Monday, March 2, 2009

Review – Poor Mrs. Jones

March 2, 2009

Poor Mrs. Jones – U.S., 1926

It is spring 1925, and a tired, frustrated housewife named Jane Jones (Leona Roberts) has her hands full. In one room, she is ironing; in another, she is baking bread. Out of the corner of her eye, she is on the alert for a pesky hen that keeps intruding into her garden and pecking out all of her plant seed. The electronic iron indicates that she and her family are lucky in a way, for not everyone in the countryside has such accessories. However, what many would expect to bring convenience to Mrs. Jones’ daily life – indeed to make her daily tasks more bearable – instead complicates them, for all it takes is for her generator to run out of electricity for her carefully arranged plans to go awry. First, she must unplug the iron, check the generator, find additional oil for it, put the oil into the generator, and return inside her house before the bread in the oven burns. She doesn’t make it, and the sight of the burnt bread, as well as the high-pitched shrills of her children complaining about what’s for dinner, proves to be the last straw. She gives her husband an ultimatum: Either he sells the farm and moves to the city, or she will simply leave.

The call of the big city is understandable, for life in the country can hardly stack up to the bright lights, excitement, and high salaries there. Jane’s sister Hattie (well-played by Maud Howell Smith) has lived in the city for quite a while, and we can imagine all of the amazing stories she has told Jane about life there. In addition, Hattie’s husband’s salary - $2,000 a year - is obviously a sore spot for Jane, for if Hattie’s husband can make that much, she reasons, why can’t her husband do the same? As luck would have it, Jane’s husband James (Walter Beck) even appears open to a change of scenery. He suggests that Jane spend some time with her sister. While she’s there, maybe she’ll even find him one of those high-paying jobs that he’s always hearing her talk about.

And yet the big city of Poor Mrs. Jones is not the magical one of Hollywood films such as Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise. In that film, the big city was a place where romance could be rekindled, a place that was so special as to make it possible for even the most egregious of sins to be forgiven. The characters in Sunrise return home, not because they want to, but because it is the right thing to do. Not wanting to give too much away, I’ll just say that Mrs. Jones’ experiences could not be more different, and it is not hard to see why she makes the decision she does.

It should also be said that Poor Mrs. Jones is a piece of American propaganda. Produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the film has a message for its audience: Stay where you are. Be content. Just farm the land. What you have in the countryside is worth more than the salaries you could get elsewhere. It’s an odd message unless you understand the rationale behind it. Life for a farmer in the 1920s was tough. The average farmer had seen his wages fall as global trade and falling demand reduced his income in some cases by two-thirds. It is estimated that the countryside lost a million residents a year due to either natural death or job-inspired migration. In short, the American farmer was in danger of disappearing. It is ironic that just eight years later, King Vidor would release Our Daily Bread, a film that depicted the reverse trend, laid-off workers migrating from the city to the country in the hopes of creating a self-sustaining socialist society.

Poor Mrs. Jones is not a long film, but it uses all of its forty-six minutes well and ends up being enjoyable, if not completely memorable. We understand both Mrs. Jones’ frustration in the countryside and the feelings that pull her back there. Leona Roberts gives a good performance as Mrs. Jones. Her facial expressions are perfect throughout the film, especially when she has to convey restrained shock and physical discomfort. She would go on to make forty-four other films, among them 1939’s Gone with the Wind, before her death in 1954. I also liked the performances of Hattie’s husband (Arthur J. Rhodes), a likeable man making the most of what little his supposed high salary affords him. If this was indeed his only film, it’s a shame. (on disc two of Treasures from the American Film Archives III: Social Issues in American Film)

3 stars

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