Looking Backward: Ah, Wilderness (1935)

7 Jul

ah-wildernessI saw a very well done production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night here in Louisville last fall, and it seems to have lingered to color my viewing of Ah, Wilderness. The thought of Spring Byington sneaking off to shoot up between scenes is funnier to me than the actual comedy presented. And on further consideration, I think Lionel Barrymore would’ve made a solid Tyrone. Though I’m also fascinated by the comedy-drunkenness of Uncle Sid when considered in that light, even when it gets dealt with. (That aspect of the story plays eventually as a public service announcement.)

“Gee, you’re a sight for sore eyes – and you don’t know how sore your eyes can get looking at Waterbury.” I’ve been through Waterbury. Slowly. It’s pretty, in its way, but I have yet to figure out its traffic. There’s always a tie-up. Is that because people are always fleeing or because there are so many coming in? No man can say. But it’s become a household joke at this point. A “Waterbury” is as good a word for “a seemingly reasonless delay” as any seven-syllable mouthful the Germans ever gave us.

Movies like this always make me do Period Film Head Math: “So in 1935, the setting of this movie was roughly equivalent to a movie made now and set in 1984.” I’m always intrigued by what we have nostalgia for, especially in cases like O’Neill’s where youth (especially around the family manse) was by all reports reasonably awful.

The light wackiness with which the protagonist’s youthful-but-timely politics are handled was also telling. I say this as someone who found himself just last night “indoctrinating” his eight-year-old niece in an expurgated and condensed version of the history of the Labor Movement mostly so she would get more of the jokes in Modern Times. Perhaps that’s a special case.

But in all it’s a sweet little slice of idealized turn-of-the-century New England and an excuse for me to watch Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore do what they do, which plenty for me.

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