Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Crystal of the blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting her 3rd Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. The celebration of the great theatrical family runs from August 15 - 17 and you can click HERE to read the contributions.

Lionel Barrymore as Nat Miller

I became a Lionel Barrymore fan watching him as Dr. Gillespie in the Kildare series on late night television, and annual viewings of his Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life. My list of favourite performances include Broken Lullaby, Grand Hotel, On Borrowed Time, Dinner at Eight, You Can't Take It With You, Down to the Sea in Ships, Key Largo and Ah, Wilderness!. 

The great modern American playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) forever changed and influenced the theatrical landscape through his thoughtful and often harrowing dramas. His posthumously produced Long Day's Journey Into Night calls on an early family life troubled by drug and alcohol addiction. Ah, Wilderness!, produced in 1933, is a nostalgic and wistful comedy that took those same early years and re-imagined them in a sweetly supportive family environment.

Eily Malyon, Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington, Aline MacMahon, Wallace Beery
Mickey Rooney, Bonita Granville, Eric Linden
Suppertime with the Miller family

The Millers are a typical middle class family in a small sized eastern American city. Nat (Lionel Barrymore) is a newspaper editor. His wife Essie (Spring Byington) runs a loving home. Eldest son Arthur (Frank Albertson) is a university student. Richard (Eric Linden) is about to enter Yale. Millie (Bonita Granville) is boy-crazy, and a pain to her brothers. The youngest, Tommy (Mickey Rooney) gets into as much trouble as possible. Extended family in the household include Nat's sister Aunt Lily (Aline MacMahon) and Essie's brother Uncle Sid (Wallace Beery). 

O'Neill did not preclude the presence of alcohol in his imaginary family. Uncle Sid drinks. Uncle Sid is a friendly and funny drunk, and the family, intentionally or not, enable his habit. Sid's addiction ended his long ago engagement to Lily, and that lady still holds out hope that one day he will change his ways.

Eric Linden as Richard Miller

Richard Miller is an oh-so-serious 16-year-old, and valedictorian of his 1906 high school class.  His duty in that regard is our first experience of a crisis in Richard's life. Richard reads the greats, Shaw and Swinburne, and the radical political thinkers of the day. He faces life clearly and doesn't expect to be understood, even by his timid girlfriend Muriel (Cecilia Parker).

Richard is determined to speak his mind to the fuzzy-headed students and parents awaiting his graduation speech. Quick thinking by Richard's father avoids a ruined day for the audience and lifelong embarrassment for Richard. Richard is appalled to later learn that his mother is shocked and strongly disapproves of his reading material. Richard will be surprised to learn of the amused tolerance of his father.

Mickey Rooney
Mischief on the 4th.

The young mind turns quickly from one major event to another. It is soon the 4th of July holiday and everyone has plans. Unfortunately, Richard's plans for a picnic with Muriel are scuttled by her uptight father (Charley Grapewin) who has discovered some of the poetry Richard has shared with Muriel. The outraged parent accuses the sincere young fellow of trying to corrupt his daughter. He demands Nat Miller punish his son severely. Nat responds by cancelling his neighbour's much-need advertising in his newspaper. Richard would be surprised to learn of such support and sacrifice on the part of his father.

Eric Linden, Cecilia Parker
Muriel doesn't always understand Richard, but she loves him.

It is an eventful July 4th for the Millers. Richard is absolutely dejected by a letter of good-bye that Muriel was forced to write by her father, and he intends to go out and face life! The opportunity presents itself when a friend of his brother Arthur seeks Art for a night on the town with a couple of chorus girls. Arthur not being available, and Richard having a bankroll of $11, Wint (Edward Nugent) brings Richard in on the festivities.

Eric Linden, Tom Dugan, Helen Flint
Mischief on the 4th.

A night of beer, slow gin fizzes and kisses from an overly made-up doxy make Richard ashamed and sick at heart. Not to mention the anxiety his late night causes his mother. Fortunately, Richard is the recipient of the expert attention of Uncle Sid. Eventually, Richard takes lessons learned to heart. He gains a greater appreciation for his family and his relationship with Muriel reaches a new level of understanding.

Spring Byington
Worried about Richard.

Ah, Wilderness! premiered on Broadway in 1933 with Elijah Cook Jr. as Richard, George M. Cohan as Nat and Gene Lockhart as Uncle Sid. There have been several touring companies and revivals throughout the decades. Actors such as Will Rogers and Harry Carey have played Nat Miller. I attended a lovely 1990 production at Ontario's Stratford Festival which was only marred by the fellow in the row behind complaining that "this is the olden days". Sigh!

Frank Albertson, Bonita Granville
A distraction for mother.

Take Me Along is the 1959 Broadway musical version of the play with songs by Bob Merrill which ran for 448 performances. Robert Morse (Tony nominee) played Richard. Walter Pidgeon (Tony nominee) and Una Merkel played Nat and Essie. Eileen Herlie (Tony nominee) and Jackie Gleason (Tony winner) played Aunt Lily and Uncle Sid. 

MGM's 1935 production was directed by Clarence Brown, who throughout his film career, showed a lovely knack for presenting stories of children; children who consider themselves outsiders, but around whom the entire family revolves. Consider National Velvet, The Yearling, Intruder in the Dust, The Human Comedy, and Angels in the Outfield.

Lionel Barrymore, Eric Linden
The father - son talk.

Eric Linden's performance of Richard is heartfelt and unpretentious. Our fond feelings for the character are enhanced by seeing young Richard through the eyes of his father Nat, as beautifully played by Lionel Barrymore. The father-son relationship is sweet, yet unsentimental.

Wallace Beery, Aline MacMahon
Sid and Lily, always close and always apart.

The Millers became the obvious template for one of MGMs most successful franchises. Two years later much of this cast would reunite in the first of the Hardy Family pictures, A Family Affair. Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington were Judge and Mrs. Hardy. Mickey Rooney, their son Andy and Ontario born Cecilia Parker, their daughter Marion. Eric Linden and Charley Grapewin also had featured roles. Aunt Lily would become Aunt Milly played by Sara Haden and her role would continue when Lewis Stone and Fay Holden became Judge and Mrs. Hardy.

Eric Linden, Spring Byington, Lionel Barrymore
Richard: "You sort of forget the moon was the same way back then, and everything."

MGM would once again visit the property in 1948s Summer Holiday, their musical version filmed in Technicolor and directed by Rouben Mamoulian with songs by Harry Warren and Ralph Blane. The excellent cast includes Mickey Rooney stepping into the role of Richard, Walter Huston and Selma Royle as the Millers, Agnes Moorehead and Frank Morgan as Lily and Sid, and Gloria De Haven as Muriel. It's the same story, and thoroughly professional throughout, yet it does not work. Perhaps the studio should have agreed to composer Warren's idea of filming it in the mode of an opera.

Thankfully, Clarence Brown's Ah, Wilderness! is available for us today to relive the long ago past, stepping into the nostalgic never-world created by Eugene O'Neill.


  1. I knew this was the inspiration for the Andy Hardy movies, so it's not surprising to see how alike they are, but I guess I thought this would have a bit more sturm und drang, so to speak, it being an O'Neill play and all.

    1. I felt the same way until I saw it for the first time. It is gentle, and sweetly humorous. I think O'Neill deserved this, and I'm glad he gave it to himself and us.

  2. This review (and the movie) are fantastic! I liked the part about how "Wilderness" inspired the Hardy movies--it totally makes sense. Why mess with what works? Except that M-G-M did like tweaking things, all the time. :-)

    1. Thank you. MGM took the touches of realism we find in the Millers away from the Hardys, but you can't argue with success. I still find myself entertained by the Carvel crowd.

  3. Great review! I didn't realize that about the Andy Hardy series. How funny that Mickey Rooney got so much longevity out of the property, and that he starred in its remake. I've heard quite often that Summer Holiday doesn't work, which is a shame with that A+ cast.

  4. Thank you. Mickey's is a fun career to follow and this is a great trivia twister.

    I wish I could pinpoint exactly where Summer Holiday goes wrong. I love the property. I love composer Harry Warren. That cast was well chosen. Yet, there you are. Check it out sometime. I need a fresh perspective.

  5. I love the Barrymores, especially Lionel. And, with your posts, I'll hardly run out of his films to see. Just added another to my list!
    Thanks for the kind comment!

  6. Oh I had never heard of this film until I read your review! But I'm curious to see it as it stars Lionel Barrymore and Aline MacMahon! Plus, I love the comedies from the 30s! Thanks for the insightful review Patricia! :)

    1. Thank you so much for reading, and for the lovely compliment.

  7. Hey Patricia. Thanks so much for joining in on the blogathon. You've made me want to watch this movie. I'll add it to my list of films to watch next. It sounds really interesting, and you can't go wrong with Lionel. Also, don't forget to check out my contribution to the blogathon.


    1. Ah, Wilderness! is a true classic and a film I have no doubt you will enjoy.



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