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 Adam discuss Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.
ADAM WILLIAMS: Poor Mrs. Wiggs! The odds are stacked against her. Her husband is on the other side of the continent mining for gold. Her and her five kids are holed up in a shack in a slum. The threat of foreclosure is looming. Tuberculosis is ravaging her eldest. All that keeps the family going is watered down vegetable soup and the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The 1901 source novel opens with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Even in the mud and scum of things, something always, always sings.” This sense of optimism sums up the very simple story; despite the adversity, Mrs. Wiggs never gives up.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: While this was a familiar story to audiences in 1934, during the depths of the depression, I imagine that it took on new meaning. Seeing a family persevere against odds and circumstances that may have been worse than what the average family was contending with was doubtlessly a source of comfort to audiences at the time.
AW: Alice Hegan Rice’s novel was based on her real-life encounter with the denizens of the Cabbage Patch, a shantytown in her native Louisville. The novel was an immediate sensation and soon spawned a similarly successful play. This film followed a pair of silent features and preceded the Fay Bainter-starring film of 1942. Clearly, the Wiggses were something of an institution to anyone alive in the first half of the 20th century. For those of us around in the 21st, the impact of the story is likely lessened.
RB: I am unfamiliar with any of the other properties based around this book, but I would assume based on the casting and the time period that the 1942 version is lighter in tone than the ones that preceded it. While this version has some simple laughs (with an exception that we’ll get to shortly) it’s an awfully dour picture. What hope the Wiggses have seems to be tempered by the very low expectations for any sense of stability or happiness beyond their familial bonds. Now make no mistake; I’m not discounting the importance of these things, quite the contrary, but one must admit that seeing people roar with laughter at the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke will make most anyone pause and wonder what hope these people ever actually have.
AW: Of course, you’re referring to the scene where the Wiggses attend a vaudeville show and are marveled by the comedy of Al Shaw and Sam Lee.
Pauline Lord, a venerated stage actress, made her film debut as Mrs. Wiggs. Unfortunately, the presence she undoubtedly brought to the theater is absent here. At the risk of sounding like a tyrant, her leaden performance is laugh-inducing. She delivers every line the same way: dewy eyes gazing off into the distance, softly speaking with an untouchable gravitas. The kids don’t fare much better. With each mawkish utterance from these moppets, I lamented the passing of the glorious days when the pictures were mute. This film was a box office success, but surely a good portion of the period audience felt the devilish temptation to parody the sentimentality, right? It didn’t take long to find Jack Benny’s radio playlet from 1934, Mrs. Wiggs of the Onion Patch (“Whoever heard of a cabbage causing tears?”). Benny and company capture that weepy, long-suffering tone magnificently and tie the story together on a brilliant note. It turns out, Mr. Wiggs didn’t go to Alaska, he went to Lasky—Paramount Picture’s Jesse Lasky in Hollywood—to strike it rich.
RB: You make a point here. The Benny spoof does kind of lend itself to the possibility that even in the Depression, this story was a relic of an earlier time and while it was doubtlessly beloved, it was a relic of an earlier time. Pauline Lord only had two film credits, so we’re seeing 50% of her film career here, wistful, staring off into the distance at something…ugh. I’m sure she was great on stage, but here? Woof. It’s bad. Really bad.
AW: I’m relieved you agree. I wasn’t sure if my critical acumen was failing or if I’ve simply become a heartless monster. I suppose both could still be true…
My preceding comments notwithstanding, I still found plenty to enjoy about this film. Charles Middleton plays right to his type: mean, miserly, and myopic. ZaSu Pitts is as adorable as ever. And a strange thing occurs about an hour into the movie, one William Claude Dukenfield better known as W.C. Fields, henceforth referred to as The Great One, glides in on the wind of a subplot and makes this movie his own. In all sincerity, his presence lifts the spirits and sweeps away all the mud and scum of the Cabbage Patch.
RB: Pitts and Middleton are great here, as they almost always are, but Fields is pretty much the only reason why anyone remembers this movie today. You’re also completely right. He completely lifts the film into a different direction, and it suddenly becomes fun to watch. Apparently, he hated doing this movie (understandably so), but I’m more than grateful for his performance. I’d watch WC Fields get tangled up in a fence 100% of the time over Pauline Lord and her kids staring off into space.
AW: Oddly, this film relocates the Cabbage Patch from Kentucky to the fictional town of Masonville, Ohio. Regardless, Mrs. Wiggs had its world premiere where it all began. Louisville’s grand Rialto Theatre hosted the event. The Courier Journal announced that a photo of the audience that saw the play Mrs. Wiggs in 1903 would be on display. Anybody that could recognize themselves in that decades-old photo would get free admission to the movie. Although clearly marketing at work, there is a charming generational continuity to this contest. Clearly, this story was important to the community. The phenomena of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch—like the magic lantern and Irish tenor at the variety show the Wiggs family goes to in the film—was approaching antiquity in ’34. A full lifetime later, I would only recommend it as a cultural relic. That is until The Great One appears. For those remaining 25 minutes, its appeal is timeless. Three stars.
RB: This reminds me of the conversation that Samantha and I had recently about our national thirst for nostalgia. Coming off of the roaring 20’s and settling into the depths of the Depression, maybe we were craving the nostalgia of the plays and films that carried us through the previous generation. In that context, for 1934, Mrs. Wiggs works okay. But really, WC Fields is the only reason to watch this film today, and he alone bumps this from a two star film to a three star film.