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Christmas Watch: And So They Were Married (1936)

It's time for holly berries, cinnamon, listening to Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Elvis, and snuggling up under a thick blanket to watch great old movies together. Join us once again for our annual Christmas Watch.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: It begins well. Edith Farnham (Mary Astor) and her daughter Brenda (Edith Fellows) are en route to a mountain resort where they will spend Christmas following her divorce. After a road rage incident with a reckless driver (Melvyn Douglas), they make it to check-in only to discover that he is staying there too. To make matters worse, an avalanche has closed off the road leading in, resulting in a pathetic turnout to the gala opening. Eventually, animosity turns to polite acceptance which turns into a romance. Unfortunately for the happy couple, Brenda and Stephen’s late-arriving son Tommy (Jackie Moran) get off to a bad start and resolve to break their parents apart in order to never have to see each other again.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: There’s not much to this plot that we haven’t seen before; it kind of reminds me of The Parent Trap in a way, but, of course, this movie predates that one by decades and the situations here are a little more novel than we’d think today. Of course, the setting, filmed near Donner Pass, California) is lovely and helps propel things along quite nicely.

SG: I wouldn't have connected this movie to the opening shots of The Gold Rush, but that's the magic of the movies.

I love these old movies that depict a whirlwind romance while the leads are on vacation. They never stay shorter than two weeks, so the couple has plenty of time to get to know each other and spend lots of time together. Pleasure cruises, mountain resorts, island getaways: there is no way anyone but the very rich could afford such leisure. Douglas starred in another movie set at a ski resort a few years later, Two Faced Woman, Garbo's last film, which got terrible reviews, but which I quite enjoy and would rate higher than this film. I envy the complete isolation of the mountain cabin. Imagine being snowed in at a place where too many hotel employees are available to cater to your every need, where an attractive person is available for your amusement, and your kids are well cared for. No work. No phones ringing. No pets begging for your attention (until the road clears). Paradise. We also see a relic of the past in action, a hired social instigator or hostess, who tries to set the happy couple up before they know they’re right for each other. There is a Faith Baldwin novel called Hotel Hostess all about this job and it lives in a moment in time.

RB: Especially in 1936, it was likely impossible for most people to imagine being able to travel to a place like this. One thing that I did find super interesting that I think is worth noting is that Edith Farnham is a single parent because she is divorced from her husband. This is treated like no big deal, which is certainly unusual in films from the classic era. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and to my surprise, it never did.

SG: Divorce became more commonplace in these days when women could eke out a living for themselves without relying on a man. In the case of the wealthy, the former Mrs. Farnham would have been paid a healthy alimony.

Douglas Gilbert of the NY World Telegram called the movie a, “celluloid trifle… The picture… is too unimportant for comment."

Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Starting with an amusing though artificial idea, it lacks the finesse to raise it above the neighborhood level. At times it descends to needless roughhouse and its several laughs are frequently on the same level of poor taste.”

RB: This is really nothing more than a programmer with a particularly good duo in the leads, but Columbia advertised it as some sort of a madcap screwball comedy, even attempting to draw comparisons to It Happened One Night, which is particularly ludicrous. I’m not saying that this is a bad movie by any means, but it pales in comparison to that classic.

SG: The kids hijack the movie, which is when it devolves into something less than stellar. They seem extremely juvenile by today’s standards. Tommy talks like a stereotype of the era. Brenda is incredibly pliant, not arguing when her mother, who she unironically calls “Mother Dearest”, when she is sent to bed on the first day of vacation for sneezing too many times, a convenient plot device to get the couple together without interference.

RB: Edith Fellows plays one of the brats (well…they’re both pretty bratty kids…), and she had quite a career. Her first role was as Charley Chase’s daughter in the hilarious Movie Night (1929) and she popped up in a couple of Our Gang comedies and lots and lots of other films, including several of the

Five Little Peppers films at Columbia. Roles were sporadic for her as she aged into adulthood and her life sadly had its share of troubles, but then in the early 80’s she started getting frequent guest appearances on TV shows. She was active until 1995, eventually passing away at the age of 88 in 2011.

This was the first role for Jackie Moran, who had a memorable turn in Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) and a bit part in Gone With The Wind (1939) and a few pretty good serials and teenager-centric movies before his retirement from the screen in 1947. While I agree with your assessment that the kids seem pretty juvenile, I never found them cloyingly so, and the adoration that they bestowed upon their parents was kind of sweet.

SG: Time magazine’s reviewer said, “Part of the reason that And So They Were Married is better-than-average entertainment is that its 10-year-olds are endowed with adult minds and motives, a situation producing an unusual potency in the pranks the children commit, such as making a major catastrophe of a hotel Christmas tree and the party going on around it."

John Mosher of the New Yorker said, "There's nothing for us to say, except to express our sympathy to Mary Astor, the conspicuous victim of [the] effort." This was during the time that her famous diary was being read on the record during her public divorce and custody case with Franklyn Thorpe, and the public was not especially sympathetic toward her, so this vote of support is powerful. Luckily the lukewarm reception of this film and the scandal of the trial did not ruin her career and she worked for a long time.

Roland Barton of Film Bulletin wrote, “Had the swift, comic tempo of the first half of this film been maintained in the second half, this would have been one of the outstanding comedies of the year.”

RB: The neighborhood houses generally had a good time with this one, especially when the kids were concerned. “What comedy there was was supplied by a couple of clever kids. Miss Fellows is a cute little trick and the little lady can act,” supplied A.E. Hancock of the Columbia Theatre in Columbia City, IN. “The two juveniles cause all of the fun and steal the show,” observed Donald Visger of the Liberty Theatre in Kennewick, WA. A.H. Edwards of the Orpheum Theatre in Orwigsburg, PA was left with a sour taste in his mouth and at the box office though. “Suitable for a two reel Our Gang comedy instead of an eight reel feature. Business at its worst."

SG: The scenes at the mountain resort are very pleasant and could have been expanded upon, but the movie fizzles into a routine and predictable domestic comedy at the end. I wish the romance between Astor and Douglas was given more focus than the hijinks of the children, but once their scheme is hatched the parents become one-dimensional. The story doesn’t offer much beyond the expected. Three stars.

RB: I enjoy the leads in this film, so I was expecting to really like it, however, I wound up walking away kind of indifferent. If you aren’t either a fan of the stars or a fan of precocious kids (or Donald Meek), there’s not a whole lot here to recommend it. Two and a half stars.

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