Friday, January 11, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: LIFE BEGINS (1932)

Over a beatific close up of Loretta Young, the words "Life Begins" appear where we expect to see "The End." There's irony, one part grim and one part devout, to the way co-directors James Flood and Elliott Nugent end this Warner Bros. picture. Irony reaches deep with this one: Life Begins is a maternity-ward (or "laying-in hospital) ensemble piece adapted from a play written by Mary McDougal Axelson. Forty-one years later, Axelson would be beaten to death in her hospital bed by her own daughter. I don't think we'll top that for irony all year.

The irony hits particularly hard because Life Begins is all about mother love and the sacrifices mothers are willing to make for their newborn or unborn children. While it's clearly an ensemble piece once you see it, Loretta Young gets top billing in what proves to be one of the most thankless starring roles in her career. She plays a convicted murderess (we're to understand that she was justified but lacked a proper legal team) sent to the laying-in hospital to give birth before resuming her 20-year sentence. Young doesn't show up until the film is about a third over. By that time Frank McHugh has just about wrapped up his character turn as a nervous expectant dad. His wife has a successful birth after their last try ended with a stillborn baby. McHugh credits this to his lucky rabbit's foot, which he hands off to Young's husband (Eric Linden). Combine that detail with the information that the wing of the hospital to which Young's assigned is for those cases expected to be difficult and dangerous for the mothers, and you can begin to see where the film is headed. Worse for Young from a professional standpoint, by the time her character has been installed in the ward, Glenda Farrell has already marked her territory. Farrell is an alcoholic showgirl preparing to deliver twins, whom she hopes to sell immediately, regardless of state law, having no interest whatsoever in motherhood. To compete with Farrell in this picture is like competing for oxygen with fire. The scenery goes up in flames as she parades through the ward drunkenly improvising verses to the tune of "Frankie and Johnny" satirizing her fellow mothers before she collapses with labor pains.

The ward collects a range of maternal types, from an immigrant mother who lost her baby but nurses Farrell's to (the horror!) a single mother -- her introduction as a Miss rather than a Mrs. draws gasps from some patients. Also wandering in occasionally is a crazy woman from one of the upper floors who claims to have been pregnant for years -- she blames the doctors' lack of faith for her failing to deliver the child -- and later steals a newborn from the display window where the brats were shown off in those days. Talking her down and otherwise keeping the other mothers in line is Aline MacMahon's gently no-nonsense head nurse. Underplaying with authority, MacMahon is the one actress who withstands Farrell's rampage to make a really memorable impression.

The theme of the picture and the source play has to do with a maternal instinct that overcomes all other character traits. The single mother who vowed not to get emotional over her baby violates her vow pretty quickly. Farrell, learning that potential foster parents don't want both twins and that one of the pair is sickly, takes the side of the underdog and decides to keep her babies. Her mother love appears to cure the sick twin on the spot. Young is faced with a medical if not an ethical crisis. She's having a difficult labor, as foreshadowed; her options are to endure a natural labor that will kill the baby or undergo a C-section that could kill her. Her husband resists what he takes as the doctors' insistence on the Caesarian, resenting the inference that jailbound Young might be better off dead. He demands that his wife be saved at all costs, but Loretta makes a different call....

 Life Begins was an adults-only attraction in some theaters, which tells you what Pre-Code cinema was up against in its time. It's hard to imagine anything about it being deemed inappropriate to children now, though some younger viewers may find Farrell a little frightening. 1932 was a more reticent time, and the times would get still more reticent soon enough. The overall sensibility here is less Pre-Code (despite Pre-C avatar Farrell) than Pathos of Renunciation from the previous generation. That actually works in the film's favor somewhat, since it probably was more daring, even in Pre-Code times, to have an unhappy ending, however transcendent the movie tries to make it, than to discuss the complications of childbirth. Combining those two elements makes Life Begins definitely worth seeing for Pre-Code fans, and pop-culture historians can certainly have a field day with it. Despite what I say jokingly about Farrell, she makes this fun to watch for general-interest film fans, too.

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