Few films so completely tug at the heart as Roy Rowland’s Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), an intimate portrait of bucolic tribulation and triumph. Based on George Victor Martin’s novel about a small sect of Norwegian farmers in Wisconsin, the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo manages to walk a taut tightrope between real human drama and overt sentimentality. For the most part, Trumbo succeeds in keeping the mood genuine, the story true to life. Our Vines Have Tender Grapes is just the sort of character driven family film that Hollywood in general churned out en masse during WWII and just the type that MGM – the studio with more stars than there are in heaven – excelled at in particular. In its heyday Louis B. Mayer’s dream factory was capable of mining such riches repeatedly with visual flair and great commercial success.
After a decade’s worth of playing tough guys over at Warner Brothers, Edward G. Robinson had steadily accrued parts that illustrated his diversity. His Martinius Jacobson is perhaps the most understated performance Robinson ever gave – a tour de force without the more obvious bravado, but equally as thrilling to behold on the screen.
Yet, it must be stated that Our Vines Have Tender Grapes does not belong to Robinson, or Agnes Moorehead or even pint sized Jackie ‘Butch’ Jenkins, who had already carved out a career playing indelible, somewhat dimwitted boys who have a morbid fascination with death and insects. No, the picture belongs to Margaret O’Brien as Martinius’ introspective daughter, Selma.
Our Vines Have Tender Grapes comes at the tail end of O’Brien’s impressive career as one of MGM’s most popular child stars of the 1940s. The actress’s rare gift had always been her ability to emote from a wellspring of tears, but more importantly, to reach into the depths of human understanding that was well beyond her years. Our Vines Have Tender Grapes is perhaps O’Brien’s finest hour and she achieves a sort of sage wisdom through her innocence that is spellbindingly brilliant as it is beautifully realistic to behold, particularly during the scene of the Christmas concert. O’Brien’s recital of ‘the Christmas story’ is a finely wrought, intelligently detailed, yet subtly nuanced account, told with such simplicity and humility that it quite easily brings tears to one’s eyes.
Dalton Trumbo’s script opens with 7 year old Selma Jacobson (O’Brien) and her 5 year old cousin, Arnold (Jackie Jenkins) strolling down a lonely country road. The children are engaged in a rather frank discussion of the war and what it means to be a soldier. To illustrate her bravery for Arnold, Selma seizes a rather large rock and accidentally manages to kill a red squirrel nearby.
Unable to accept the result of her actions, Selma begins to cry, drawing out the curiosities of troubled neighbourhood teen, Ingeborg Jensen (Dorothy Morris). The children – particularly Arnold - are not welcoming of Ingeborg’s kindly way and moments later her stern father Kurt (Charles B. Middleton) orders his daughter back to his farm.
The town’s newspaper editor, Nels Halverson (James Craig) drives up, offering Selma and Arnold a ride home. But their trip is interrupted when Nels stops to pick up Viola Johnson (Frances Gifford) on the side of the road. Viola is the new school teacher. Although congenial and pleasant enough, she makes no bones to Nels about the fact that she finds their countrified backwater dull and even stifling. She has only come to town for the year, as part of her necessary teacher’s training.
Nels is instantly smitten with Viola whom he drives over to the Jensen’s farm. Although Viola manages to convince the socially backward Ingeborg that she might find a reason to attend school, Kurt dismisses Viola’s kindness outright and orders her off his property immediately for putting such fool ideas into his daughter’s head.
Returning home tearstained and still upset, Selma confesses killing the squirrel to her father, Martinius (Edward G. Robinson). He comforts her with a guiding hand and understanding heart, making her a gift of his new born pure bred calf, Elizabeth. At first, Selma’s mother, Bruna (Agnes Moorehead) disapproves. The farm belongs to them all. However, as Martinius has already made Selma this promise, Bruna agrees that it would be unfair to renege on it now. Besides, looking after Elizabeth will give Selma some real responsibility around the farm.
By all accounts the Jacobsons are a close knit and very loving family. Martinius dotes on his daughter while dreaming of the day he will be able to afford a new state of the art barn for their farm. This later desire is at the crux of a quiet consternation for Bruna, who believes that the crushing debt of such a dream would be destructive to the family unit. Nevertheless, she keeps these thoughts mostly to herself.
Martinius and Selma drive over to Bjorn Bjornson’s (Morris Carnovsky) nearby farm. The aged farmer has already thrown himself into considerable debt, gambling his own family’s securities to build a grand barn on his property that houses many heads of cattle including his prize cow, ‘The Queen’ – a blue ribbon winner.
Martinius gives Selma a pair of roller skates for her birthday. But Arnold demands to try them on. Although Selma has willingly agreed to share her gift with him after practising on the skates herself, when called a slop-eating pig by her impatient cousin she reneges on that promise. Arnold tattles on Selma, first to Bruna, then Martinius. But he lies to Martinius about having insulted Selma, forcing Martinius to take back his daughter’s present and give it to Arnold instead – as punishment for Selma’s selfishness. He further sends Selma to bed without supper and even denies her their usual bedtime kiss. This breaks both father and daughter’s hearts.
Thus, when Bruna informs her husband that a circus will be passing through town at four a.m., Martinius wakes Selma and takes her to watch as the truckloads of animals pass by. Selma becomes fascinated by the elephant and Martinius strikes a bargain with its trainer (John Berkes), paying him four dollars to allow Selma a few moments with the gigantic beast. The trainer even allows Selma to ride the elephant’s trunk. On their trip back to the farm Selma tells Martinius that this has been the greatest summer of her whole life.
The school year begins and Selma becomes a pupil in Viola’s class. Some of the other girls carry on about an innocuous comment Selma has made regarding Ingeborg recently becoming pregnant. The child is illegitimate and, in the novel, is actually the result of Ingeborg’s father raping her. Of course, this being the era of a stringently moral Production Code in Hollywood, such topics were never discussed or even casually mentioned.
While other films from this vintage often found it difficult to suggest topics that were forbade by the code, the inference herein is enough to make the point that something quite disturbing has occurred on the Jensen farm. When Ingeborg suddenly dies as a result of complications during the birth, Viola and Nels subsequent discussion about the loss of innocence, as they observe Ingeborg’s funeral procession on route to the cemetery from a distance, effectively sums up what we, as the audience, have suspected all along.
Nels proposes to Viola. But she is more steadfast and determined than ever to return to Milwaukee after the school term has ended. Nels informs Viola that he has recently been cleared of a reoccurring back injury and has enlisted in the war. As the holidays approach, Viola assigns Selma the weighty task of delivering ‘the Christmas story’ during Sunday mass. This, she does most effectively and afterward, a proud Martinius and Bruna welcome dear friends back to their farm for drinks where Martinius announces that he has finally decided to throw caution to the wind and erect his own barn in the Spring.
In springtime the farm lands severely flood. Selma and Arnold borrow the tin bathtub from the barn, using it as a rowboat to go exploring. But they are caught in a terrible torrent and whisked away downstream. When Martinius discovers what has happened he unites the community at the footbridge, including Nels who is instrumental in rescuing the children from certain drowning.
Later that evening a violent thunderstorm conquers the county, a bolt of lightning striking Bjorn Bjornson’s beloved barn and igniting the hay in its loft. Martinius, Bruna and Selma rush to his aid but it is too late to save the structure from the blaze or rescue any of Bjorn’s prized cattle remaining terrified and immoveable inside. A distraught Bjorn shoots his prized Queen in her stable and Martinius kills the rest of the cattle with a piston before narrowly escaping the inferno. Selma, who internalizes the tragedy as what might have become of her beloved Elizabeth, passes out from fear.
After the child is put to bed, Martinius tells Bruna he has decided not to build a new barn on their property. Rather, he has become contented to make subtle improvements to the farmhouse that Bruno had been quietly encouraging for some time. At church the following Sunday Nels presses the parishioners to give from their heart to help Bjorn rebuild his farm. But the congregation are rather stingy with their money contributions. In a quiet moment of introspection Selma inquires, since she has no money to give, might she donate something else to help in the cause, then freely offers up Elizabeth as the first pure bred calf to help Bjorn rebuild his livestock.
Her selfless act inspires the rest of the community, who begin shouting out their donations of livestock and hay and feed that will allow Bjorn and his family to survive their crippling ordeal. Afterward, as the parishioners head home, Viola informs Nels that she has decided to stay behind and marry him. Selma takes Martinius by the hand, commenting that it’s Spring and everything, including herself, has begun to grow anew. Martinius suggests that perhaps even he has begun to grow. The film ends with father and daughter strolling up a country road full of cherry blossoms, en route back to their farm.
I have to say that I was unabashedly enchanted by this affecting, quiet little film. Our Vines Have Tender Grapes weaves its bucolic spell in a way that never seems rehearsed or wanting for the more grandiose trappings of the traditional Hollywood narrative. The performances throughout are uniformly solid and on occasion rise to a level I didn’t anticipate. The gentle interplay between Edward G. Robinson and Margaret O’Brien is both palpable and believable.
The entire film was shot at MGM with scenic hand-painted cycloramas and matte process plates standing in for the vast open spaces of Wisconsin. Cinema realists will poo-poo this fakery but I’ve always found something quaintly familiar, even cozy and coddling about the artificiality of studio bound sets. They are a world unto themselves, augmenting the sustained perfection of life as we might hope to find it, not as it actually is. To misquote Oscar Hammerstein, “What’s wrong with sweetness and light? They’ve been around for an awfully long time.”
Our Vines Have Tender Grapes is a Warner Archive MOD-DVD release. And while I’m generally not in favour of burn-on-demand discs – for their lower bit rates and longevity reasons mostly – I do have to say that Warner has obviously done some preservation and restoration work on this title to make it available. Even though it’s not advertised as a ‘remastered edition’ the image is remarkably clean and free of age related artefacts.
The gray scale exhibits a lush tonality with very clean whites and deep, rich blacks. There is no hint of edge enhancement or pixelization for a visual presentation that is smooth, while revealing fine details throughout. Truly, there’s nothing to complain about here. The audio is mono and equally free of age related impediments. The only extra is a theatrical trailer that has not worn nearly as well. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)