November Family Portraits: Chicken Every Sunday (1949)
As the holidays approach and we spend more time with our families, sharing meals, remembering the good old days, or squabbling, we will examine films from the classic era which depict these complex, formative relationships. Today Rodney and Samantha discuss Chicken Every Sunday.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: From the first day of their marriage, Jim and Emily Hefferan have struggled to keep their finances in the black. Jim's ambition has him investing in a laundry, an opera house, a mercantile, and a mine. Emily supports the family by taking in boarders. She is a masterful cook, mother and wife whose backbone keeps the Hefferans afloat.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: The film really evokes a sweet time, as seen through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia (more on that later), that sometimes veers off into borderline screwball comedy territory, but somehow never manages to lose sight of the heart of the film, which is a story of the devotion and of wanting to improve the lives of those that live around you.
SG: Emily is alternately sweet and shrewd, the center of the house. Everyone comes to her with their problems and she has a solution for everything, from finances to romantic woes to dance steps to general advice, she does it all. Celeste Holm is a powerhouse in this role. In the scene where Rita Kirby (Veda Ann Borg) comes to the house asking for a room, and Emily senses she is not of the appropriate moral character for consideration, her kind heart can't turn her away without helping her find a place elsewhere. The two actresses are contrasted nicely with their costumes created by Kay Nelson. Holm wears a matronly, old-fashioned dress with plain stripes and simple functional buttons. Borg is fancier and more modern wearing a tailored suit with a ruffled shirt, an indication that she is an independent woman who isn't reliant upon her husband. Her curls and ostentatious hat and jewelry indicate her wealth and desire to attract men. However, it is Holm's large expressive eyes that give her the edge, and when Emily confesses to Jim that she feels a bit threatened by Mrs. Kirby, we know Jim isn't lying when he assures her of his love and loyalty.
RB: Veda Ann Borg doesn’t get enough credit for being a genuinely great character actress. She brightens up almost every scene that she’s in, and her role in Chicken Every Sunday is a more elaborate role than she often had. She’s a fascinating actress to me, with a wildly varied career, appearing equally in supporting roles in A features like this one, and also appearing in starring roles in films like PRC’s Fog Island. The stark differences between her and Celeste Holm go beyond the casting in this film; as their careers tread on completely different trajectories. My choice for best casting however, is William Frawley in an absolutely preposterous toupee as Ann Borg’s estranged husband who is tricked into traveling cross-country to bring her home. Seeing him in that toupee is a genuinely funny set-piece that could’ve derailed a charming picture, but it doesn’t.
SG: Everything in this film is gentle. Chicken Every Sunday began its life as a book written by Rosemary Taylor. It told the story of her mother who made ends meet by taking in boarders at the turn of the century. Her impressive homemaking and economizing skills made her household successful and happy. This book was one of the most popular among soldiers during WWII who had access to Armed Services Editions, pocket sized unabridged paperbacks that could be easily carried in uniform pockets. It reminded them of home and what they were fighting for. That book is what brought me to this film too. I picked up a used Pocket Book edition for $1 at Pulpfest one year, and I loved the descriptions of the efficient household, the way mother never wasted anything, that even dinner scraps were used to feed livestock or for making soup stock, which was always simmering on the stove. The comradery between the family and the boarders, often eccentric but always appreciated, made me feel nostalgic and cozy. The movie evokes such feelings too, but not to the degree the book does. If you get a chance to read it, I highly recommend it.
RB: I always enjoy those types of stories, and while I’m not naïve enough to think that books like this are any real indication of what life was like, as a person who is no fan of the endless complications of modern life, I wish it was.
SG: Life usually looks rosier with hindsight when you're further removed from the stress of the moment. The book's popularity made the property attractive to Hollywood. Warner Brothers bought the rights in 1944 and planned to have Mervyn LeRoy direct, but that fell through and they sold the rights to 20th Century Fox. Showmen's Trade Review reported in 1946 that Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara would star in the film version. Then in 1948, Fox announced the film would be shot in Technicolor, but that fell through too. This film is modest and pleasant, a fitting tribute to a loving memoir about family.
RB: The film likely would’ve looked great in Technicolor, and while I’m sure the reasons for the cutback were budgetary, it really would’ve been something to see.
SG: Period pieces proved to be very popular at this time. Take Me Out to the Ball Game, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, In the Good Old Summertime, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon also came out in 1949. Movie Makers Magazine wrote, "Similar stories are hidden in your old family album." In the spirit of economy, this house set was re-used in Mr. Belvedere Goes to College.
RB: Americans have this thing about nostalgia that I think about a lot. Almost always, after an event or series of events that shake us to the core, we tend to retreat into nostalgia for what we determine to be a simpler time. You can see it in films like this, as we emerged from the horrors of World War II. And nostalgia basically turned into a trend in and of itself as the conflict in Vietnam ended in the mid-70’s (the pending Bicentential in 1976 probably had something to do with this too). Old movies were playing revival houses, swing bands were on tour and old-time radio shows were playing on radio stations all over the country. As we emerge from the horrors of the pandemic, will we see a spate of nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s? Almost certainly. Your mileage may vary, but I’m of the right age group for this sort of thing.
SG: It was around ten years ago that I told my husband you could tell that people our age were entering the workforce because shows that featured jokes about the 90s and remakes of kids shows we grew up with started popping up everywhere. I love Woody Allen's movie Midnight in Paris because it directly talks about humanity's tendency toward nostalgia no matter which era we happen to be born into. Back to Chicken Every Sunday. "Here is a picture for everyone from six to sixty. It's a warm, down-to-earth comedy-drama about real people who lived in a period (the early 1900s) when such things as the atomic bomb, and the fear of war were unknown," wrote the Showmen's Trade Review.
20th Century Fox and the Poultry and Egg National Board held a contest for which entrants sent in a chicken wishbone and their most desired wish for the potential to win an all-expenses paid trip to Hollywood to enjoy a chicken dinner with Dailey and Holm.
RB: I met Celeste Holm several years back. Why, oh why did I not ask her about the chicken dinner that Fox made her have with contest winners from the Poultry and Egg National Board? Ah well, so many missed opportunities.
SG: I wonder if it ever happened, or if it would have been awkward enough to be memorable. I give this sweet film 3 stars.
RB: I’ll also give this a hearty three stars. It’s a minor, but really pleasant film.