There isn’t much to say about the film, as it brings nothing new and watching it today, 83 years later, makes for a boring, challenging experience. It’s slow, predictable, with the biggest disappointments placed in the screenplay.
Disliking a film always influences a bit my perspective on a performance, even though sometimes I like to believe the contrary. This happens because most of a film’s problems have to do with the screenplay. When I put it like this, it makes sense: the screenplay is bad, which often means little character development, which means less for the actor to do. Based on this idea, I could hardly find a better example that the case of this performance: poor Louise Dresser gets nothing to do.
Louise plays Mrs. Pleznik, the mother in a family of emigrants, Europeans who come to America searching for a better life. As far as the screenplay goes, we know little to nothing about her, and the performance is based on her reactions to what other characters throw at her. Her purpose in the film is to bring some emotion – there’s hardly any character arc and the focus is never on her.
What she does get to do is to express a series of simple emotions: she’s happy about their new home, she’s worried about their son’s army wishes, she’s sad when he leaves for the army, she’s helpless when the husband’s arrested, she’s sad when the son dies, she’s happy when the husband’s back. Is there anything more about Mrs. Preznik? Not from what the screenplay allows us to see.
But this doesn’t mean she gives a bad performance. She’s definitely the heart of the film and creates the only character to feel sorry for: her face is always sad and she nails the drama and the suffering this woman goes through. Two scenes are in particular well acted, or, better said, well expressed:
First, the disappointment of finding out her son is leaving to war; the fear and resignation she expresses, both of which obviously predict the tragedy to come. Second, there’s the courtroom scene – Louise accurately expresses the helplessness in front of injustice, and really gets a minute or two to show the magnitude of the drama this woman’s going through.
With a screenplay working almost against her, she gets almost nothing to do. The film is just a series of actions, relying fully on the actors to give a bit of an insight on the characters. It would be cruel to give 1 star, I’ve never done that, and it’s not a performance I hate. At least she tries to create something, so it’s a from me.