Sunday, March 15, 2015

Paddy O'Day - 1935

Paddy O’Day (1935) is about an illegal immigrant we don’t have the heart to send back. 

Maybe it’s because she sings and has a puppy.  Maybe because mainstream America was a generation or two closer to the immigrant experience, where Ellis Island represented both the dreams, and the deepest fears of the immigrant, and so our understanding and compassion was deeper.  We remembered, or our momma and papa remembered, that hope rode one shoulder, a sense of doom the other.  We may muse with chagrin  and raised eyebrows that such a lighthearted and fanciful movie flies in the face of one of the most contentious political issues of current times.

Jane, a little Irish girl who is slated to be sent back to Ireland, gives us only a few moments of the doom of being sent back; she quickly takes matters into her own hands by sneaking into the U.S. illegally by hiding in a milk can. 

Hiding in things to enter illegally has been done many times since, rarely so successfully, and often tragically.

Once having arrived, she is hidden by new friends, who are complicit in the crime.  That’s been done, too.  Who’s talking about the Mexican border?  I’m talking about all the illegal Irish in Boston right now (something like 10,000 of them).

Yeah.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Jane Withers was a multi-talented youngster, who was nine years old when this movie was made, and already a veteran of a dozen films.  We may most recall her as the brat tormenting Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes (1934), but she had no less an important career over at 20th Century Fox as another feisty Depression kid.  There was not as much of a fairy tale element to Jane’s movies in comparison to Shirley’s films, and though her fame generated its own line of merchandising, as did Shirley’s, Jane never reached quite the heights of stardom that the moppet with the golden curls did.

Shirley’s talent was prodigious, and she was a hard act to follow.  But Jane Withers, I believe, was even more talented.  She had a better singing voice, was just as fine a dancer, could mimic and do accents where Shirley did not, but most especially, despite bursts of mugging, had a larger acting range and a quality of being “in the moment.” 

Shirley, possibly from her early training barely out of diapers was taught to react and respond much in the same way one might train a dog, and had an acting style as she grew older that was somewhat mechanical.  Perhaps because Shirley was so adorable and lauded to be a “natural” that no drama classes, or experience performing either on radio or stage was thought necessary to train her out of the habits she acquired as a child.  All she knew was the technical style of acting before the camera.  Shirley left acting to raise her family, and had a successful career in diplomatic service, perhaps partly because when she was too old to pretend she was the little orphan girl, her work became too studied and stiff.  It didn’t look like her heart was in it.

Jane Withers was nothing but heart.

We meet the little Irish lass, Paddy O’Day in steerage on a ship to the U.S.  She sings “With a Twinkle in Your Eye,” complete with accent and with reprises, you’ll be singing it before the movie’s over.  The wretched refuse of many teeming shores are dressed in native costume and singing native songs, among them Rita Cansino, who plays a Russian girl traveling with her mother and father, of course called Momushka and Popushka.  We see from the beginning this is more parody than anything.

Rita performs a spirited Russian dance.  She would make a handful more movies in the next couple years before she became Rita Hayworth.  The red hair and sex symbol came later under Columbia.  She and her parents, Momushka and Popushka take little Paddy under their wing, for the Irish girl is traveling alone.  Her mother, working as a servant in a wealthy household on Long Island, will meet her at Ellis Island.

For those of us who have family members who came through Ellis Island, the place is hallowed.  It’s fun to see it depicted, though as such, a scene on a movie soundstage, it's a little surreal if your grandma came through there terrified.

Tragically, little Jane’s mother is not there to meet her, because she has recently died, and with no one to claim her, Jane will be sent back to the old country.  

But she escapes the watchful eye of the immigration officer, played by Francis Ford, and we have a few neat shots of the real Ellis Island, and of the 3rd Avenue El and the Empire State Building rising behind it, looking to the little girl like science fiction monsters.

Through the improbable actions of an unknowing police officer who puts her in the car of a total stranger (such scenes these days make us squirm), Paddy arrives at her mother’s workplace—not knowing she has died.  Jane Darwell, kindly cook of the house, gets the dirty job to break the bad news.  She and the other servants convince the dour butler, Russell Simpson, to let the girl stay until they can figure out what to do.

A pair of fussy old ladies lives in this mansion, with their studious, mild-mannered and somewhat vague nephew, played by Pinky Tomlin.  Tomlin had appeared in a few minor films, but his main gig was as a bandleader and composer.  He’s the chap who came up with “The Object of My Affection.”  (Raise your hand if the first thing you think of is Alfalfa on the Our Gang comedies.”)

Here, Tomlin, a likeable fellow, strums a guitar and sings another of his original tunes, “Changing My Ambitions,” a very pleasant song he croons to Rita because he is falling in love with her.  

Rita and her family, now including a boisterous uncle who runs a café in New York, played with aplomb by George Givot, have discovered the mansion where Jane is in hiding and want to help keep her in the country.  It is agreed she will stay with her Russian pals and work at Uncle’s café as a performer. 

George Givot, a bullying impresario, mangles English with delightfully silly malapropos, but somebody has to speak with a Russian accent because even little Jane’s Russian accent is better than Rita’s.  However, Rita can dance, and that is her act in the club.  Jane, dressed up like a little Russian doll with painted cheeks sings, “I Like a Balalaika.”

Trouble is not over yet, though, because the aunties have discovered Jane and want to send her back to Ireland.  They, and the immigration officer Francis Ford are hot on the trail, but Pinky Tomlin and Rita decide to marry and adopt Jane, which will keep her here for good.  A WASP dad, a Russian immigrant mom, and loudmouth Uncle George.  What little Irish lass could ask for anything more?

Jane doesn’t become assimilated in America in the little more than an hour it takes to watch this movie, but she does what all immigrants did when they first arrived, and still do—try to put down roots in a strange new world, more magical, more wonderful, and more terrifying than Alice’s trip through the looking glass.

Jane Withers has a good rapport with all her adult cast mates in this movie, but she forged a special bond of friendship with the shy young woman who would come to be known as Rita Hayworth.  Rita, 16 years old, was nervous on the set, more terrified than the immigrant she was playing. Jane, nine years old, but already a veteran and the star of the movie, felt protective of her.  Before the cameras rolled, Jane held Rita’s hand and said a prayer to comfort her. 

Decades later, in 1987, when Rita Hayworth died, Jane was asked to deliver the eulogy at her funeral.  She repeated on that occasion the prayer she said while holding Rita’s hand on the set of Paddy O’Day:
“Lord, this is Rita and she’s afraid… Please be with her because she’s special.”

Jane Withers is pretty special too.

This post is part of the Luck of the Irish Blog O’Thon sponsored by the Metzinger Sisters at Silver Scenes.  Please go have a look at the other great entries.

And Happy St. Patrick’s Day.


Caftan Woman said...

The heartfelt prayer brought tears to my eyes.

I was quite taken with this movie and little Jane when I saw it for the first time a few months ago. The evening of Jane's movies on TCM was a real treat as up until then I had seen nothing of her early career beyond "Bright Eyes". What a trouper!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I agree, I thought it was great to have an evening of Jane's movies on TCM, that's when I recorded this one. I'd love to see more of her work. A trouper she was, and a swell gal she is.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

Oh man, now I got to watch this movie....tonight. Paddy O'Day has been on that long-long "to-see" list for much too long a time. I'm anxious to see if she can top Margaret O'Brien's Irish accent in "Three Wise Fools". An excellent post Jacqueline. And thanks so much for participating in the blogathon!

My sister and I are re-watching Wee Willie Winkie in parts throughout the week and Shirley Temple is quite dandy in that film ( so is Victor McLaglen of course ) but it's true that her acting style did not change over time. You could see the same little Shirleyisms in "Since You Went Away".

I got a feeling that the Lord heard and answered Withers prayers for Rita...just who can resist her?

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for holding such a fun blog o'thon, ladies. Shirley's a cutie, to be sure, and Jane was too.

grandoldmovies said...

"I Like a Balalaiaka"? I love it! Only in old Hollywood.

I've also only seen Jane in Bright Eyes (to tell the truth, I'm secretly in sympathy with her character; I think she behaved much more like a real child than did the saccharine Shirley), but your wonderful post makes me absolutely want to see more of her work. I'm actually most familiar with Miss Withers in her Josephine the Plumber incarnation - now there's a spot of nostalgia for babyboomers!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

GOM, Hollywood was so good at the schmaltz, but it's real charm was that it did it unashamedly and with gusto. If you're going to do schmaltz, do with it with all you've got. Balalaika, indeed.

I remember Josephine the Plumber, and while I'm sure that paid the bills, it would have been neat to see more of Jane in later years (though, as I understand it, with her excellent ability to mimic, she did the voice for the Disney cartoon "Hunchback" subbing for the great Mary Wickes when Wickes passed away before the work was completed. Jane sounded just like her). I hope TCM digs out more of her early work sometime.

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