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Based on a novel by Marjorie Paradis entitled It Happened One Day, This Side of Heaven (1934) spans 24 hours in the life of a family -- a mother (Fay Bainter), a father (Lionel Barrymore), and their three young-adult children (Mae Clarke, Tom Brown and Mary Carlisle). All five experience their own personal tales of anxiety, comedy, suspense and tragedy in the course of a day, in a film that daily Variety called "class entertainment for all audiences," The New York Times called it "a sincere and affecting piece of work, one of the best vehicles in which the popular Lionel Barrymore has appeared," and of which weekly Variety said: "No legs and no smut, but it takes hold." High praise indeed!
This was Barrymore's 156th credited movie (at least) in a career stretching back to 1911. (A possible 1908 credit is unconfirmed.) He was, quite simply, an old pro and a living embodiment of most of the history of American film production -- and his career would continue in full swing for more than fifteen further years. Barrymore got good marks for This Side of Heaven, with Variety gushing, "The most gifted member of the Barrymore family adds another distinctive character to his gallery. He works with quiet authority and never in pictures did a man take poison with greater effect or fewer gestures."
According to press reports of the time, when This Side of Heaven began its run at New York's Capitol Theatre, Barrymore himself could be seen in the Capitol stage show prior to each night's screening, performing his role from the last act of The Copperhead -- a play he had performed on Broadway back in 1918. Buddy Rogers also appeared in this live show, "giving a program of music, song and comedy."
On the other end of the spectrum, this was Fay Bainter's film debut, noted by the trade paper Variety as "a wise choice... [she] gives an intelligent portrayal and shows she has much for the screen." At age 40, Bainter was already an established Broadway star, and following this picture she would return to the stage to take on the role of the wife in Dodsworth, opposite Walter Huston. Huston would soon reprise the part of Dodsworth for the film version, while Bainter's part went to Ruth Chatterton. In fact, it would be three years until Bainter appeared in her second film, Quality Street (1937), but from then on she stayed almost exclusively in Hollywood. She'd eventually be nominated for three Oscars®, for White Banners (1938), Jezebel (1938) and The Children's Hour (1961), winning for Jezebel.
The director of This Side of Heaven, William K. Howard, is completely forgotten today, but when he made this film he'd been directing for thirteen years and was a serious creative force in Hollywood. In the May 1954 issue of Films in Review, respected film historian William K. Everson wrote a comprehensive piece looking back on Howard, calling him the "creator of some of the best melodramas ever made" who in 1934 was at the peak of his talent: "His pictures were solidly constructed, smoothly executed, and visually delightful, thanks to apt camera angles and discriminating use of the moving camera." Hollywood noted this at the time, too, with the trade paper The Hollywood Reporter praising Howard for his ability on This Side of Heaven "to juggle a dozen situations without losing a central theme.... [He] has made it seem spontaneous rather than spotty."Howard's most famous silent film had been White Gold (1927), an odd, psychological western that was a well-reviewed commercial flop and which Everson called one of the best films of the silent era. Later, Howard turned out fine melodramas at Fox like Scotland Yard (1930), Transatlantic (1931), and Sherlock Holmes (1932), and made four pictures with actor Edmund Lowe, all big moneymakers. After directing The Power and the Glory (1933), a famous Spencer Tracy picture written by Preston Sturges that significantly influenced Citizen Kane (1941), Howard signed with MGM and delivered five glossy melodramas, the first of which was This Side of Heaven. Later he directed two films at Paramount, including the underrated Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935), worked in England for a time, and returned to freelance around Hollywood, mostly turning out B movies.
The film-within-the-film shown here, in a scene in which two characters go to the movies, is from MGM's 1933 Another Language, though according to the AFI catalogue notes, the footage shown was not included in that film's final release print.
Producers: John W. Considine, Jr., William K. Howard
Director: William K. Howard
Screenplay: Edgar Allan Woolf, Florence Ryerson (screenplay); Zelda Sears, Eve Greene (adaptation); Marjorie Bartholomew Paradis (novel)
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Art Direction: Fredric Hope
Music: Dr. William Axt
Film Editing: Frank Hull
Cast: Lionel Barrymore (Martin Turner), Fay Bainter (Francene Turner), Mae Clarke (Jane Turner), Tom Brown (Seth Turner), Una Merkel (Birdie), Mary Carlisle (Peggy Turner), Onslow Stevens (Walter Hamilton), Henry Wadsworth (Hal Jennings), Edward J. Nugent (Vance Patterson, as Eddie Nugent), C. Henry Gordon (William Barnes).
by Jeremy Arnold