In honor of Baby New Year, this month we discuss movies about youth and starring youth.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Journey for Margaret tells the story of a war correspondent and his wife, stranded in London during World War II during the blitz. John (Robert Young) and Nora (Laraine Day) are trying to take it all in stride, but things hit a breaking point when Nora suffers a miscarriage as a result of a bombing, which leaves her infertile. John sends her home to Connecticut while continuing his reporting, focusing on war orphans after finding a young boy in the rubble.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: The depiction of Nora's miscarriage is sort of remarkable for a film from the 40s. She alludes to the pregnancy at first, which was common in these films, which considered even the word to be explicit, and women in the throes of labor often wore cinched waists with nary a baby bump in sight. However, when she loses the child, and the doctor says she can never have children, her emotional reaction is stark. She hardens herself to the pain, turning to alcohol and excessive partying to numb it. She becomes a party girl, pushing her husband away and returning to America in favor of social gatherings and distance from reality. Because she is away from the action of the plot, Day's scenes are few, but she makes the most of the material and makes Nora into a real, troubled, complex person.
RB: I agree with all of this. Initially, when we learn that Nora is pregnant, I thought to myself, “She sure doesn’t look it”, which is pretty typical for films of this time period. Yet, the handling of the unfortunate event itself is handled with grace and nuance that is not something we typically see in old films, even when they do touch upon the loss of an unborn child, which is pretty rare in and of itself.
John is affected by the event in his own way, continuing to spend time in an orphanage observing and helping with the children, all traumatized by the events of the war in unique different ways. It is here that he meets Peter, the child that he pulled from the wreckage of a bombed out building, now mute, and Margaret, a child that had cycled through multiple foster parents that seem too ignorant to understand the horrors that she had faced. The relationship that John has with all of the children is a special one, but he is clearly drawn to Margaret and Peter, eventually hoping to adopt them and bring them to the safer United States.
SG: It is no wonder the children love Mr. Davis. Besides being patient with and accepting of them, he talks to them like equals and doesn't condescend to them. I remember hating when people would do that to me.
The two children are naturals on the screen, and adorable to boot. William Severn played Peter, whose utterance of "Oh lamb," squeezes my heartstrings. This cherubic wavy-haired boy only appeared in a few movies, but not due to lack of talent. He turns in an affecting performance in Journey For Margaret. His siblings also worked in the movies, but when Severn grew up he turned to the church and preached around the world. Margaret O'Brien was scouted by MGM after she appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Photographer Paul Hesse was looking for a dog for the cover, and spotted one he liked on the street one day. It happened to be Margaret's dog, and he agreed to photograph them together. O'Brien came from a show business family. Her mother was a dancer with the Cansinos, the famous family of Rita Hayworth. Journey for Margaret was O'Brien's first feature film, and she changed her name from Angela to Margaret because of the title. She became a major star and could be counted on to always turn in a charming and natural performance.
This movie is a definite tearjerker. I teared up when Margaret was finally allowed to cry in the orphan's home and later when the woman whose child was bombed insisted that her child was only asleep.
RB: Yes, it’s a tearjerker indeed. To me, it seems nearly impossible not to be touched by the way these young children were victimized by the horrors of war. Even more horrifying is that in so many ways, they’re unaware that things weren’t supposed to be this way. The way they viewed the bombed rubble as a normal part of their surroundings troubled me greatly.
SG: Journey for Margaret depicts an important and emotional part of history, the London blitz. When Germany began bombing the city, they were killing civilians. Entire neighborhoods were decimated. Gas masks, bomb shelters and blackouts became a regular part of life. It wasn't uncommon for the air raid siren to sound in the evening, and people would evacuate their homes if they didn't have a proper shelter and cram into the underground subways for safety, trying to sleep on makeshift beds on the ground. Air raid wardens would enforce the blackouts (to keep the planes from hitting targets) and keep people off the street during the raids. Many parents sent their children to live on estates in the country to keep them safe from bombs. This is the side of the war I like to study, the way it changed the daily lives of ordinary people. What cultural impact did it have? I would never have been a solider changing into battle, committing violent acts upon the enemy. I would have been home, likely with children. This movie resonates with me deeply.
RB: The US was fortunate in the sense that we were too far away to experience real threat of bombings (although we were closer to invasion than we may have realized; I’ve read of enemy submarines being discovered just miles off the coast), but we still had to come together to fight a common enemy. Blackouts were also common here (occasionally at antique stores, you can find floor lamps that emanate a very dim light from the bottom, which were commonly used during this time), rationing for everything from butter to tires was a fact of life, and our lives were upended as so many of our friends and relatives were drafted to serve overseas. I doubt there was any aspect of life that wasn’t affected by the war, but we were united in that we had a common enemy to face, and it was very real threat. This film touches on that in a way that is not preachy, but factual. It is a lesson that we may have forgotten in the 21st century, but one that should be remembered and practiced.
SG: The film is based on a non-fiction book which is more of a first person view of the blitz from an American journalist's perspective. William Lindsay White also wrote They Were Expendable which was adapted to film in 1945.
Back to this movie. The character actor on the train, whose name I couldn't track down, has a fantastic face, proof that back then, actors had faces.
RB: Not sure who you saw there, but I did spot Fred ‘Snowflake’ Toones as a porter. He brightened up a couple of hundred films, generally in uncredited roles, and more often than not on trains.
SG: Photoplay called the film one of the best pictures of the month. American Cinematographer pointed out the expert use of the process shots which used news footage from the war. "Dramatically, even in the hands of a director not inherently suited to a story of this type, Journey for Margaret is worth seeing. Without attempting to point a moral, it contains a stirring preachment on why we're in this war, and why we must win it."
RB: In the trades, the film was almost universally praised except for the presumably heartless monster at the Oklahoma Theatre of Antlers, OK that stated that the film was “Terrible. Don’t play if you can keep from it”. I don’t know what his deal was. I can’t imagine that response from anyone after seeing this film.
SG: I love this movie and have watched it many times. It always delivers for me in terms of entertainment, history and emotion. 5 stars.
RB: Journey for Margaret transcends the wartime propaganda that could’ve entrapped it, and instead is a touching story of loss. The loss of a child, and the loss of innocence, both among the children of London and society as a whole. Seeing it today, during a time when certain nefarious parties are downplaying the atrocities of the Nazis, it’s a touching reminder of very real threat that we faced and how we came together to overcome it. A four star film that commands additional viewing, and may increase in the viewer’s stature in time.
I don't like Mr. Hitler.