18 September 2000 | FilmFlaneur
A faded but still charming comedy drama, with a Beery standout
"It seems as if we are surrounded by love" says Barrymore's genial patriarch at the end of this movie. To this viewer at least, the line has perhaps acquired an unintended irony as we contemplate the dulling nature of that love'. O'Neill's work, which originally made gentle mockery of small town middle American taste and values, has perhaps unfortunately, these days gained an uncalled-for 'satiric' edge. The charm and skill of the original vision, captured by the craftsman-like direction of Brown, remains the same. What's happened is that the mildly eccentric, extended Miller family - one for instance in which Swinburne is considered shocking, and radicalism is half digested by callow youths (and then abruptly discarded) now appears stultifying, and we can too easily over compensate by allowing it the hues of a parody. Otherwise it takes a stupendous suspension of disbelief by today's viewer to accept the Millers on their own terms, apple pie and all, which is a shame.
A very young Mickey Rooney has a few scenes but is rarely allowed to really shine. This sort of role was no doubt good grounding for the enormously successful Andy Hardy series that lay ahead.
Wallace Beery, as Sid Miller, provides the most entertaining scenes in the film as he plays out another characteristically ungainly and comic romance, one typical of his screen roles. (Although he is given top billing, his screen presence is less sustained and more integrated than you'd expect.) Particularly memorable is the evening meal scene where he returns home drunk, and the family are gathered around the table to enjoy his antics. Even Lily, the woman who has consistently refused his repeated proposals through her distaste of his drunkenness, laughs at his comic behaviour. In this sense Beery provides a degree of liberation. The family is relaxed and draws together around the light of Beery's unthreatening inebriation. Some of his interior scenes remind one of W C Fields' work in The Bank Dick and It's a Gift, where he deconstructs the pretensions of middle class America with an anarchic sharpness that speaks to us much more directly today.
All in all it's a shame that the focus of the film is more on the young son Richard, whose unsteady standing on the border of manhood is never that enthralling. After a while his foibles and self-absorption become somewhat cloying, and one longs for Beery to reappear so that the fun can recommence. If Richard's on-off romance (and eventual drunkenness) is intended to parallel Sid's, then the comparison is very much to his detriment. Whilst Sid's romance seems important and meaningful, the son's is slow and irritates the modern viewer by the degree of feyness.
In short, an entertaining enough film, full of strong performances, but one which needs a dose of modern salt to make it just that little bit more palatable.