10 March 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
super Beery, Cooper teary...
Wallace Beery won a well-deserved Oscar for his role in 'The Champ', as a washed-up boxer who tries to redeem himself for the sake of young son Jackie Cooper. After that film's success, MGM (and other studios) kept trying to repeat it with diminishing returns, in other films starring Beery as a crusty but good-hearted mug redeemed by Cooper. When Jackie Cooper outgrew such roles, Beery kept rehashing the formula with other child actors. The formula outlasted Beery himself. He died just before shooting was to begin on 'Johnny Holiday' (one more instalment in the Beery-brat bonanza) and the film was made with William Bendix (a better and more sympathetic actor) in Beery's role.
"O'Shaughnessy's Boy" is hardly as good as 'The Champ', but it has some good production values and was made fairly early on, before this formula got too clapped-out. More so than usual, Beery in this film plays a role that resembles himself: in real life, he was an animal-trainer in the circus who was clawed by one of his charges.
Windy O'Shaughnessy is a wild-animal tamer in the circus, utterly idolised by his young son Joseph (played in these early scenes by Spanky McFarland). In a very brief role, Leona Maricle gives a stand-out performance as Windy's wife Cora, a trapeze aerialist with emotional problems. I found her *extremely* credible, and poignant. Ace cameraman James Wong Howe uses very tight framing shots and slow pans across Maricle's upper torso to make it seem as if this actress is doing a trapeze act, and the effect works very well. Cora's sister Martha (Sara Haden) urges her to leave Windy and give her son a stable existence away from the circus.
After Windy discovers that Cora has run off with his son and his money, he gets too close to a lion and is severely clawed. He loses his right arm in hospital, and the circus goes on without him. Wallace Beery spends most of this film portraying an amputee, but the trickery is not convincing: in too many shots, the bulge of his arm inside his coat is too obvious.
There is an extremely impressive montage sequence, in which Windy seeks his son in orphanages. (But he knows that Cora took their son, so why is he looking for the boy in orphanages?) After several years, one-armed Windy learns that Cora took her trapeze act into vaudeville (hardly a more stable existence than the circus!), and she died in an accident onstage. Young Joe (now played by Jackie Cooper) is in a military academy.
Jackie Cooper's roles at this time were nearly as formulaic as Beery's. Moviegoers in the early 1930s wanted to see Jackie Cooper cry: here, the movie gets this over with by introducing Cooper with a close-up of his tear-stained face.
The reconciliation between father and son is awkward. Windy tries to get his old job back in the circus, despite his lost arm. But now Windy is intimidated by the huge beasts... Willard Robertson gives a splendid performance as Beery's employer, but his part is badly written. Robertson plays a circus owner who is financially solvent *and* generous to his performers. I've met several circus owners (including Billy Smart, Henry Fossett and Irvin Feld) who were solvent *or* generous, but I've never heard of a real-life circus owner who was both. There's a painful scene in which Robertson tries to goad Windy back into the lions' cage, to prove he hasn't lost his nerve. But Windy is older now, and has only one arm, so he can't be expected to recapture 'the old days'.
African-American actor Clarence Muse had the misfortune to live at a time when black performers were usually cast in 'yassuh' roles. Cast here as Beery's assistant, Muse has a larger and better part than usual. He gives an easy and ingratiating performance in a long scene with Cooper and a dog; the only unpleasant note in this delightful sequence is the 'darky' dialogue that Muse is lumbered with.
Sara Haden usually played sympathetic spinsters; here, she's a harridan who tips her spiteful hand when she declares she'd rather see young Joseph 'in his grave' than reconciled with his father. The production values in this film are hardly MGM's best, but are above average. The circus and midway scenes have the look, feel and sound of the circus scenes in 'Freaks'. There's even a brief appearance here by a German-accented midget who looks and sounds like Harry Earles from that cult film.
James Wong Howe's excellent photography goes most (but not all) of the way towards disguising the fakery in the scenes when Beery must be on screen with a wild beast. The action scenes in this film labour under a double handicap, because Wong must make it appear as if Beery and a tiger are on screen in the same shot, while at the *same* time he must conceal Beery's right arm when one-armed Windy fights the tiger. Even the brilliant Jimmy Howe isn't quite up to this task.
During one early scene, Beery speaks dialogue whilst cuddling a lion cub. The lion ad-libs a yawn, and Beery charmingly ad-libs to cover for this. In real life, Wallace Beery was an extremely unpleasant man (many people have testified to this), but he was a genuinely talented actor within his narrow range, and he gives a fine performance here. I'll overlook a dialogue error, in which he refers to a Sam Browne belt as a 'John Browne'. "O'Shaughnessy's Boy" is a splendid film which adults and intelligent kids will enjoy, and I'll rate it 8 out of 10.