This ‘honour thy mother’ story – of which a silent version, Over the Hill to the Poorhouse (1920), was also made – presages both Stahl’s Imitation of Life and McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow. Mae Marsh plays a saintly mother of four children, living with a jobless husband whose bootlegging activities bring tragedy to the family. The characters’ motivations and actions resemble biblical stories; there is a Cain and Abel dynamic at work, while the role of the prophet of misery, Job, is given to the mother.
Unlike, say, Mamoulian and Lubitsch, King is seldom mentioned in discussions of those directors who freed the early American talking pictures from the chains of sound-recording, reclaiming the mobile camera. He was never constrained by the technology at all. Rather, in an act of experimentation, he made films with continual camera movements, achieving the most astounding results in Over the Hill, whose opening shots rank as some of King’s most mythic images of country life. There are many memorable scenes in which camera movement and sound brilliantly complement each other. The sounds of the mother’s sewing machine transition to the raucous sound of the prison workshop, where the image follows this sonic suggestion and superimposes the shots of the house and the prison, marking the breakdown of the guilt-ridden father. The carol Silent Night (heard over a shot of a church window) is mixed with the sound of sleigh-bells while the camera economically pans from the church to the frozen window of the family house, using a dissolve to enter the house through the window.
In this Depression-era glorification of American values (the importance of family, community, being down to earth), it is paradoxically America itself that plagues those values with vanity, loss of identity and division. The characters live in an illusory world, which King acknowledges but never tears apart. After all, it’s that lie that makes Americana.
Cast and Credits
Sog.: dalle poesie Over the Hill to the Poorhouse e Over the Hill from the Poorhouse (1873) di Will Carleton. Scen.: Tom Barry, Jules Furthman. F.: John F. Seitz. M.: Frank E. Hull. Scgf.: Robert M. Haas. Mus.: George Lipschultz. Int.: Mae Marsh (Ma Shelby), James Dunn (Johnny Shelby), Sally Eilers (Isabel Potter), Edward Crandall (Thomas Shelby), Claire Maynard (Phyllis Shelby), Olin Howland (Isaac), Joan Peers (Susan). Prod.: Fox Film Corporation. DCP. D.: 93’. Bn.
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