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Blossoms in the Dust (1941)

Updated on December 21, 2014
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Mervyn LeRoy.
Mervyn LeRoy. | Source

Confession time: the reason I'm reviewing the movies I'm reviewing is because they were included in a 4-pack of "holiday classics" that I got for a steal on Amazon. It Happened on 5th Avenue was included (ugh), as well as Holiday Affair (eh, not so bad). Also included is 1956's All Mine to Give (which I was going to review, but the disc is faulty, so that's out) and today's film, the 1941 biopic Blossoms in the Dust. I mentioned all this because Blossoms in the Dust isn't exactly a Christmas movie. Oh, there are two scenes where Christmas is definitely involved, but it's not the theme or part of the plot, so it's rather inaccurate to call it a "Christmas movie" (Meet Me in St. Louis also has this problem). Still, it was part of the pack, and since it stars the unfairly maligned Greer Garson in glorious Technicolor, and was her first film with Walter Pigeon, and was the first of her five consecutive Oscar nominations for Best Actress, how could I not review it?

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Tiresome Warning of the Day: Blossoms in the Dust has some cringe-inducing portrayals of black servants (par for the course back then), and one of the actresses even looks like her skin has been darkened. Though the scenes are few and far between, they'll no doubt leave a bad taste in the mouth. If you don't suffer archaic racial stereotypes in movies, then pass on this one.

Blossoms in the Dust is the very loosely, but very lovingly told story of Edna Gladney, campaigner for children's rights and namesake for the Gladney Center for Adoption, which is still in operation today. It opens in the early 1900s, when she is still Edna Kahley, and she and her adopted sister Charlotte (Marsha Hunt) are about to celebrate their engagements. Edna is shocked to discover that Sam Gladney (Pigeon), a banker who had insulted her earlier that day, has crashed the party and begins wooing her in the obnoxiously pushy style typical of Classic Hollywood men. Edna huffily calls him "insufferable"… and am I even spoiling anything when I say Sam's tactic actually works, and Edna dumps her inconsequential fiancée to marry Sam?


Walter Pidgeon: G-rated pickup artist.
Walter Pidgeon: G-rated pickup artist. | Source

But everything isn't music and romance for poor Charlotte. Her prospective in-laws have discovered that she was a "foundling", an illegitimate child, which, back then, was an undeserved scarlet letter you wore for the rest of your life. Devastated, Charlotte commits suicide right there in the house, much to Edna's horror.

Tragedy becomes a familiar friend to Edna when, years later, her only son dies in an accident, and she is unable to bear more children. Time passes and, with Sam's help, Edna finds a way to move past her grief and find a new purpose: she opens a daycare, which then becomes a home for children up for adoption. Despite Sam's fluctuations in fortune, she is able to continue her quest, but Charlotte's death continues to haunt her, and since children labeled as illegitimate are less likely to be adopted, she decides to propose a bill to have the word struck from birth certificates.

Greer Garson as Edna Gladney.
Greer Garson as Edna Gladney. | Source
The real Edna Gladney.
The real Edna Gladney. | Source

It's difficult to wrap one's head around the fact that society could be prejudiced against children for being of unknown parentage, but that's just how it was. Thanks to Gladney, the bill was successfully passed and adoption conditions improved immeasurably.

In spite of the familiar MGM gloss, Garson is quite moving as Gladney, portraying her as a warm, tender, maternal woman with an iron backbone. In the best scene in the movie, Edna gives an impassioned speech before Congress about removing the word "illegitimate" from birth certificates, and she never backs down for a second. Garson pulls off this scene beautifully, and it's a stirring display of courage. Edna Gladney definitely deserves to be recognized as a role model for women, especially given the time period in which she lived.

The cast is decent, and once Pigeon ditches the pickup artist facade, he's actually quite charming. The screenplay by Anita Loos, who famously wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, is fairly solid, even though a fictional subplot of Gladney becoming too attached to a little boy up for adoption feels a bit sappy and contrived. I suppose they just needed a little extra conflict.

So it may not be a Christmas movie, per se, but Blossoms in the Dust is an attractive, likable story, and Greer Garson, one of cinema's most iconic redheads, in Technicolor? Always a nice gift, any time of the year.

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