Our Vines Have Tender Grapes
Our Vines Have Tender Grapes poses child actress Margaret O’Brien as daughter to Edward G. Robinson in a wonderful story about a mid-west Norwegian immigrant farming family living in rural World War II-era Wisconsin. Life lessons are learned by child and adult alike when hard times hit the close-knit community.
Although the story doesn’t offer much of a plot by today’s standards, the film makes up for it in charm. Selma (O’Brien) is a 7 year old girl who pals around with 5 year old Arnold (Butch Jenkins of National Velvet and The Human Comedy). The most exciting thing that has happened recently is that the girl has a newborn calf her father gave to her. Instantly enamored of the young creature she names it 'Elizabeth' and becomes very attached to it. The two kids also often spend time with, James Craig (The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Human Comedy) who plays the editor of the Fuller Junction Spectator. Working on a small town paper allows the man the opportunity to shoot the breeze with a couple of kids, and time to pursue the new school teacher from the big city. Even though he wants to marry, the well-educated gal doesn’t want to live in such a small, nothing happening town where the biggest news is the raising of a new barn.
I love this quiet little gem of a film for many reasons. One is for the touching, yet non-syrupy story about the strength of community and family. This is especially notable since the film was produced during what was perhaps the sappiest era of filmmaking in Hollywood history, otherwise known as the war years. The fact the film is so surprisingly sincere is due in large part to acclaimed writer, Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, Spartacus). The scenes between the childhood friends are straight forward and as honest as kid
s themselves can be. And the scenes between the kids and adults strike just the right balance between pragmatic and quaint as we observe children struggle to comprehend the usefulness of adult wisdom as they begin to experience life beyond their known realms. There are no big traumatic moments, nor are they necessary for us to appreciate the simple qualities of this beautifully realized world.
Another main reason I like this film is because of the cast. Margaret O’Brien (Meet Me in St. Louis, Little Women) is of course perfect in the role of a little girl in a story set just about anywhere and at any time during the Golden Age of Hollywood. On the other hand, it’s a pretty long stretch for most people to think of Edward G. Robinson, the king of the gangster film, as a Norwegian, immigrant father. That’s right, Norwegian. Surprisingly enough, Robinson does a tremendous job portraying a down to earth man whose main goal is to provide for his family and raise his little girl the best he possibly can. This is a role like no other Robinson (Little Caesar, Key Largo) had ever played before or since. And his version of a man who acts and behaves as plainly as he speaks is well matched by Agnes Moorehead as his wife. Moorehead could perform just about any character role but her portrayals of “plain” women of depth and strength were the best the movies have ever known (Citizen Kane, Johnny Belinda).
At first glance this amount of talent may seem to be wasted on a film that adds up to not much more than a slice of life picture. However, that’s exactly when you need capable people with real chops to handle the somber moments of life in an even handed way, who won’t create overly dramatic scenes that wreak of melodrama. The climatic event that really pulls this whole film together is as touching as it is moving, and will leave you just as astonished as the characters who are left speechless by a little girl’s selflessness. And it works only because the actors involved know how to let the drama of the act speak for itself. And so does the film. Our Vines Have Tender Grapes lets the lessons told be seen and understood by children without dissection and needless explanation. The kids in the film are smarter than that, and the film trusts that the viewers are as well.