Cast & Crew
In a small New England town in 1906, high school senior and idealist Richard Miller believes that he was born before his time. Arthur, his older brother, attends Yale, while Mildred and Tommy, his younger siblings, live at home. Richard's father Nat edits the town newspaper and is indifferent to his son's interest in the literature of Omar Khayyám and other writers, that is, until his mother Essie decides that the books are "socialistic" and forces her husband to remove them. Despite the ban, Richard plans to use quotations from the books in a speech he has been asked to give at his commencement ceremony. Nat's brother Sid, a womanizer with a drinking problem, tries to woo Essie's spinster sister Lily, who lives with the Millers, but she rejects his numerous offers of marriage. At the commencement ceremony, Richard begins to read his speech, but when Nat notices that he is about to express anti- capitalist sentiments, he interrupts the oration and prevents the boy from continuing. Nat, realizing that Sid is in desperate need of a job and reformation, finds him work in a nearby town, but when he returns for a visit on the Fourth of July, Sid admits that he lost the job. Richard writes his sweetheart Muriel love letters, which contain quotations from Swinburne, but is forced to stop when Muriel's father intercepts them and threatens Nat with the removal of his advertisements from his newspaper. Muriel's father forbids her from seeing Richard again and forces her to write a letter in which she spurns his love. Heartbroken, Richard mopes all day long. That night, he and a friend go to the Pleasant Beach House, a drinking establishment of ill-repute, where Richard drinks and smokes and meets Belle, a vamp who plies him with liquor and then takes five dollars from him. When the bartender is tipped off about Richard's age, he ejects him. Meanwhile, Richard's family anguishes over Richard's lateness, and just as Nat and Arthur leave to search for him, the boy returns home. Sid, being a well-seasoned imbiber himself, offers to take care of the drunken Richard and nurses him back to sobriety. The next day, Belle, seeking revenge for the events of the night before, delivers a note to Nat's office, claiming that the Pleasant Saloon sold liquor to a minor. Nat glimpses the "fallen woman" on her way out and questions his son's judgment of character. Muriel, who has been punished for her correspondence with Richard, tries to explain her situation to her estranged sweetheart, but Richard, still angry with her, tells her about a wild party he went to the night before, thus sending her away in tears. Richard runs after Muriel, and following his apology, the two kiss for the first time. Prompted by Richard's experience with Belle, Nat has a talk with him about women, warning him not to fall for "whited sepulchres." Richard promises, thus restoring Nat's faith in his son's morals. All ends happily as Lily and Sid make up, Mildred finds a boyfriend, and Nat and Essie acknowledge that they are surrounded by love.
Leigh De Lacy
Arthur S. "pop" Byron
Edward Le Saint
George Offerman Jr.
Norman Phillips Jr.
Betty Jane Graham
Harry C. Bradley
Clyde De Vinna
William A. Horning
Frank E. Hull
O'Neill wrote the play, his only comedy, in five weeks and based the story upon his recollections of bourgeoisie life from his family's vacation spot in New London, Connecticut. He denied, however, that it was autobiographical in any way. In his biography O'Neill: Son and Artist by Louis Scheaffer, he mused that the play's content was, "... a sort of wishing out loud. That's the way I would have liked my childhood to have been." Still, many of the play's characters had roots in real people in O'Neill's life; the teenager Eric Linden is shades of the playwright himself. Husband and wife screenwriting team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were responsible for the onscreen translation, fresh from the massive success of The Thin Man (1934). The pair would go on to write the initial script for It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Father of the Bride (1950), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) -among others! This power duo would also create the musical version of Ah, Wilderness! entitled Summer Holiday in 1948.
Director George Marshall took the reins early on in production of Wilderness, succeeding in the unusual move of convincing MGM to allow filming on location. To stay true to the play's New England roots, he chose his hometown of Grafton, Massachusetts. Approximately two hundred of Grafton's residents were cast as extras, using clothing handed down in their families for costumes fitting the turn of the century. Actor Wallace Beery received top billing as the rowdy, tippling uncle -not a huge stretch for the actor, who made a career out of playing good-natured rascals. A few notable exceptions to this rule include his Best Actor-winning turn in The Champ (1931) and the touching Min and Bill (1930). Will Rogers was originally slated to play the tender and sensible father, Nat Miller, but backed out and shortly afterwards tragically died in the infamous plane crash that also claimed the life of friend and ace pilot Wiley Post on August 15, 1935. Lionel Barrymore stepped in to replace him and earned some of his career's finest notices with a tender and poignant performance. Mickey Rooney, who played the impish little brother, recalled in his autobiography Life Is Too Short: "Ah, Wilderness! is a story about growing up in small-town New England, a place that might have existed at one time for millions of Americans. Lionel Barrymore was a kindly dad trying to help his teenage son ... grow up as best he could; he even tried a heart-to-heart talk about sex, heartbreaking, funny and memorable... Creating this New England utopia was all part of [MGM studio head] L.B. Mayer's master plan to reinvent America."
The Barrymore camp, however, saw things a little differently: in The House of Barrymore, by Margot Peters, she contends, "Mayer almost managed to ruin Ah, Wilderness! by insisting the role of drunken Uncle Sid be padded for his favorite Wallace Beery at the expense of Lionel's role as the father... Clarence Brown, the director, had the artistic sense to attempt to balance the parts in the cutting room, permitting Lionel's expert portrait of Nat Miller to hold the screen against Beery's bleary soak." Rooney didn't seem to mind: "For me the high point of making the film was getting to know Wallace Beery, a lovable, shambling kind of guy who never seemed to know that his shirttail belonged inside his pants but always knew when a little kid actor needed a smile and a wink or a word of encouragement." Director Brown was undoubtedly pleased with his "little kid actor"-he would work with him a total of four times, including National Velvet (1944). According to film critic Leonard Maltin, the director, "... who'd worked with every top MGM star in his long career-named Rooney the finest actor he'd ever directed!"
The rest of the ensemble cast was impressive, notably Spring Byington as the mother and the teen son played by Eric Linden. Byington, once dubbed "The Queen of Homey Matriarchs", had an Oscar® nominated performance in You Can't Take It with You (1938) and a versatile career by her own words, "Down through the years I have played everything from ingénues and soubrettes, to mothers, aunts, cousins, and grandmothers, and each part had to be interpreted differently." Linden, who was twenty-five trying to play eighteen in Ah, Wilderness!, had by comparison a short career, with big roles in small films or vice versa (he was the "Amputation Case" in Gone With the Wind, 1939). The screen chemistry of Barrymore, Byington, and Linden in Ah, Wilderness!, however, was potent enough to warrant the trio packing off to Missouri after filming to begin work on The Voice of Bugle Ann (1936).
Charley Grapewin, best known as Uncle Henry from The Wizard of Oz (1939), also appears in both films. And the film connections don't end there: Cecilia Parker, playing Linden's love interest here, was best remembered as Andy Hardy's, a.k.a. Mickey Rooney's, older sister in the long-running series of films. In fact, A Family Affair (1937), the first Hardy film, featured not only Rooney and Parker, but Barrymore, Byington, and Grapewin, making it an unofficial Ah, Wilderness! reunion of sorts!
Thirteen years later, Rooney would go on to star in the musical remake, Summer Holiday, graduating from the kid brother to teenage boy role. The play would have another manifestation as a television movie in 1976, starring Geraldine Fitzgerald and Swoosie Kurtz. The original version, however, remains the most popular-one imagines the reincarnations as a tribute to O'Neill's belief that "emotionally we still deeply hanker after the old solidarity of the family unit."
Producer: Clarence Brown, Hunt Stromberg
Director: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Eugene O¿Neill (play)
Cinematography: Clyde De Vinna
Film Editing: Frank E. Hull
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Herbert Stothart, Paul Lincke, Lilla Cayley Robinson, Edward Ward
Cast: Wallace Beery (Sidney Miller), Lionel Barrymore (Nat Miller), Aline MacMahon (Lily Davis), Eric Linden (Richard Miller), Cecilia Parker (Muriel McComber), Spring Byington (Essie Miller).
BW-98m. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin
'Rogers, Will' planned to play Nat Miller in this film, but eventually backed out of the project, enabling him to make the ill-fated airplane trip with Wiley Post to Alaska. The plane crashed, killing them both.
The title of the play on which this film is based was derived from a line in the poem "The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám" by Omar Khayyám. A Daily Variety news item notes that the world premiere of the film took place on December 6, 1935, which makes it unlikely that the release date of November 29, 1935 listed in Motion Picture Herald is correct. Although a January 12, 1935 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that production on the film was scheduled to start at the end of that month, for reasons unknown, the production did not begin until August 1935. January 1935 Hollywood Reporter news items also noted that actor Trent Durkin was set for an "important juvenille role," and that William Henry was cast, however, their participation the released film has not been determined. Later Hollywood Reporter pre-production news items noted that M-G-M asked J. C. Nugent to play "Nat Miller." Although Hollywood Reporter production charts list actors Chris Schoenberg and Frank McGlynn in the cast, and although a news item notes that former child players (Baby) Peggy Montgomery, Mickey Bennett, Dick Winslow, Nancy Brice and Muriel McCormick were to be in the cast, their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. As early as October 1934, Hollywood Reporter announced that Will Rogers, who played "Nat Miller" in the 1933 San Francisco and Hollywood stage productions of O'Neill's play, was set to reprise his role for the screen. According to a 6 August Daily Variety news item, however, negotiations for Will Rogers to star in the film "went cold," and resulted in the assignment of Lionel Barrymore to the part. Modern sources erroneously state that Rogers' death in a plane crash necessitated his replacement. According to New York Times, Rogers asked Winfield Sheehan, the production head of Fox, which was to loan Rogers to M-G-M, to get him out of the picture. Stromberg apparently was so set on Rogers that he even suggested the film be made on the Fox lot. A biography on Rogers notes that, contrary to an August 8, 1935 M-G-M Studio News article announcement that Rogers and the rest of the Ah, Wilderness cast were about to depart for Massachusetts to begin filming, Rogers had no intention of participating in the film. The biography offers as evidence a picture of Rogers carrying the dateline Juneau, 8 August 1935.
Some scenes were filmed on location in Grafton, MA, and in the nearby towns of Clinton, MA, which was director Clarence Brown's hometown, and Worcester, MA, where the world premiere was held. Over 200 locals were used as extras. Ah, Wilderness! was remade as a musical by M-G-M in 1948, entitled Summer Holiday, which was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starred Mickey Rooney and Walter Huston. This was followed by a number of television broadcasts of the play, including: a Celanese Theatre production, televised on ABC on October 3, 1951, which was directed by Alex Segal and starred Thomas Mitchell and Roddy McDowall; a Front Row Center production, televised on CBS on June 5, 1955, which was directed by Fletcher Markle and starred Leon Ames and Bobby Driscoll; and a Theatre in America production, televised on PBS on October 13, 1976, which was directed by Arvin Brown and starred William Swetland and Richard Backus.