Movieland Mystery Photo (Updated + + + +)


This week’s mystery movie was the 1932 Warner Bros. film “Life Begins,” the studio’s  previous version of the first mystery movie of the year, “A Child Is Born.” “Life Begins” features Loretta Young, Eric Linden, Aline MacMahon, Glenda Farrell. Clara Blandick, Preston Foster, Frank McHugh, Walter Walker, Hale Hamilton, Vivienne Osborne and Dorothy Peterson.

Screen adaptation by Earl Baldwin, edited by George Marks, art direction by Esdras Hartley, photography by James Van Trees, gowns by Orry-Kelly, technical director Dr. Harry Martin. Vitaphone Orchestra conducted by Leo F. Forbstein.

Like “A Child Is Born,” “Life Begins” was never commercially released, but is available in “gray market” copies. TCM aired “Life Begins” during Star of the Month features for Loretta Young and Glenda Farrell.

Like the remake, “Life Begins” is taken from Mary McDougal Axelson’s play and is in many ways just as stagebound and creaky, this time in an adaptation by Earl Baldwin rather than Robert Rossen. As a Pre-Code, “Life Begins” is earthier when it comes to Glenda Farrell, who originated the role on Broadway, and her portrayal of Florette (Gladys George in the remake). As Florette, Farrell sneaks liquor into the maternity ward and is suitably slutty and world-weary; disgusted to learn she is having twins, she offers to give them up for adoption — for $75 each.

Still, there are no baby bumps on parade in the Warner Bros. maternity ward. The expectant fathers are all nervous wrecks, the doctors are priests in rubber gloves and surgical gowns and the nurses in their starched white uniforms are hard, dismissive and have the empathy of a brick. The mother who loses her baby is comforted with nothing more than a pat and a simple “everything is all right.” Granted, infant mortality was much higher in the 1930s – but really.

The big surprise in the film is Frank McHugh (Johnnie Davis in the remake), who gets to play more than his usual role as an amiable and slightly amusing comic sidekick. Otherwise the script is very thin soup. Clara Blandick (Spring Byington in the remake) is required to play the mother of five who loves her kids. Loretta Young (Geraldine Fitzgerald in the remake) is only required to be beautiful, vulnerable and die off-stage. She is ostensibly in prison for killing a man, but how her character could kill anyone is a mystery to me.

Since “Life Begins,” is generally unavailable, it’s worth taking an extended look.

The movie was heavily promoted by Warner Bros., as in this ad in Movie Classic.

Motion Picture Reviews, published by the Women’s University Club (September 1932) which you may remember panned “A Child Is Born,” said:

“Life Begins” has the advantage of perfect casting, emotional scenes which avoid mawkish sentimentalism, excellent dialogue, sustained action and a novel setting — although many will challenge the use of a maternity ward of a city hospital as setting for a motion picture. … The fault of the picture lies in the producers’ ignorance or willful disregard of hospital methods and obstetrical care, in the vicious disregard of truthful realism. To create “drama,” they needlessly sacrifice a young mother, callously give false impressions, implant unnecessary fear and suspicion in prospective mothers. In this day of enlightened medical procedure it is unfortunate that a producer should so unfairly place a handicap upon hospitalization and physicians.

Educational Screen (November 1932) said:

Clinical but strong, well-acted picture laid inside great modern lying-in hospital. Some good comic relief, but some in very bad taste. Poignant, grim, depressing scenes, but generally convincing, human and interesting. Far better than vulgar publicity.

Let’s check in with the exhibitors.

Motion Picture Herald (Jan. 14, 1933) quoted two theater operators.

R. Falkenberg of the Majestic Theatre in Lexington, Neb., said:

Flu epidemic and pre-Xmas week hurt this, but will bring it back for another showing as we have had telephone calls asking if it would be back. Created a lot of mouth to mouth talk, and those looking for something daring and spicy came out thinking about this clever story and picture of real life, and they were willing to pay a tribute to “Mother.”

Cecil Ward of the Roxy Theatre in Martinsville, Va., said: It has sobs, and its laughs should please. Some thought it fine, others not so good, but business was good regardless. Should please.

Mayme P. Musselman of the Princess Theatre in Lincoln, Kans., told the Motion Picture Herald (May 20, 1933) : Good and certainly there isn’t another picture like it. Just keep the kids out and curiosity will get you business. Women will get more out of it than men, but you’ll hear from both sides and if it makes you money you should run it.

Avece T. Waldron of the Blue Moon Theatre, Oklahoma City, said (June 24, 1933): Picture appeals particularly to women. Half the men dislike it. It will pay if exploited, and should receive that effort. About average three-day gross with heavy rain first day.


Turning to the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall gets a crack at the movie this time around and says (Aug. 26, 1932):

The pictorial version of Mrs. Mary McDougal Axelson’s play “Life Begins,” which served to reopen the Hollywood Theatre yesterday, is in many respects an earnest and praiseworthy study of various happenings in a maternity hospital, but, notwithstanding its zealous attempt at levity during the early sequences, it is dubious whether it can be classed as entertainment. It may appeal to those who like to weep through their motion pictures, but even such persons invariably desire to have woe tinctured with something akin to joy before the final fade-out.

It’s worth noting that in reviewing the original play (March 29, 1932), the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson (then writing as J. Brooks Atkinson) did not approve of such goings-on:

It is not every day that you can see a play laid in the maternity ward of a hospital. Mary McDougal Axelson, poet, ex-newspaper woman and mother, has written one titled “Life Begins,” and it was staged at the Selwyn last evening. Being an episodic transcript of what goes on among the expecting mothers and the mothers whose expectations have just been fulfilled in a city hospital it is poignant and comic by turns, and it concludes with a scene of frank pathos. These are facts of life too elementary and tragic to be brushed lightly aside. But when a play is laid in a maternity ward you instinctively wonder what the author’s motive is. To judge by the purple patches of the program note, Mrs. Axelson is testifying to the nobility of childbirth:

If the great Birds of Eternity brush their wings against your heart also — and you feel across your face the breath of The Last Great Mystery in this Miracle of Birth, where what yesterday was but a dream is suddenly today a glorious living creature, bearing within its tiny body the seed of ten million years

Then my dream will not have been dreamed in vain.


Feb. 3, 2020, Mystery Photo

For Monday, we have a mystery lad. And I know this is difficult to believe, but he does not approve of such goings-on.

And here we have the mystery of Robert Ball “Bobs” Watson, who made his debut in “Life Begins.” According to public records, he was born Nov. 16, 1930, making him younger than 2 when the film opened in New York. Very puzzling. He and Paul Fix appear in the unrelated comic cameos at the beginning of the film and it’s entirely possible they were pickup scenes to inject some humor and cut into the film for later release. They have nothing to do with the plot.

Update: Further research shows that Warner Bros. re-released the film in 1936. Possibly these scenes were added for levity and appease censors who considered the story too grim and downbeat.

Feb. 4, 2020, Mystery Photo

For Tuesday, we have a mystery gent. He is unwell at the thought of such goings-on.

Update: This is Paul Fix.

Brain Trust roll call: Chrisbo (Monday’s mystery lad), Michael Ryerson (Monday’s mystery lad), Suzanne Stone (right church, but which pew?) Howard Mandelbaum (mystery movie and Monday’s mystery lad), Anne Papineau (Monday’s mystery lad), Jenny M. (Monday’s mystery lad), Mary Mallory (Monday’s mystery lad), Sheila (Monday’s mystery lad), Diane Ely (Monday’s mystery lad) and Sylvia E. (right church, but which pew?)

Feb. 5, 2020, Mystery Photo

Feb. 5, 2020, Mystery Photo

For “Hm Wednesday,” we have this mystery woman, and no, she does not approve of such goings-on one bit. I have cropped out our leading lady because she is insufficiently mysterious. She will appear Friday.

Update: Here’s the uncropped image of Helena Phillips Evans and Loretta Young.

Feb. 2020, Mystery Photo

We also have this cheerful mystery woman.

Update: This is Ruthelma Stevens, who originated the role in the Broadway production.

Brain Trust roll call: Tucson Barbara (Tuesday’s mystery guest), Floyd Thursby (Tuesday’s mystery guest), Howard Mandelbaum (Tuesday’s mystery guest), Michael Ryerson (mystery movie and Tuesday’s mystery guest. I’ll see if I can untangle your math problem Saturday), Jenny M. (mystery movie and Tuesday’s mystery guest), Benito (Tuesday’s mystery guest), Meredith Ponedel (Monday’s mystery lad), B.J. Merholz (both mystery guests) and Sylvia E. (Tuesday’s mystery guest).

Feb. 6, 2020, Mystery Photo

For “Aha Thursday,” we have some guests with varying levels of mysteriousness. Like this mystery woman.

Update: This is Clara Blandick.

Feb. 6, 2020, Mystery Photo

This mystery woman seems a bit troubled. She’s talking to Back of the Head Woman, who will appear Friday.

Update: This is Dorothy Peterson with Loretta Young as Back of the Head Woman.

Feb. 6, 2020, Mystery Photo

And then we have this not terribly mysterious fellow.

Update: This is Gilbert Roland.

Feb. 6, 2020, Mystery Photo

This mystery fellow is talking to our leading man, who had to be cropped out due to insufficient mysteriousness. He will appear Friday.


Brain Trust roll call: Mary Mallory (mystery movie, Tuesday’s mystery gent and Wednesday’s mystery guests), Howard Mandelbaum (Wednesday’s mystery guests), Michael Ryerson (Wednesday’s mystery woman No. 1) and Sylvia E. (mystery movie and all mystery guests).

Update: Here’s the uncropped image of Frank McHugh and Eric Linden.

Feb. 7, 2020, Mystery Photo

For Friday, my goodness. I do not approve of such goings-on. Bet our mystery head nurse won’t like it either.

Update: This is Glenda Farrell, who originated the role on Broadway.

Feb. 7, 2020, Mystery Photo

And here’s our mystery head nurse. Well, perhaps not such a mystery as all that.

Update: Aline MacMahon and Dorothy Peterson as Back of the Head Woman.

Feb. 7, 2020, Mystery Photo
Here’s our mystery leading man and leading lady.

Update: This is Eric Linden and Loretta Young.

Feb. 7, 2020, Mystery Photo

And a better shot of our mysterious leading lady.

Update: This is Loretta Young.

Brain Trust roll call: Mary Mallory (Thursday’s mystery guests), Tucson Barbara (mystery movie and all mystery guests), Chrisbo (mystery movie, Thursday’s mystery women and Thursday’s mystery gent No. 2), Michael Ryerson (Thursday’s mystery gents), Howard Mandelbaum (Thursday’s mystery guests), David Inman (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery gents, and yes they were a clue), Benito (Thursday’s mystery gent No. 1), Sylvia E. (Thursday’s mystery guests, and yes that’s part of the fun) and Thom and Megan (mystery movie and all mystery guests).

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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43 Responses to Movieland Mystery Photo (Updated + + + +)

  1. Chrisbo says:

    He sure looks like Bobs Watson to me, but on a Monday? I dunno.


  2. suzanne stone says:

    Finally a Watson kid–but which one?


  3. Howard Mandelbaum says:

    Bobs Watson in LIFE BEGINS (1932).


  4. Anne Papineau says:

    Bobs Watson?


  5. Jenny M says:

    Bobs Watson


  6. Mary Mallory says:

    Delmar Watson.


  7. Sheila says:

    Is that dear little Bobs Watson?


  8. Anne Papineau says:

    On Monday, is the movie “Wyoming”?


  9. Diane Ely says:

    Looks just like Bobs Watson, but he’s probably too well known for a Monday.


  10. Sylvia E. says:

    Was Anne’s guess good, because it is one of the Watson kids?

    I don’t think so, but thought I’d ask.


  11. tucsonbarbara says:

    (Just Guessing Here)

    “Men Without Names”

    Monday – David Holt
    Tuesday – Paul Fix


  12. Floyd Thursby says:

    Mr. Tuesday looks like a very young Paul Fix.


  13. Howard Mandelbaum says:

    Paul Fix.


  14. Well, Tuesday is a young Paul Fix which creates a problem for me as Monday was clearly Bobs Watson and according to IMDB these two only did one movie together (Life Begins, 1932) which would make Bobs two years old. This is clearly Bobs at perhaps six or seven but surely not two.


  15. Well, taking another look at Bobs I’m going to say maybe he is two in this shot. So Life Begins (1932) is my final answer. Geesh.


  16. Jenny M says:

    Paul Fix in Life Begins.


  17. Benito says:

    Paul Fix early days?


  18. Meredith Ponedel says:

    Bobs Watson?


  19. Meredith Ponedel says:

    I don’t see my comment – for Monday, is it Bobs Watson?


  20. B.J. Merholz says:

    I don’t remember Paul Fix ever being that young, but he might’a been. And I don’t remember Bobs Watson ever being that wimpy, but he might’a been. And I don’t remember me ever being so equivocal, but I might’a been.


  21. Sylvia E. says:

    Tuesday – Paul Fix


  22. Mary Mallory says:

    life begins. Paul Fix Tuesday, and Helena Phillips Evans and Ruthelma Stevens today.


  23. Howard Mandelbaum says:

    Helena Phillips Evans; Ruthelma Stevens.


  24. Helena Phillips Evans and I don’t know.


  25. Sylvia E. says:

    The movie is “Life Begins”
    I think Monday’s Watson is Bobs (but, it’s throwing me, because Bobs Watson would be pretty young for a 1932 movie – anyhow, I’ll guess it’s him since he’s listed in IMdB. Garry Watson would be closer to the right age, but he’s not listed in the cast.)
    Tuesday is Paul Fix
    Weds – Helena Phillips Evans is the prison matron. My guess for woman # 2 is Ruthelma Stevens (at least for now.)

    Nice to see where your previous entry on this theme “A Child is Born” came from.


  26. Mary Mallory says:

    “Auntie Em” Clara Blandick, Gloria Shea with BOTH Loretta Young, Gilbert Roland, and Frank McHugh.


  27. tucsonbarbara says:

    “Life Begins”

    Monday – Bobs Watson
    Tuesday – Paul Fix
    Wednesday – Helena Phillips Evans, Ruthelma Ellis
    Thursday – Clara Blandick, Dorothy Peterson, Gilbert Roland, Frank McHugh


  28. Chrisbo says:

    Aha! All has become clear. Clara Blandick, Preston Foster, Dorothy Peterson (and back of Loretta Young’s head) and Frank McHugh in Life Begins.


  29. Well, an impossibly young Gilbert Roland and the seemingly ever-present Frank McHugh. As for the ladies I got nothing.


  30. Howard Mandelbaum says:

    Clara Blandick; Dorothy Peterson, Loretta Young; Gilbert Roland; Frank McHugh.


  31. David Inman says:

    I had this pegged as “Life Begins” when I saw the hospital beds on Tuesday! But did I guess? Noooo! However, Gilbert Roland and Frank McHugh today are the clinchers.


  32. Benito says:

    Gilbert Roland, aka Gaucho, today


  33. Sylvia E. says:

    Thurs –
    a calm Clara Blandick (she of ‘Auntie Em’ fame)
    a distressed Dorothy Peterson looks to BOTHW, Loretta Young
    a distressed Gilbert Roland looks to his O.S. wife, Dorothy Tree (per IMDb)
    an excited Frank McHugh looks to O.S. leading man, Eric Linden

    I’m having a lot of fun comparing these ’32 actors to the actors in the same roles of the ’40 movie version of this story.


  34. Thom and Megan says:

    Our movie is Life Begins, with Bobs Watson for Monday, Paul Fix for Tuesday, Helena Phillips Evans and Ruthelma Stevens for Wednesday, and Clara Blandick, Dorothy Peterson, Gilbert Roland, and Frank McHugh for today.


  35. Mary Mallory says:

    Glenda Farrell, Aline McMahon, Eric Linden, and Loretta Young. And of course there’s a connection to the baby story a few weeks ago, not difficult to figure that out.


  36. tucsonbarbara says:

    Friday – Glenda Farrell, Aline MacMahon, Eric Linden, Loretta Young (twice)


  37. Howard Mandelbaum says:

    Glenda Farrell; Aline MacMahon; Eric Linden, Loretta Young.


  38. And the Friday round up appears to be Glenda Farrell, Aline MacMahon, Eric Linden and Loretta Young and Loretta Young.


  39. Sue Slutzky says:

    I’m a bit late to the party but here goes… “Life Begins” Mon: Bobs Watson, Tues: Paul Fix, Wed: Helena Phillips Evans and Vivienne Osborne, Thur: Clara Blandick, Dorothy Peterson, Gilbert Roland, and Frank McHugh, Fri: Glenda Farrell, Aline MacMahon, Eric Linden, Loretta Young.


  40. Sylvia E. says:

    Friday –
    Glenda Farrell
    Aline MacMahon (nurse) and BOTHW Ms. Peterson again (I think)
    Eric Linden and Loretta Young
    Loretta Young

    Looking forward to the Saturday breakdown.


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