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Sweepings

Sweepings(1933)

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teaser Sweepings (1933)

Wesley Ruggles was originally slated to direct Sweepings (1933) but it was assigned instead to John Cromwell, making his first picture at RKO, the studio where he would have some of his greatest critical and commercial successes over the years; among these were Of Human Bondage (1934), In Name Only (1939), The Enchanted Cottage (1945), and the film noir classic The Racket (1951).

The story follows the trials and tribulations of Daniel Pardway who, starting with almost nothing in 1871 Chicago, just after the great fire, eventually establishes the biggest department store in town. His wife Abigail dies giving birth to their fourth child, and Daniel is left to raise the children and run his growing business alone. Daniel harbors great hopes for his offspring and plans to turn the business over to them, but almost all of them grow into disappointing adults who break his heart.

The screenplay was adapted by Lester Cohen (with uncredited help from other studio writers) from his own 1926 novel.

RKO borrowed Lionel Barrymore from M-G-M to play patriarch Daniel Pardway. An unlikely star in his day, Barrymore was already in his mid-50s and neither handsome nor dashing when he made this picture. Yet, by 1933, he was a very well-respected stage and screen actor (the brother of John and Ethel Barrymore), and an Academy Award winner for his role as another sacrificing father in A Free Soul (1931). His work in Sweepings was well-regarded by reviewers, although many of them focused more on his effective aging process over the story's course. In an interview in the New York Times, makeup artist Mel Berns detailed how he made Barrymore look only 25 by applying fishskin adhesive tape to the actor's sagging facial skin and then painting the tape brown and squeezing makeup into the wrinkles around Barrymore's eyes. Barrymore was then aged forward some 35 years beyond his real age.

Barrymore had recently completed a demanding string of movies - in 1932 alone, he made five in a row including Grand Hotel and the historical drama Rasputin and the Empress with his famous siblings. His doctor ordered him to rest, but he took this part anyway, exhausting himself and working many days with a fever of 103 degrees, with the physician in constant attendance.

The crew was in awe of Barrymore and on their toes about his swiftly changing moods. Eventually, it became apparent to them that he took great delight in grousing over trivial details and then fuming that he was being treated like a baby when anyone tried to soothe his ruffled feathers.

Barrymore's children are played here by Eric Linden, who would play his son again in Ah, Wilderness! (1935), Gloria Stuart, an Academy Award nominee late in life for Titanic (1997), George Meeker, and William Gargan, who played a different role in RKO's 1939 remake of Sweepings, retitled Three Sons.

Some 300 extras were employed for the big fire sale scene near the beginning of the movie, which involved a mad rush for socks. At the end of the shoot, the crew found that the extras, most of them scrambling for a day's wages during the worst times of the Depression, had exchanged their old socks for the 132 pairs of prop socks.

Watch for an uncredited bit by the "Indian," played by Jim Thorpe, the famed Native American athlete who won two gold medals at the 1912 Olympics and gained prominence as a football star of the teens and twenties. In 1913, the Olympic Committee discovered that Thorpe had made money (as little as $2 per game) playing baseball in 1909 and 1910 and stripped him of his medals for having earned pay as a professional athlete against their rules. By the time he appeared in Sweepings, Thorpe had fallen on hard times, taking a number of menial jobs, including movie extra, to support his family. Burt Lancaster played the athlete in Jim Thorpe - All-American (1951), the year after Thorpe sought treatment for cancer as a charity case. Thorpe's medals were restored to him in 1982, nearly 30 years after his death at the age of 64.

Although he would actually release one more film without credit at RKO, this is the last picture on which David O. Selznick received producer credit at the studio before moving on to bigger and better things at MGM. Working at the studio run by his future father-in-law Louis B. Mayer, Selznick made his mark with the star-studded ensemble piece Dinner at Eight (1933), the Gable-Crawford vehicle Dancing Lady (1933), and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) before moving on to other studios and his own company, prompting the famous quote "the son-in-law also rises." His greatest triumph, of course, was Gone with the Wind (1939).

The producer and director of Sweepings worked together again at Selznick International when Selznick hired Cromwell for the James Stewart-Carole Lombard picture Made for Each Other (1939) and Since You Went Away (1944), one of the most effective stories of homefront life during World War II.

Director: John Cromwell
Producer: David O. Selznick
Screenplay: Lester Cohen, based on his novel; Howard Estabrook and H.W. Hanemann (uncredited)
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Editing: George Nicholls, Jr.
Original Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Lionel Barrymore (Daniel Pardway), Eric Linden (Freddie Pardway), William Gargan (Gene Pardway), Gloria Stuart (Phoebe), Alan Dinehart (Thane Pardway).
BW-81m.

by Rob Nixon

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