O'Neill wrote the play, his only comedy, in five weeks and based the story upon his recollections of bourgeoisie life from his family's vacation spot in New London, Connecticut. He denied, however, that it was autobiographical in any way. In his biography O'Neill: Son and Artist by Louis Scheaffer, he mused that the play's content was, "... a sort of wishing out loud. That's the way I would have liked my childhood to have been." Still, many of the play's characters had roots in real people in O'Neill's life; the teenager Eric Linden is shades of the playwright himself. Husband and wife screenwriting team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were responsible for the onscreen translation, fresh from the massive success of The Thin Man (1934). The pair would go on to write the initial script for It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Father of the Bride (1950), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) -among others! This power duo would also create the musical version of Ah, Wilderness! entitled Summer Holiday in 1948.
Director George Marshall took the reins early on in production of Wilderness, succeeding in the unusual move of convincing MGM to allow filming on location. To stay true to the play's New England roots, he chose his hometown of Grafton, Massachusetts. Approximately two hundred of Grafton's residents were cast as extras, using clothing handed down in their families for costumes fitting the turn of the century. Actor Wallace Beery received top billing as the rowdy, tippling uncle -not a huge stretch for the actor, who made a career out of playing good-natured rascals. A few notable exceptions to this rule include his Best Actor-winning turn in The Champ (1931) and the touching Min and Bill (1930). Will Rogers was originally slated to play the tender and sensible father, Nat Miller, but backed out and shortly afterwards tragically died in the infamous plane crash that also claimed the life of friend and ace pilot Wiley Post on August 15, 1935. Lionel Barrymore stepped in to replace him and earned some of his career's finest notices with a tender and poignant performance. Mickey Rooney, who played the impish little brother, recalled in his autobiography Life Is Too Short: "Ah, Wilderness! is a story about growing up in small-town New England, a place that might have existed at one time for millions of Americans. Lionel Barrymore was a kindly dad trying to help his teenage son ... grow up as best he could; he even tried a heart-to-heart talk about sex, heartbreaking, funny and memorable... Creating this New England utopia was all part of [MGM studio head] L.B. Mayer's master plan to reinvent America."
The Barrymore camp, however, saw things a little differently: in The House of Barrymore, by Margot Peters, she contends, "Mayer almost managed to ruin Ah, Wilderness! by insisting the role of drunken Uncle Sid be padded for his favorite Wallace Beery at the expense of Lionel's role as the father... Clarence Brown, the director, had the artistic sense to attempt to balance the parts in the cutting room, permitting Lionel's expert portrait of Nat Miller to hold the screen against Beery's bleary soak." Rooney didn't seem to mind: "For me the high point of making the film was getting to know Wallace Beery, a lovable, shambling kind of guy who never seemed to know that his shirttail belonged inside his pants but always knew when a little kid actor needed a smile and a wink or a word of encouragement." Director Brown was undoubtedly pleased with his "little kid actor"-he would work with him a total of four times, including National Velvet (1944). According to film critic Leonard Maltin, the director, "... who'd worked with every top MGM star in his long career-named Rooney the finest actor he'd ever directed!"
The rest of the ensemble cast was impressive, notably Spring Byington as the mother and the teen son played by Eric Linden. Byington, once dubbed "The Queen of Homey Matriarchs", had an Oscar® nominated performance in You Can't Take It with You (1938) and a versatile career by her own words, "Down through the years I have played everything from ingénues and soubrettes, to mothers, aunts, cousins, and grandmothers, and each part had to be interpreted differently." Linden, who was twenty-five trying to play eighteen in Ah, Wilderness!, had by comparison a short career, with big roles in small films or vice versa (he was the "Amputation Case" in Gone With the Wind, 1939). The screen chemistry of Barrymore, Byington, and Linden in Ah, Wilderness!, however, was potent enough to warrant the trio packing off to Missouri after filming to begin work on The Voice of Bugle Ann (1936).
Charley Grapewin, best known as Uncle Henry from The Wizard of Oz (1939), also appears in both films. And the film connections don't end there: Cecilia Parker, playing Linden's love interest here, was best remembered as Andy Hardy's, a.k.a. Mickey Rooney's, older sister in the long-running series of films. In fact, A Family Affair (1937), the first Hardy film, featured not only Rooney and Parker, but Barrymore, Byington, and Grapewin, making it an unofficial Ah, Wilderness! reunion of sorts!
Thirteen years later, Rooney would go on to star in the musical remake, Summer Holiday, graduating from the kid brother to teenage boy role. The play would have another manifestation as a television movie in 1976, starring Geraldine Fitzgerald and Swoosie Kurtz. The original version, however, remains the most popular-one imagines the reincarnations as a tribute to O'Neill's belief that "emotionally we still deeply hanker after the old solidarity of the family unit."
Producer: Clarence Brown, Hunt Stromberg
Director: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Eugene O¿Neill (play)
Cinematography: Clyde De Vinna
Film Editing: Frank E. Hull
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Herbert Stothart, Paul Lincke, Lilla Cayley Robinson, Edward Ward
Cast: Wallace Beery (Sidney Miller), Lionel Barrymore (Nat Miller), Aline MacMahon (Lily Davis), Eric Linden (Richard Miller), Cecilia Parker (Muriel McComber), Spring Byington (Essie Miller).
BW-98m. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin