Roughly a decade before the Civil War, Reverend Ethan Wilkins (Walter Huston) accepts a position ministering to an isolated, poverty-stricken town in Ohio called Pine Hill. Though the townspeople had promised to pay Ethan an annual salary of $400, he is informed upon his arrival that they cannot afford to pay him that much, and they propose to pay him $250 a year, in addition to providing housing and donations of food and used clothes. Ethan, who feels that God has called him to the poor town, agrees to their terms, despite the misgivings of his wife Mary (Beulah Bondi) and their young son, Jason (Gene Reynolds).
Jason loathes wearing the hand-me-down clothes and greatly resents the family’s poverty. His complaints and ingratitude disturb his father, who constantly urges Jason to be more respectful. Over his father’s objections, Jason becomes friendly with the local doctor, Charles Shingle (Charles Coburn), a dissolute drunkard and gambler. When Dr. Shingle gives Jason some old magazines to read, Ethan forces Jason to return them. Shingle later gives Jason a book on medicine, which Jason pores over constantly. When he finds that he can use the medical techniques he has learned to help stitch up the family’s horse, Jason becomes determined to leave the dusty town someday to study medicine.
Ten years pass, and a now grown Jason (James Stewart) accompanies his father into the mountains to minister to the poor folks there. Though Ethan cautions Jason to be kind and gracious to the backwoods people, Jason rebels furiously. When Ethan attempts to whip Jason for his insolence, Jason fights back, and in the scuffle, Ethan ends up beating Jason to the ground.
Jason leaves town the next day, jumping a steamboat to Baltimore to study medicine. He makes a deal with an old colleague of Shingle’s to work as a janitor in exchange for tuition. In his sporadic letters back home, he constantly asks them to send him more money, and his parents begin to sell their family heirlooms in order to provide for their son. But Jason, who is completely wrapped up in his studies and in his own welfare, thinks little of his parents’ sacrifices.
When he receives word that his father is dying, Jason hastily returns home, only to arrive too late to say a proper goodbye to Ethan. Jason expresses regret that he could not tell his father how much he loved and appreciated him; still, Jason immediately leaves for Baltimore after the funeral, and his correspondence back home grows even more sporadic. As war breaks out, he joins up with the Union Army as a surgeon, and for the next two years, he does not send a letter to Mary, who comes to believe that her son is dead. But an encounter with President Abraham Lincoln (John Carradine) soon promises to set the selfish young man back on the right path to gratitude and respect.
Though the use of Lincoln as a kind of deus ex machina device to bring about a suitably happy ending is admittedly unbelievable, Of Human Hearts (1938), directed by Clarence Brown, is nonetheless a solidly-constructed drama, marked by strong performances from a truly excellent cast. Indeed, the credits for this film read like “who’s who” of some of the best character actors from the 1930s and beyond: Guy Kibbee, Gene Lockhart, Sterling Holloway, Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Leona Roberts (Mrs. Meade in Gone With the Wind), and Charles Coburn (who steals the film with his first appearance onscreen, as he stumbles drunkenly into a prayer meeting). Hearts also features two adept child actors, Reynolds (who is best remembered for his work behind the camera, as a writer, director, and the co-creator and producer of M*A*S*H) and Leatrice Joy Gilbert (daughter of famed silent film actors John Gilbert and Leatrice Joy). And though she’s not given much to do as Jason’s grown-up childhood sweetheart, Annie, Ann Rutherford does well with her brief time onscreen, even garnering a laugh with a bit of unexpected slapstick after Jason tries to sneak a peek of her injured knee.
But the movie is really carried by the performances of its three leads: Stewart, Huston, and a particularly effective Bondi (who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for the role). Though Stewart doesn’t appear until more than thirty minutes into the film, he delivers a moving portrait of a young man drawn between two halves of himself–his love for his family, and his undying ambition. His warm relationship with Bondi in this film sets the stage for their future pairings as mother and son in three other movies: Vivacious Lady (also 1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). And as for his part, Huston gives a suitably restrained performance as Ethan, the stern disciplinarian who secretly roots for his son’s success. In their relatively few scenes together, Stewart and Huston build a convincing father-son dynamic that serves to set the emotional stakes for the movie, a dynamic that is underscored by the truly moving deathbed scene, as Stewart’s character realizes he’s come home too late to truly make amends.
The film is also notable for a few great war scenes late in the film, shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Clyde De Vinna. The TCMDb entry on the film states that the battle reportedly cost $50,000 to film, an astronomical sum considering the scant time in which those scenes actually appear. Still, there’s no denying that these dramatic fighting scenes add a realistic sense of urgency to Jason’s harried ministrations in the battlefield hospital tents.
Last fall, Warner Archive released Of Human Hearts as part of its MOD (manufactured on demand) service. The newly-remastered print looks great, with only slight graininess scattered throughout. However, as with many films reproduced through the MOD service, this edition includes no extras.
Though Hearts is one of Stewart’s lesser-known films from his late-1930s heyday, it’s one that’s worth rediscovering. With light touches of comedy mixed in with the heavier, sometimes melodramatic implications of the storyline, Of Human Hearts remains an entertaining entry in Stewart’s storied filmography, providing some of the first evidence of the dramatic acting chops that he would put to such excellent use in later years.
True Classics thanks Warner Archive for providing a copy of this film for the purposes of this review.