I have such a powerful memory watching this film on a hospital TV screen when my girlfriend was in intensive care following an accident. It was only then I realised the power of soap – tragedy hits people, but they go on, finding happiness when and where they can. This is a rich film of epic sweep and adult themes, one of the best depictions of the joys and pains of small town living. I’ve never forgotten the bit where Robert Cummings asks Claude Rains about doctor Charles Coburn, who is looking after Cummings’ grandmother; Cummings knows that Coburn is a sadist and asks Rains for his opinion – Rains goes quiet for a moment then says in his grandmother’s case Coburn will do a good job. That’s what you do in small towns – get along with people as best you can, even when you know their secrets.
It gets off to a great start with adventures among the kids – the heartbreaking moment where no one turns up to the girl’s party, the early signs of Coburn’s sadism. The scenes involving Maria Ouspensaka are schmaltzy but you kind of need that considering the hard edge of stuff that follows. Then when the kids grow up it raises a notch; you expect Anne Sheridan to be good, and she’s excellent, but Cummings and Ronald Reagan really step up to the plate too.
There are superb supporting performances by Claude Rains (a monster with a heart), Charles Coburn (a plain monster – terrifying), Judith Anderson (mother ignorant of her husband's evilness), Betty Field (crazy girl#1) and Nancy Coleman (crazy girl#2). There’s a touching romance between Field and Cummings, and Reagan and Sheridan – both cases it’s heavily implied they have pre-martial sex. You can easily read a homo-erotic relationship in between Reagan and Cummings, and an incestual one between Rains and his daughter – okay, yes, that’s because that was in the original book, but there are implications of it here. (This film stands as a rebuke to all those who think you can handle heavy stuff in a G rating.)
Many wonderful moments: the kids party; Rains having a quiet smoke the night he goes on to kill his daughter and himself; Sheridan asking her portly brother if Reagan can stay; Reagan discovering about his legs; Cummings coming home. The last twenty minutes do feel a little tacked on, particularly the romance with the new girl – I think this was unavoidable really if they wanted to give Cummings a romantic ending. But its generally superb work from everyone – what a marvellous adaptation from Casey Robinson, direction from Sam Wood and James Wong Howe’s photography.