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In Blossoms in the Dust (1941), based on a true story, Edna Gladney (Greer Garson) is greatly affected by two incidents in her life. One is the suicide of her adopted sister Charlotte (Marsha Hunt) who kills herself after her future in-laws discover she was illegitimate and refuse to let her marry their son.
The other comes after Edna is married to a Texas flour mill owner, Sam Gladney (Walter Pidgeon), and they have a child. When their son dies, Edna -- who can never have another child -- is distraught. Those two traumas inspire Edna to devote her life to children and channel her grief over her own child's death into a productive cause.
After her husband Sam's death, Edna starts an influential institution known as the Texas Children's Home and Aid Society in Ft. Worth dedicated to finding good homes for children. In memory of her dead sister she also campaigns to remove the social stigma of illegitimacy from birth certificates. Arguing that "there are no illegitimate babies, only illegitimate parents," the real-life Edna Gladney was able to eventually have the stigma of "illegitimacy" stricken from children's birth certificates in Texas. A female heroine to legions of "blossoms"(children), Edna Gladney became to Texas what Father Flanagan and his Boys Town was to his home state of Nebraska.
Director Mervyn LeRoy, a former child actor who moved into directing, made his mark at Warner Brothers in the Thirties where he directed an impressive slew of films that commented upon the difficulties of the Depression including Little Caesar (1931), I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). When he moved to MGM, LeRoy turned his talents to directing high production romances and melodramas including Random Harvest (1942), Little Women (1949) and Blossoms in the Dust, which some of his critics construed as a loss of interest in social issues. LeRoy defended Blossoms as having "deep social significance" and stated that "for me always, the sole criterion for selecting a film was that it had a good, solid story and that it had the quality I call 'heart'." In fact, LeRoy said of Blossoms "Between it and Fugitive, I think I have contributed toward making this a better country."
Screenwriter Anita Loos (Red-Headed Woman (1932), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953) was not so well-schooled in social issue films and initially didn't see enough drama in Blossoms to make an interesting film. But after many tortured attempts to craft a storyline out of Edna Gladney's life story, the morning she planned to admit defeat, Loos says "I woke up to find that a complete story line had been worked out by my subconscious mind during sleep." (from Kiss Hollywood Goodbye by Anita Loos). Loos decided to pivot the story on Edna's belief that even a great orphanage was no match for the loving care of a real home. Loos created the character of a little crippled boy Tony (Pat Barker) who evokes a deep love in Edna, despite his inevitable adoption by another. The brilliance of the Loos screenplay is that it involves the audience on a deep emotional level with Edna's struggle to sponsor the boy without becoming too attached to him in the process.
Loos claimed that Greer Garson was not as maternally motivated as Edna and as an example, recalled (in her autobiography) the rehearsal for a scene where Tony is about to be taken away from Edna and placed with his new adoptive parents. He is told not to cry. "But I can cry inside can't I?" he asks. Loos wrote, "Now any child actor is a natural scene-stealer and it appeared that, during rehearsal, ours had caused even the cameraman and electricians to issue an ultimatum: unless that line was taken away from the little boy she would walk off the set. "It's not in the psychology of a child to ask such a question," she argued. "On the other hand it would be quite in line for me to say "But you can cry inside, darling." That small actor had run up against a more powerful scene-stealer than he was and the argument might have gone on endlessly while the studio clock ticked away at several thousand dollars a tick. So Bernie [Hyman, the producer] insisted we all repair to L.B.'s office for arbitration. And when the tough old autocrat heard that line, he himself dissolved into tears and ordered it to be kept where it belonged, in the mouth of a toddler."
Another potential dilemma involving cast members occurred when director LeRoy discovered that Walter Pidgeon didn't know how to dance prior to a crucial scene between Walter and Greer. In his autography, Mervyn LeRoy: Take One, the director recalled, "I had to dream up some way for him not to dance while it looked like he was dancing. I had the carpenters build a low platform and we put roller skates underneath it. I put the camera on the platform, with Greer and Walter. There were other couples in the scene, and they danced off the platform. Greer and Walter just bounced up and down on the platform, which was revolved on its skate wheels. The result was that it looked as though my principals were dancing skillfully."
Garson and Pidgeon were such a successful onscreen couple in Blossoms that they were soon paired in a number of romantic films including the enormously popular Mrs. Miniver (1942), Madame Curie (1943) and Mrs. Parkington (1944). Their film match-ups proved so reliable Garson was referred to on the MGM lot as "the daytime Mrs. Pidgeon."
Blossoms in the Dust was a 1941 Best Picture nomination, and earned nominations for Garson, as well as for its cinematography, and won an Oscar® for Cedric Gibbons' set design. LeRoy later recalled that with the number of small children perpetually on the set of Blossoms the crew took to calling the film Bugs in the Mud.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producer: Irving Asher
Screenplay: Anita Loos (based on a story by Ralph Wheelwright)
Cinematography: Karl W. Freund, W. Howard Greene
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Greer Garson (Edna Gladney), Walter Pidgeon (Sam Gladney), Felix Bressart (Dr. Max Breslar), Marsha Hunt (Charlotte), Fay Holden (Mrs. Kahly), Samuel S. Hinds (Mr. Kahly), Kathleen Howard (Mrs. Keats), George Lessey (Mr. Keats), William Henry (Allan Keats).
C-100m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster