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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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.
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).
For “Aha Thursday,” we have some guests with varying levels of mysteriousness. Like this mystery woman.
Update: This is Clara Blandick.
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.
And then we have this not terribly mysterious fellow.
Update: This is Gilbert Roland.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s our mystery leading man and leading lady.
Update: This is Eric Linden and Loretta Young.
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).