The novel, first published in 1927, was the first in a sixteen-book saga about the Whiteoaks family that won de la Roche an international following, with the books being translated into many languages. In addition to the film, the series inspired stage, radio and television versions including a 1951 BBC television drama called Whiteoaks and a 1972 CBS-TV series called The Whiteoaks of Jalna. A French television production starring Danielle Darrieux appeared in 1994.
Cromwell's film begins as two Whiteoaks brothers marry and, on the same day, bring their brides back to Jalna, where the newcomers must adapt to life with this odd family. Gran (a mugging, scene-stealing Jessie Ralph) is the crafty, sharp-tongued, 99-year-old matriarch; the new grooms are black sheep Piers (Theodore Newton) and poet Eden (David Manners); the brides are Pheasant (Molly Lamont) and Alayne (Kay Johnson), the beautiful, warm-blooded American who sparks changes in the order of things.
Ian Hunter is Renny, the practical brother who runs the estate, C. Aubrey Smith and Halliwell Hobbes are bachelor uncles, Peggy Wood is the jilted spinster sister, Meg, and Nigel Bruce is the neighbor who has been in love with her for twenty years. Witnessing the family's jealousies, romantic conflicts and life-and-death intrigues is the butler/chauffeur, Rags (Forrester Harvey).
Junior Durkin, who had played Huckleberry Finn in two RKO films, was originally cast as younger brother Finch Whiteoaks. Durkin, however, was killed in an automobile accident and replaced by his friend George Offerman, Jr. The accident also took the life of actor Jackie Coogan's father, John Coogan, Sr., and two other people.
Although fast pacing and expert performances keep the film entertaining, a contemporary review in Variety did not deem Jalna a success: "On surface indications this story of Mazo de la Roche's would soon be destined for big business. It was one of the best-sustained sellers of its season and the fifth story in the Jalna series is even now clinging persistently to the bestseller lists... [but] the adaptor seems to have captured certain physical aspects without having been able to retain the poignant appeal of the book."
Jalna, a city in west-central India, was used by de la Roche as the name of the manor house in her novel, supposedly built by a retired officer of the British army who had served in that country. It resembles an actual house called Benares which is located in Mississauga, Ontario, and now operated as a city museum. It was once part of a larger estate, part of which de la Roche called home for a time.
Director Cromwell, who also acted in movies and on the stage, was known for the fluid work of his cinematographers, once commenting that flashy camerawork interfered with the performances of the actors. Director of photography Edward Cronjager gives Jalna a typically smooth look.
Cromwell was married at the time of filming to leading lady Kay Johnson, the first of his four wives. He was the father of actor James Cromwell. The director's other memorable films include Of Human Bondage (1934), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Algiers (1938), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Since You Went Away (1944), Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and The Racket (1951).
Producer: Kenneth Macgowan
Director: John Cromwell
Screenplay: Garrett Fort, Larry Bachmann (adaptation); Mazo de la Roche (novel); Anthony Veiller (screenplay)
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Alberto Colombo (uncredited)
Film Editing: William Morgan
Cast: Kay Johnson (Alayne Archer Whiteoaks), Ian Hunter (Renny Whiteoaks), C. Aubrey Smith (Uncle Nicholas Whiteoaks), Nigel Bruce (Maurice Vaughn), David Manners (Eden Whiteoaks), Peggy Wood (Meg Whiteoaks), Jessie Ralph (Gran Whiteoaks), Theodore Newton (Piers Whiteoaks), Halliwell Hobbes (Uncle Ernest Whiteoaks), George Offerman Jr. (Finch Whiteoaks).
by Roger Fristoe