It is time for another stroll down Remake Avenue. Life Begins
written by Mary Macdougal Axelson was presented at the Selwyn Theatre in New York in April of 1932 for a brief run of eight performances. Among its stars were Mildred Dunnock, Frank Wilcox, and as pictured on the program, Glenda Farrell (Florette) and Joanna Roos (Grace). Warner Bros. purchased the rights to the play and under its subsidiary First National, the film was made in that same year, adapted by Earl Baldwin (The Mouthpiece) and co-directed by Elliot Nugent (The Male Animal) and James Flood (The Mouthpiece).
Nurse Bowers: "Having a baby is no joke."
Ringer Banks: "I'll tell the world it isn't."
Aline MacMahon, in her second year at Warners plays Nurse Bowers in Life Begins. The head charge nurse at the Woman's Waiting Ward for potentially difficult cases in a Lying-In Hospital has some busy shifts, and the audience is part of the drama.
A cross-section of patients and anxious fathers give us an idea of what to expect. Frank McHugh is Ringer Banks, who is a nervous wreck as we hear his wife played by Gloria Shea having a tough time. Banks' anxiousness is exasperated throughout the labour and we also see the tact of Miss Bowers in action. Her compassion and professionalism are a comfort to her patients and the audience.
Aline MacMahon, Helen Phillips Evans, Loretta Young, Eric Linden
Life Begins is a true ensemble, but Loretta Young playing Grace Sutton is our star character. Grace has been transferred to the ward from a penitentiary. The young woman is serving a 20-year sentence for murder. The other women in the ward agree that, in their eyes, Grace's crime was justified but the dead man's political connections resulted in her heavy sentence. Eric Linden is her husband, Jed. They are a young couple in love and at what should be an exciting and wonderful time of their lives they are overwhelmed with worry about the future.
Glenda Farrell is Florette Darien, recreating the role she played for that week on Broadway. Florette is a showgirl who goes by "Mrs." but that title is probably as phony as her attitude. Twins are on the way and Florette agrees to sell them to a childless couple known to her doctor. Florette sneaks booze into the ward and laughs at the sentimental saps with whom she has been forced to associate.
Ruthelma Stevens, Aline MacMahon, Clara Blandick, Glenda Farrell
Clara Blandick is Mrs. West, an older woman having her seventh child. Her eldest child is the same age as her fellow patients. She is a kind and instinctive parent. Ruthelma Stevens is recreating the role of Rose, who intends to raise her child following the cold psychological instructions from a book.
Mrs. West: "You never know. He might grow up to be president of the United States."
Rose: "Maybe, but I'm going to raise him right."
Dorothy Peterson is a psychiatric patient whose baby was stillborn. Dorothy Tree and Gilbert Roland are an immigrant couple and bereaved parents of another stillborn child.
The play/film gives many actresses the opportunity to play interesting characters at major crossroads in their life. Life in the ward is a rollercoaster ride of emotions built around the anticipation of the life-changing event of childbirth.
I was disturbed by the attitude of most of the medical practitioners in this film; forcing medication and procedures without fully explaining the reasons to the patients. Only Miss Bowers seemed willing to display empathy and act on that feeling.
I would recommend this pre-code film for its unique and interesting subject matter and fine acting troupe. When Warner Brothers re-released Life Begins in 1936 many local censor boards in America plus the British Board of Film Censors banned the film.
Warner Brothers Studio was never shy about reusing the material at its disposal and in 1939 Life Begins was remade as A Child is Born. Robert Rossen (A Walk in the Sun) wrote the screenplay and Lloyd Bacon (Brother Orchid) directed.
Eve Arden, Gale Page
Gale Page (Four Daughters) takes on the role of charge nurse Miss Bowers. I appreciate her aura of calm professionalism, but miss the forceful persona Aline MacMahon brought to the role. Miss Bower's underling Miss Pinty is played with her customary acerbic wit by Eve Arden (Cover Girl). The doctors in charge of the cases are Henry O'Neill (Stage Door) and John Litel (Dodge City). Keep your eyes on the interns to spot John Ridgely and William Hopper.
Gladys George (Madame X) takes on the role of the showgirl Florette, only this time her character is married. George Meeker (High Sierra) plays the heel who dumps Florette for a new partner in their put-on-hold entertainment act. The ward's veteran in this outing is played by Spring Byington (You Can't Take It With You). Fay Helm (Phantom Lady) is the deranged woman whose child was stillborn. She frightens the other patients but her presence gives us a chance to see Grace Sutton as the mother she might have been.
Nanette Fabray, Johnny Downs
In place of the young mother of the earlier film who plans to raise her child according to experts and books, we have a teenage couple who are fearful of their mothers' reaction. Nanette Fabares (Fabray), herself still a teenager, plays the role.
Gloria Holden (Dracula's Daughter) and Louis Jean Heydt (Gone With the Wind) play a working-class couple whose only chance at parenthood is a dream that doesn't come true. They replace the immigrant couple played by Dorothy Tree and Gilbert Roland in the earlier film. A twist involving Florette and her twins occurs in this storyline.
The main character of Grace Sutton, the convicted murderer, is played by Geraldine Fitzgerald (Wuthering Heights). Jed Sutton is played by Jeffrey Lynn (The Roaring Twenties). The characters are emotionally delicate as they face overwhelming obstacles. This script seems to be a little harsher on Grace with only her husband pointing out that the courts cared more about the wealthy victim than the young woman forced to defend herself. The stress of the trial and imprisonment has left Grace physically weakened and the doctors anticipate a "difficult time." Grace fatalistically sees the end to her troubles and a new start for the girl she is certain she will bear. Jed is fighting with all he has to keep his wife with him.
Perhaps it was the ban faced by the re-release of Life Begins that led to, even if slight, the condemnation of Grace that I didn't feel in the pre-code version of the play. Mary Macdougal Axelson's play could be reworked for this century. If some may complain of melodrama, I would counter there is nothing more melodramatic than bringing a child into the world and your family.
Agnes Moorehead, Eve Arden
If my memory is correct I believe Miss Pinty in A Child is Born is the only nurse Eve Arden played on-screen until Nurse Kelton in Bewitched: And Then There Were Three in 1966 when the character of Tabitha was born.