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Friday, 12 April 2013

Classic Film Review: The Little Minister (1934)

The Little Minister stars John Beal as the title character in this film based on a story by J.M. Barrie. In the 1840s Gavin (Beal) arrives at Thrums to take up his new post. He proves to be able minister until he encounters a gypsy girl who cons him into starting a riot by accident. Babbie (Katharine Hepburn) is a gypsy by descent but is also betrothed to the local lord so, essentially, she's living two lives. After inciting the riot she needs to escape the village by posing as Gavin's wife, invoking feelings in them both. But if they get over the hurdle of Babbie's engagement to someone else and the mistrust of the villagers, they still have to face Gavin's mother (Beryl Mercer), who he has devoted his life to as she devoted hers to him.

This starts off slowly with Beal and his mother arriving in the village and, to be honest, it feels a little dull up until the moment Katharine Hepburn literally frolics onto the screen. Her haphazard, bouncy character is an early version of Susan in Bringing Up Baby (1938, reviewed here) and she livens up what has the potential to be a difficult story to enjoy. I had difficulty warming to John Beal as Gavin, though his character becomes more pronounced once he has Hepburn to bounce off. His confused and bemused stance is much more enjoyable to watch than his almost self-righteous preaching of the first few scenes.

After an amusing middle third, though, the film drops towards in pace towards the end as Gavin is faced with mortal danger - which I doubt was the intended effect. I think the problem is that, for me, the film had been carried by Hepburn's exuberance and once that was forced out there was little for me to focus on. Another niggle was that Babbie's relationship with Lord Rintoul (Frank Conroy) is shown far too little considering its place in the story. Their final scene was woefully short, more an afterthought than a resolution of a plot point.

There were, however, some gems in the supporting cast. Primary amongst these has to be Andy Clyde as the weary policeman who is upset because the villagers won't speak to him any more and gets himself into trouble trying to do his job. Donald Crisp is enjoyable in the complimentary role of Dr. McQueen and Mary Gordon as Nanny, who has a subplot of eviction of her own, is the other stand-out performance.

This is an average film carried by Hepburn in one of her stranger film roles. The Scottish accents are mostly passable and the sets are reasonable for the time. There are no exceptional scenes but quite a few good moments - all involving Hepburn.

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