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August 02, 2022

Little Man, What Now?

little man.jpg

Frank Borzage - 1934
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Little Man, What Now? was based on a German novel published in 1932, a topical best seller both in Germany and internationally. The basic story is about a young man attempting to establish stability for himself and his wife in the increasingly unstable post World War I Germany with its high unemployment, inflated cost of living and polarized politics. The German film version released in 1933 is reportedly significantly changed from the novel with the Nazification of the film industry. Frank Borzage's version is closer to the novel although the political aspects are deliberately vague. Although there are protests by the marginalized poor, there is no labeling. We only see the gatherings broken up by the police from a distance. Borzage would be politically clearer in later films, Three Comrades and The Mortal Storm, here the emphasis is on love as overcoming all obstacles.

While the title character is meant to evoke a random person often affected by things beyond his control, Hans, as personified by second-tier lead Douglass Montgomery, is not always sympathetic. He is first seen showing lack of empathy. Walking by one of the scenes of protest, Hans and a well-to-do older man agree that it is best to be happy in one's place. Hans soon learns that his assumed place is tenuous , based on various circumstances determined by others. Hans nickname for his wife is Lammchen, German for "Little Lamb". More often than not, it is Hans who the sheep, led by his wife.

Margaret Sullavan is unmistakably the star of Little Man, What Now? and Frank Borzage makes sure the audience knows it. She first appears, back against the corner of a building, facing the camera with her megawatt smile. It is Lammchen who constantly believes in Hans even when the viewer might remain dubious. She is the one who determines to see her pregnancy through, even with Hans' meager salary, and she is also the one who finds an affordable attic apartment when facing homelessness in Berlin. As pointed out by Allen Arkush and Daniel Kremer in their commentary track, Sullavan is lit and positioned in her favor, often at the expense of Montgomery.

There are also two comic sequences here worth mentioning. One scene introduces the clingy, whiny daughter of Hans' first employer, a grain merchant. His marriage a secret, Hans is one of three employees the merchant hopes will marry his daughter and take over the business. Breakfast is a scene of domestic turmoil as father grills daughter about her matrimonial prospects and bratty teenage brother finds everything amusing. A later scene is of Montgomery and Sullavan together in bed, trying to sleep in their apartment bedroom while a party is taking place. A drunk Alan Hale stumbles in on the couple, trying to engage the couple in conversation before falling asleep on the floor. With the exception of His Butler's Sister, Borzage's abilities with comedy were underused but do provide some bright spots is what is presented as a serious minded drama.

Little Man, What Now? is recognizably a pre-Code film, and according to Arkush and Kremer, the last film before the Code was strictly enforced. The couple is introduced with the confirmation of pregnancy without marriage. I can not even think of any other Hollywood film where there is a sign indicating that the doctor being visited is a gynecologist. There is the previously mentioned scene of Sullavan and Montgomery together in bed, under the sheets. Something of a stretch in plausibility is that Hans and Lammchen are unaware that Hans' stepmother operates an exclusive bordello. A scene that might have been cut and/or re-shot later is of a picnic, with the camera moving from a record player to Margaret Sullavan with her dress hiked high enough to display her shapely legs. Would code enforcer Joseph Breen allowed for the shot with a brief flash of Sullavan's panties?

Kremer and Arkush's commentary begins with Arkush reading from Martin Scorsese's notes on Borzage. Also referred to is Andrew Sarris' brief analysis of Borzage from The American Cinema which is where much of the scholarly interest in Frank Borzage began. While there is discussion on Borzage as a romantic director with an emphasis on female characters, overlooked is that Borzage did occasionally worked in other genres where he was still able to integrate to greater or less degree his theme of the spiritual and emotional ties between people. Flight Command, released almost a full year before Pearl Harbor, both anticipated a need for military preparedness and was essentially a story about male camaraderie. Where the commentary excels is in examining Borzage's visual style and repetition of certain motifs, such as having his lovers on the top of a building. There is also a review of Margaret Sullavan's difficult life and inconsistent career after 1943. Little Man, What Now? is notable as Sullivan's second film after appearing on stage, and the first of four classics under the direction of Borzage.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 2, 2022 06:53 AM