Plagued by his father's crime and ridiculed by others, Danny Hawkins (Clark) confronts an outcast's life in a small southern town.
When old Mose addresses the dog as Mr. Dog or the guitar as Mr. Guitar, we realize a long suppressed desire for human dignity and respect. If the black man Mose (Ingram) can't get that from the larger community, at least he can create his own little world where all worthy things get respect. I think that's why he lives alone. But despite his estrangement, he hasn't lost perspective. As he says, he wants to rejoin the human race, and it's easy to suppose the larger community needs to change by rising to his level, rather than vice-versa. Then too, when he says dogs should not be used to hunt humans, there's a veiled echo of Jim Crow, covert Hollywood style.
It's only natural that another outcast Danny Hawkins would be drawn to Mose, his only friend. Their scenes together are beautifully performed and sensitively scripted. Note how the subject of "bad blood" and free will comes up elliptically. Danny is haunted by his father's crime and fears it has become his own destiny (the Sykes murder). In Danny's eyes, it's as if he's fated by the blood he's inherited. But Mose knows something about the racial aspect of "bad blood", and insists that blood is no more than "red" and doesn't tell you "what you have to do". This means Danny must overcome the spectre of genetic determinism by becoming his own person and taking responsibility for his own actions. It's only then, by acknowledging a sense of free will, that Danny can escape the burden of inherited guilt.
Of course, it's through Gilly's (Russell) unconditional love that Danny finds the redemption he needs. By releasing himself to that bond, he experiences an emotion strong enough to overcome the haunting sense of inherited fate. At the same time, he can only overcome the anguish of personal guilt for the crime he has committed by owning up to the crime, and confronting the inevitable I-told-you-so's". In Mose's terms, there's a heavy price he must pay for rejoining the human race.
The character of Billy Scripture (Morgan) is often overlooked, but remains a mysterious and profound presence. A simple-minded mute, he's another outcast and frequent figure of ridicule. However, unlike Danny, he remains sweet-tempered and forgiving despite the provocations. Even when nearly strangled by a desperate Danny, he responds with a difficult yet forgiving smile, a touching and unforgettable moment. In his own mute way, he appears to understand an underlying theme—that anger and alienation are symptoms and not causes. His name, I believe, is no accident.
In terms of the movie itself, the cast is superb. Clark may not have been director Borzage's first choice; nevertheless he comes up with a vivid and nuanced performance. Catch his many anguished expressions. Just as importantly, he doesn't look like a Hollywood leading man, nor does he bring the associations of a big-name star to the role. In short, he's perfect. Also, the famously edgy Russell shows none of that here. In fact, she projects one of the rarest qualities found in any love story, namely, genuine warmth. Her ethereal good looks also fit perfectly into the plot, and it's no stretch to see Danny changing his life for her sake. Then there's the quiet dignity of Ingram's Mose. His sterling character now looks like evolution from the caricatures of the 1930's to the assertive civil rights movement of the 50's. Too bad, the actor is largely forgotten. I guess my only reservation is with Barrymore. Her grandma strikes me as too stagey and "grand" (an apt term from another reviewer). Still and all, it's a fine, colorful cast, even down to bit players.
Now, as good as these elements are, it's because of director Borzage that they're lifted into the realm of cinematic art. From hypnotic opening to pastoral close, the visual enchantment wraps around like an enveloping dreamscape— (the eerie sets are also a testament to lowly Republic's art department, the glittering impressionist photography to John Russell). Borzage's enclosed world is a world of artistic imagination that's at once both mesmerizing and compelling. But just as importantly, he's a filmmaker who clearly believes in the material. As others point out, he's that rarest of the breed, a director who genuinely believes in romantic love and its redemptive power, and not merely as a movie cliché. At the same time, it's the power of that vision that merges the movie's elements into a single dynamic whole.
There are so many memorable moments and characters—the "hep-cat" soda jerk, the Methuslah old man, the gallery lined-up for arriving trains. But, I guess the high point for me is when Danny must shake the raccoon from the safety of the tree, seeing his own fate in the hapless animal and knowing that if he doesn't he may betray his own guilt. Here, script, acting, and direction come together brilliantly to create a truly shattering moment. All in all, the film may not rise to the level of a masterpiece, but it does stand as a work of considerable artistic achievement, and one that's stayed with me since I first saw it as a boy. And I'm glad the internet provides an opportunity for me to share that appreciation in a public way.