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Little Man, What Now?

Posted by martinteller on December 6, 2014

Hans Pinneberg (Douglass Montgomery) learns that his girlfriend Emma (Margaret Sullavan), a.k.a. Lammchen, is expecting a baby.  The two quickly get married, but this poses an unusual problem for Hans.  You see, he works as a clerk for Mr. Kleinholz (DeWitt Jennings) who wanted only eligible bachelors on his staff, to give his daughter Marie (Muriel Kirkland) plenty of options for a potential husband… and Marie has her sights set on Hans.  Despite his efforts to keep his marriage a secret, Hans is found out and dismissed.  The couple moves to Berlin to stay with Hans’s step-mother (Catherine Doucet).  But troubles keep mounting as Hans struggles to hold on to a salesman job, and his step-mother has some shady business going on with the ebullient Mr. Jachman (Alan Hale).

This is the 8th film I’ve seen by Frank Borzage and except for some mild disappointment with Three Comrades, they’ve all been pretty great.  This continues the streak, a sweet and tender film.  Two scenes in particular choked me up: the first is when Hans crumples into Lammchen’s arms, begging her, “Take care me of me, please!”  Although the movie touches on a number of issues, the overriding theme is that it’s love that props us up and keeps us going through hard times.  Borzage has such a lovely romantic touch in his work, a poetry that gilds material that could be laughably cheesy in other hands.  It’s not just in his visual language, although there are some stunning shots to be seen here… it’s the way he brings people to life.  Even the “bad” characters here have a sense of humanity to them, and rarely feel like trumped-up obstacles for our heroes.  And as for the “good” characters (in truth, most are somewhere in between), they are wonderfully endearing.  The other scene that brought a tear to my eye was the ending.  The very last moment is a bit too convenient, perhaps (almost literally a deus ex machina in how it’s staged) but the heartfelt dialogue that precedes it is gorgeous.

The story takes place when the Depression was still very much an issue, and Hans tries to find a balance between keeping his dignity and keeping his job.  Recurring ancillary characters played by Fred Kohler and Mae Marsh show what happens to those who are even less fortunate… perhaps they make bad decisions or have a bad attitude, but their problems are no less real.  The film also highlights the political turmoil in Germany, with the Nazi Party in ascendance.  Borzage would address the concern more directly in The Mortal Storm but even at this early date you can sense that he saw the storm clouds on the horizon.  The timing of this film is also significant it came just a couple of months before the establishment of the Breen office to enforce the production code.  Just a short time later and he couldn’t have gotten away with such overt references to premarital sex, prostitution and nudism.

This is a beautiful, lively film with terrific performances (I didn’t even mention Christian Rub… a great face to go with that great name) and a story that delivers warmth and sadness in balanced, satisfying measures.  It shines a spotlight on the troubles that we face, and also the goodness in us that helps us cope with them.  It’s hard not to like a movie like this.  Rating: Very Good (86)


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