Today is day 20 in #CleanMovieMonth. Here at PEPS, July is all about the clean movies from the Breen era (1934-1954). As our usual readers know, all our articles are about the Motion Picture Production Code, film decency, Joseph Breen, or pure entertainment in some way. However, we are vowing to watch only Breen era films during July. We are also writing about a different Code film every day so that we can gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of this wonderful, singular time.
Today is Natalie Wood’s birthday! Happy Birthday, Natalie! In honor of what would have been her 80th birthday, Samantha Ellis of Musings of a Classic Film Addict is hosting The Natalie Wood Blogathon. This is a wonderful tribute to one of the youngest actresses of the Golden era of Hollywood. I am contributing to this celebration with an article about one of the many films in Miss Wood’s filmography. Since this is #CleanMovieMonth, I had to choose one of Natalie Wood’s earlier films. She was an active child actress, so there were many films from which I could choose. For my contribution, I decided to write about a gripping familial drama which features Natalie Wood as the youngest daughter.
Our Very Own is a film made in 1950 which delves into the issues of sisterly jealous, young love, and true devotion. This movie is a moving Sam Goldwyn picture starring Ann Blyth, Farley Granger, and Joan Evans. It explores family life, the true meaning of love, and what really makes a person’s family. With great actors and a gripping story, this is a film not to be missed.
The Macaulay house in Southern California is abuzz with activity. A new television set is being installed under the careful supervision of the youngest Macaulay sister, the energetic nine-year-old Penny. She insists on constantly “helping” the two workmen, the curmudgeonly Frank and her sister’s boyfriend, Chuck. When the middle sister, sixteen-year-old Joan, comes home, she climbs a ladder to talk to Chuck as he installs the antennae on the roof. Although he is her older sister’s sweetheart, she is obviously attracted to him, and she has no qualms about letting him know it at every opportunity. Soon after, the eldest daughter, Gail, arrives. She is a lovely young woman who is rapidly approaching her eighteenth birthday and her high school graduation. She is obviously disturbed to see her sister talking thus to her beau, but she is always sweet and kind to her younger sister; however, it is clear that Joan is insanely jealous of her prettier older sister. Mr. and Mrs. Macaulay are extremely kind, wise, and caring parents. Their whole lives revolve around their three daughters. The mother, Lois Macaulay, is aware of the resentment which Joan has toward her sister. That evening, Joan wants to go to a party with Gail and Chuck. While her sister is gone, she puts on Gail’s new dress, insisting that it looks better on her. Then, she goes downstairs to put the dog out, still wearing the dress. When she sees her sister and her beau spooning on the porch, she noisily opens the door and pretends like she didn’t know they were there. Gail is very upset by her attitude, as well as the fact that she is wearing her dress. However, when she talks to her sister upstairs, she sweetly says that she can have the dress. The next day is Gail’s birthday. Mrs. Macaulay is busy getting ready for her party that evening while Gail and Chuck are at the beach. However, Joan is more interested in signing up for having a job this summer. She continually pesters her mother about needing her birth certificate to prove her age. Not thinking, Mrs. Macaulay tells her to get it out of their safe deposit box. As she and their maid, Violet, continue to set things up, she suddenly remembers something. She rushes upstairs, calling to Joan, who innocently comes downstairs with her certificate, talking about her eagerness to have a job. However, her mother is still concerned that she saw something else in that box. Little does she know that her worst fears are true. While looking for her birth certificate, Joan saw an envelope with the words “Gail’s Adoption Papers and Birth Certificate” written on it. She stared at it in shock before putting it at the bottom of the box to deceive her mother. However, she has learned the family’s deepest secret, and it is only a matter of time until the vindictive girl’s jealousy will lead her to hurtfully reveal it. At the party that night, Joan ignores her boyfriend, Bert. She focuses all her attention on Chuck, who is polite but just friendly to her. He has no interest in her, since he is very much in love with Gail. Wearing Gail’s dress, Joan insists on sitting with, talking to, and dancing with Chuck. When she takes him out onto the porch because his cufflink “accidently” got stuck to her dress, her mother witnesses her flirtatious behavior. She takes her away from him and scolds her harshly for her behavior. After the party, Gail is very upset with her younger sister. She enjoyed her birthday, but her sister was being so selfish and flirtatious. She decides that she has had enough of Joan’s behavior. Although her mother has already spoken to the rebellious girl, Gail corners her in the den and remonstrates her for her behavior. She says that she has a right to do so because she’s her sister. In the heat of anger, Joan bursts out that she’s not her sister; she’s not even part of the family. Their parents rush in and scold Joan harshly, but the damage has already been done. Gail insists on knowing the truth. Mr. and Mr. Macaulay tell her that they thought they couldn’t have children, so they chose her out of hundreds of babies as the one they wanted to adopt. A year later, they were able to have their own child, Joan. Eight years later, they had Penny. They had originally planned to tell Gail about her real parentage, but by then they thought of her as “our very own.” Thus, they decided to always let her believe that she was their child. She seems to be handling it quite well. The incident has the positive effect of reforming Joan. She is so stricken with remorse over her cruel actions that she immediately mends her ways. The next morning, Gail asks her mother about her biological parents. She tells her that her father died in a car accident before she was born, but her mother is alive. When Gail asks if she can see her mother, the kind woman sweetly agrees. She assures Gail that she doesn’t mind, but it is obvious that she is devastated. They look up Gert Lynch, a middle-aged woman who lives in a bad part of Long Beach. After visiting her mother’s house, which is full of Mr. Lynch’s rowdy, low-class friends, Gail is more disturbed than ever before. She doesn’t know anything now, and she feels betrayed by and angry with the people she has loved all her life. In her anguish, she begins to turn her back on all she holds dear. Can Gail find happiness again, despite knowing the truth about her parentage? Will this new knowledge come between her and Chuck? Will it change Gail from a sweet, loving girl into a bitter person? Will she ever decide who her real family is? Watch this heart-wrenching movie to find out!
Gail Macaulay is played by Ann Blyth. Chuck is played by Farley Granger. Joan Macaulay is played by Joan Evans. Fred Macaulay is played by Donald Cook. Lois Macaulay is played by Jane Wyatt. Penny Macaulay is played by Natalie Wood. Gert Lynch is played by Ann Dvorak. Bert is played by Martin Milner. Frank is played by Gus Schilling. Violet is played by Jessica Grayson.
Producer Sam Goldwyn wanted this to be an Andy Hardy-type family film. Since they are called family films, you might think that they Andy Hardy series was geared so much toward young people that it didn’t cover serious topics. That, however, is not true. There were some very dramatic, serious elements in the various films in the popular MGM series. I discussed this series in general in my #CleanMovieMonth article about its seventh installment, Andy Hardy Gets Springs Fever from 1939. Like the Hardy series, Our Very Own shows a really wholesome, good family. The parents are loving, and their children are decent. They might have arguments and problems, but they have a strong moral foundation which can never be eroded. Whether in 1937 or 1950, the American family is the same. The Macaulays, like the Hardys, believe in values and ethics which don’t change.
Two of the primary older actors were famous pre-Code actors in their youth. Mr. Macaulay is Donald Cook, whom pre-Code fans might recognize as Mike in The Public Enemy from 1931 and Stevens in Baby Face from 1933. He was a common Warner Bros. actor in their pre-Code gangster and crime films. By this point, he was approaching fifty. I find that, at this point in his life, he looks like another Warner Bros. tough guy from the 1930s, Humphrey Bogart. The other pre-Code player is Ann Dvorak, who plays Gail’s real mother. Miss Dvorak was most famous in her early days for playing Cesca Camonte in Scarface, Howard Hughes’s gangster film from 1932. Ironically, at age 18, Gail would have been born in 1931, when Scarface was filmed. As such, Gail could be considered the child of the wild pre-Code era. She was later turned over to respectable Code-era parents who are the decent Hardy type. Her life becomes troubled when she wants to discover the troubled life of her mother which began her life. Perhaps it is something better left unknown and forgotten. However, perhaps one must know about troubled beginnings to appreciate good present realities.
Some people say that the Code had lost strength by the 1950s. Some say that its best days were in the 1930s, when Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration, was younger. I challenge that, however. This film, released in July of 1950, is a perfect Code film. It is just as powerfully Code-compliant as any film made in the 1930s or 40s. There are some aesthetic and stylistic changes which attended the 1950s, but they didn’t have anything to do with the Code. This movie is touching, moving, thought-provoking, heart-warming, and uplifting. Let’s discuss why.
As I have said in previous articles, perfect Code films have to have more than an absence of questionable material. They have to have something extra. They must be patriotic, inspiring, redeeming, uplifting, or thought-provoking. Another quality of a perfect Code film is often proper handling of a difficult, controversial, or potentially troublesome topic. Our Very Own has all of these. It praises family life. It shows a wonderful example of a good American family. It glorifies the American way of life. It makes one proud to be an American. It makes one reconsider the things which we take for granted, such as citizenship in our glorious country. It makes one ponder the value of family and the true meaning of love. It explores kindness and honesty. It explores the difficulty of being an adopted child. It shows sweet, innocent young love. It features a strong young beau who helps the girl he loves to see things more clearly. However, it also handles a hot topic very well.
When Gail first inquires about her real parents, Mrs. Macaulay says that her father died in a car crash before he was born. No more is said about her father. Later, when Mrs. Macaulay is talking to Mrs. Lynch, the latter says that her husband doesn’t know about Gail. On multiple occasions throughout the conversation, she says, “it was just one of those things.” It is logical to assume that, as a young woman, she had this baby out of wedlock. Since the father died, she decided to give the child up for adoption and forget about that sordid chapter of her life. However, that fact is not clearly stated. The first time I watched this movie, before I knew about the Code, I wondered why so little was said about Gail’s father and the situation in her mother’s youth. Now that I have learned about the Code, I understand the brevity. The situation is easily understood. More mature viewers will probably come to the conclusion that Mrs. Lynch was not married. However, one is free to believe that the unfortunate father who died in the car crash was in fact her husband. The subtlety and delicacy is brilliant. In what other era would you have such carefulness? The Code created such harmless handlings, ensuring that wonderful films like this are suitable for the whole family.
For the Blogathon
Natalie Wood is adorable as Penny. She is a lovable, life-loving young girl who is full of enthusiasm for everything. Her best scene is the opening scene. She insists on helping the workmen, particularly Frank. The impatient man grows more befuddled every minute, since the perky lass refuses to leave him alone. She asks a new question every ten seconds, not even waiting for answers. She tries to help by constantly offering suggestions and even picking up a screwdriver! She is totally unaware of the fact that she is driving him crazy. However, every time a new member of the family enters the house, Penny warns him not to criticize Frank, since it distracts him. She tells everyone not to watch him, since it makes him nervous. He just wants her to be there! She is so adorable at age eleven. She had such a pretty face and real talent. I always enjoy seeing her as a child actress. She had great acting skills and excellent timing which made her a valuable asset to any film in which she appeared.
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