7 July 2005 | klg19
Every once in a while, Hollywood would turn out simple, almost humble films that were salutes to a kind of idealized America that still resonates in our collective American memory. "I Remember Mama" is one example, and the Norwegian-American community must have been a rich source for such reflection, because the Norwegian-Americans of Fuller Junction, Wisconsin, are the subject of yet another in "Our Vines Have Tender Grapes." It's amusing that the source of the title is the line from the Song of Songs that begins, "The Little Foxes"--a quote that made the title of quite a different film about quite different American values.
"Our Vines Have Tender Grapes" traces the fortunes of a small middle-American community, with particular focus on the Jacobson family, consisting of father Martinius (Edward G. Robinson), mother Bruna (Agnes Moorehead), and 7-year-old Selma (Margaret O'Brien). Selma's cousin Arnold is also featured, as is the editor of the local paper, other farming neighbors, the new schoolteacher (doing her practicum for a PhD in education, back in Milwaukee), and others.
There isn't necessarily a narrative here; the film provides an episodic look at a year in the life of this community, with tragedy, comedy, and all the human drama. Sometimes it gets a little too episodic, perhaps, as in the dribs of information we get on the life of an emotionally-disturbed neighbor girl. But we are not being asked to follow a narrative, we are merely being asked to spend some time with these people and observe their lives.
The request pays back the time spent. All the performances (with the possible exception of a rather wooden Butch Jenkins as Arnold, whose lips can be seen to move with Margaret O'Brien's lines in their first scene) are engaging. The great Edward G. Robinson once again shows his range (was there any kind of role that man couldn't play??), and Agnes Moorehead gets a chance to show range she isn't generally allowed to display. Margaret O'Brien's Selma can be seen as an outgrowth of Tootie from "Meet Me in St Louis," but I believe Selma is a much more emotionally-complex part and O'Brien takes that ball and runs with it. Her rendition of the Nativity story is JUST this side of saccharine, and it works, especially given the visceral punch of the final lines.
The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, in his last Hollywood effort before the blacklist. Trumbo got the story from a book by George Victor Martin, who was the husband of the woman Selma became. According to the catalog of the American Film Institute, Selma Martin (then estranged from her husband) and her cousin Arnold sued MGM on the basis that the film caused them "undue public attention, mental anguish and humiliation." Staggering news, given the gentle, lovely portrayals of them the film provides.
This film shows up on Turner Classic Movies from time to time. You won't regret giving a couple of hours of your day to this story; it's truly worth it.