fields comedy, it's very much a showcase for Pauline Lord, whose name is unknown today. Virtually a stage actress with this and A FEATHER IN HER HAT (Columbia, 1935) to her screen credits, her quiet yet compelling performance, whether intentional or not, basically slows down the pace of the story, especially when moments where she's supposed to be angry is lacking when not being a little bit forceful. It's interesting to note how closely she resembles Fay Bainter, the Mrs. Wiggs in the 1942 remake, and how much Lord is nearly overshadowed by the supporting performances of little Virginia Weidler who threatens to hold her breath" whenever she doesn't get what she wants, the natural performances of the other kid actors; and of course ZaSu Pitts, whose scenes with the legendary Fields are hilarious, in fact, priceless, leaving one to wonder why they never were teamed again.
During those bygone days of commercial TV when vintage movies such as this dominated the airwaves, MRS. WIGGS was properly presented annually during the Thanksgiving season. I seem to recall around 1972-73 when TV Guide (New York City edition) listed WNEW, Channel 5, in broadcasting the 1934 film only to actually show the 1942 remake, or visa versa, indicating why movies bearing the same names would go through the process of having one of them retitled to avoid confusion. Rarely shown on television since the late 1970s, MRS. WIGGS did go on display on video cassette in the late 1980s through bargain distributor of Good Times Video on LP speed with opening and closing credits in freeze frame mode instead of original slow fade in/ out process, the same print acquired by Turner Classic Movies for its June 11, 2001, broadcast during its star tribute to W.C. Fields.
Without Fields and/or Pitts, MRS. WIGGS would definitely be nothing more than an sentimental melodrama gathering dust in some old film vault never to be shown again. Regardless, director Taurog gives it some splendor and charm that holds interest most of the way. At present it's more of a curio at best, especially as a rediscovery of the once popular stage actress Pauline Lord captured on film as Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. (***)