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A glance at the cast list of On Our Merry Way (1948) would cause even seasoned movie buffs to perk up with interest. Henry Fonda and James Stewart together in a 1948 film? Fred MacMurray and William Demarest acting together two decades before television's My 3 Sons? Toss in Burgess Meredith, Paulette Goddard and Dorothy Lamour, with appearances by Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer and Harry James, and On Our Merry Way suddenly looks very interesting indeed. Moreover, the revelation that three of its four directors include John Huston, George Stevens and King Vidor makes this one of the most intriguing pictures that many people have probably never heard of.
The film, alas, can't measure up to the promise of its famous cast and directors, but it remains a fascinating curiosity nonetheless. It's an anthology movie (a brief trend of the era), comprising three separate stories tied together by a fourth. Shot and originally released under the title A Miracle Can Happen, it was the brainchild of star Burgess Meredith, who also produced (along with Benedict Bogeaus). Meredith had an idea for a film made up of several segments revolving around the theme of how a young child has affected adults' lives.
Meredith plays a classified-ad solicitor for a newspaper who has lied to his new bride (Paulette Goddard) that he is actually the paper's roving reporter. Desperate to save his home from foreclosure, Meredith finagles his way into actually being the roving reporter for one day, and he runs around the city asking various strangers how their lives have been affected by a kid; flashbacks reveal their self-contained stories.
Each segment features major stars and was the work of different writers and directors. MacMurray and Demarest play con men; Lamour plays an actress who goes from bit player to star; and Fonda and Stewart play broken-down musicians who rig a talent show only to have things go haywire. Theirs is by far the best episode, with the stars clearly having fun with a slapstick routine. They were close friends in real life and had never before worked together; they wouldn't re-team again until The Cheyenne Social Club in 1970.
Stewart and Fonda had their choice of writer and director, so naturally they chose the best: John O'Hara to write, and John Huston to direct. Work was interrupted when Fonda had to leave to fulfill some other commitments. When he returned, Huston was no longer available, but they were able to get George Stevens to step in and finish. Neither Huston nor Stevens took screen credit, however.
The Lamour and MacMurray episodes were directed by Leslie Fenton, and the framing story with Meredith and Goddard was directed mostly by King Vidor. Vidor's more important contribution to the film, however, ended up on the cutting room floor. Originally there was another episode featuring Charles Laughton as a minister loosely reinterpreting the Bible; supposedly this segment was excellent and touching. But the financial backers of On Our Merry Way, which was an independent film released by United Artists, complained that the Laughton episode was too serious for what was supposed to be a lighthearted comedy, and the story was deleted. David Selznick saw the segment and offered to buy it for $500,000 and construct an entire feature around it, but at the cost of discarding all the other stories. Bogeaus refused.
King Vidor was unhappy that his work with Laughton was never released. He later said: "I felt that the Laughton episode was most effective and thought it was absolutely ridiculous that it was not included in the film. It would have given a good rest from the expected laughter, and contrast always helps both the comedy and dramatic effect."
Shortly after its initial release, the film's original title A Miracle Can Happen was changed so that moviegoers wouldn't think it was some sort of religious drama. With all the different writers, directors, titles, story changes, deletions and restructuring, perhaps it was inevitable that On Our Merry Way wouldn't turn out for the best. Still, the chance to see so many top stars makes it an intriguing misfire.
More interesting trivia:
The MacMurray/Demarest episode is drawn from the O. Henry story "The Ransom of Red Chief," which was later adapted into the feature Ruthless People (1986) as well as several TV movies and foreign productions.
Burgess Meredith and Paulette Goddard were married at the time they filmed On Our Merry Way, making their opening scene of the two of them in bed something of an eye-opener.
In the Stewart/Fonda episode, look for a quick shot of Walter Huston blowing a horn during the talent show montage.
Producers: Benedict Bogeaus, Burgess Meredith
Director: Leslie Fenton, King Vidor; John Huston, George Stevens (both uncredited)
Screenplay: Arch Oboler, John O'Hara, Lou Breslow (story); Laurence Stallings (adaptation)
Cinematography: Gordon Avil, Joseph Biroc, Edward Cronjager, John F. Seitz; Ernest Laszlo (uncredited)
Art Direction: Ernst Fegte; Duncan Cramer (uncredited)
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Paulette Goddard (Martha Pease), Burgess Meredith (Oliver Pease), James Stewart (Slim), Henry Fonda (Lank Skolsky), Harry James (Himself), Dorothy Lamour (Gloria Manners), Victor Moore (Ashton Carrington), Fred MacMurray (Al), William Demarest (Floyd), Hugh Herbert (Eli Hobbs), Charles D. Brown (Mr. Sadd), Eduardo Ciannelli (Maxim), Betty Caldwell (Cynthia Dugan), Dorothy Ford (Lola Maxim).
by Jeremy Arnold
Clive Denton, The Hollywood Professionals Vol. 5: King Vidor
Raymond Durgnat, King Vidor, American
Burgess Meredith, So Far, So Good