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Patrick Kearney and Harry Wagstaff Gribble's play Old Man Murphy ran on Broadway for 64 performances between May and July 1931. The following September it was revived at a different theater with much the same cast and ran for another 48 performances --neither of the runs were very long by Broadway standards. The story may have been too "ethnic" to attract a large audience, but it was engaging enough to be picked up for filming by RKO a few years later in an adaptation by screenwriters Joel Sayre and John Twist under the title His Family Tree (1935).
The plot concerns a trip by one Patrick Murphy from his home in Ireland to the U.S. Concerned that his son has not responded to letters, Patrick arrives to find he's running for mayor of his city, has changed his name to Murfree, and is married to a woman with an anti-Irish bias (an attitude far more prevalent in the early 20th century than it is today). Patrick makes it his mission to restore his son's pride in his heritage.
Beyond the message of ethnic pride (played mostly for comedy, of course), one of the chief attractions of this movie is its star, the classic Irish-American vaudeville performer James Barton (1890-1962). Born into a theatrical family, Barton began working in minstrel shows and burlesque houses as a child, learning tap dancing from the many African-American performers he appeared with. Barton gets to show his skills in three routines in this movie, one of his first features. While continuing his stage career, he landed numerous character roles in the years after His Family Tree, including his memorable turn as Kit Carson ("a cowboy also known as Murphy," according to the credits) in The Time of Your Life (1948), an adaptation of the William Saroyan play starring James Cagney. He also had a prominent role as Jane Wyman's father in Here Comes the Groom (1951) with Bing Crosby, who considered Barton one of the greatest of all entertainers. His last feature film role was as an old man in the bar scene in John Huston's The Misfits (1961). Barton was also the original Ben Rumson in the 1951-52 Broadway musical Paint Your Wagon, the part taken by Lee Marvin in the 1969 film version.
Another notable player in the cast of His Family Tree is Irish-born Maureen Delaney (1888-1961), who resumed her stage career in England right after this production. She would not make another film until Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) with James Mason. She also had a role in Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949). Delaney appeared on Broadway in 1959 in God and Kate Murphy, earning a Tony Award nomination for her work.
His Family Tree was directed by Charles Vidor, better known for the film noir classic Gilda (1946) and the Doris Day-James Cagney musical drama Love Me or Leave Me (1955).
Here's one more bit of fascinating trivia about James Barton: It is said that while touring with the musical Dew Drop Inn with actress Claire Hodgson, Barton introduced her to baseball legend Babe Ruth before a New York Yankees-Washington Senators game in D.C. Hodgson became Ruth's second wife in 1929.
Director: Charles Vidor
Producer: Cliff Reid (associate producer)
Screenplay: Joel Sayre, John Twist, based on the play Old Man Murphy by Patrick Kearney and Harry Wagstaff Gribble
Cinematography: Lucien Andriot
Editing: Jack Hively
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Original Music: Alberto Colombo
Cast: James Barton (Patrick Murphy), Margaret Callahan (Elinor Murfree), Addison Randall (Mike Donovan), Maureen Delaney (Nellie Oulihan), William Harrigan (Charles Murfree).
by Rob Nixon