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» Friday, June 27, 2008In the Stormy Sea
I'm watching Mother Carey's Chickens, which I recorded ages ago from TCM and never watched. I thought I had seen it before, but I haven't. The story is simple: after the death of Captain Carey during the Spanish-American War, Mrs. Carey and her four children rent and fix up a dilapidated old country house they fell in love with before the death of the Captain.
If the story sounds familiar, Walt Disney filmed it in the early 60s as Summer Magic, with Hayley Mills as oldest daughter Nancy. Some liberties were taken with the original novel, including omitting one of the Carey children, sister Kitty.
This 1930s version includes Kitty, played by Ruby Keeler, whose usual ouvre was musicals, but again takes some liberties with the story. In this version, prissy cousin Julia does not appear, and Nancy (played by Anne Shirley) and Kitty are rivals for the young schoolteacher Ralph Thurston (who initially plays them very carefully off each other, then falls for Kitty, to Nancy's dismay). The Careys open the "Yellow House" (which isn't referred to as that) to boarders, including the schoolteacher; in the meantime they fend off a scheming couple who are trying to buy the house out from under them (the wife is played by Margaret Hamilton, who reprises her Wicked Witch-like role) with help from young Mr. Hamilton (who's a doctor in this outing), who's all in favor of selling the house from under the Careys, until he cures Peter's illness and begins to fall in love with Nancy. But the Fullers are determined to have the house, so Hamilton conspires with the Careys and Thurston to drive them away with tales of the house being haunted.
A child actor named Donnie Dunagan plays the youngest Carey, Peter, who is given a great deal of cutesy screen time the same as Jimmy Mathers in Summer Magic, although Jimmy is more boyish than little Dunagan. (Someone must have been promoting Dunagan as a male Shirley Temple, as the cute moppet even gets the film's fade out scene.) Popular child actress Virginia Weidler plays Lallie Joy (older brother Digby doesn't appear in the story) who is very amusing in a recitation at the Carey's homecoming party and who ends up tailing Gilbert constantly. In addition, Walter Brennan plays folksy Osh Popham, who becomes the Careys' protectors (but not as assiduously as Burl Ives' version).
I was amused to find out this film probably takes place in Rhode Island. The story opens in Newport, where the family is staying at the fictional Ocean House; they hire a carriage to take them out to the country for a picnic. Since they probably wouldn't go much further than five or ten miles away from the hotel (ten miles was considered a good day's journey back then) and there's no indication they took a ferry, it's probable that the "Beulah" of the story is either Middletown or Portsmouth!
Despite the musical interludes and missing child, the Disney version is much more faithful to the Kate Douglas Wiggin novel, down to whole bits of dialog taken from the pages, but this is an interesting artifact of family movies of that era. It's very much akin to the Five Little Peppers films, where the names remained the same but the plot was changed radically.