Confession time: I’ve only seen six of the eighteen movies Agnes Moorehead made at M-G-M while she was a contract player there. According to The MGM Story by John Douglas Eames, Agnes’s first movie for the studio was The Youngest Profession in 1943 and her last was The Singing Nun in 1966. While she was always superb, most of her roles at M-G-M were brief and the majority of the movies were largely forgettable. However, Agnes did get a rather hefty part in the 1945 gem, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes. The film gives yet another shade to her versatility as a performer and gracefully touches on the themes of community and growing up.
Our Vines Have Tender Grapes was based on the 1940 novel by George Victor Martin, with the script written by Dalton Trumbo, and is unusual as a film because it’s cast with what we would normally think of as supporting or bit players. It stars Edward G. Robinson as Martinius Jacobson, Margaret O’Brien as his daughter, Selma, and Agnes as Martinius’s wife, Bruna, who live in Fuller Junction, a Norwegian farming community in Wisconsin. Except for an ill-advised trip down a river in a bathtub, nothing super-dramatic or scary happens in Grapes. Selma is a precocious little girl learning how to navigate life, and her best friend is her cousin, Arnold. Martinius is a hard-working farmer making a healthy living, but he can’t help dreaming about building a new barn. The fact that his neighbor has a gigundo, ultra-modern barn only serves to make Martinius’s eyes bigger, not out of jealousy, but hopefulness for what he can do with his own farm.
Bruna, meanwhile, makes sure everyone washes their faces, that meals are on the table, the house is clean, and that everyone keeps their feet on the ground. She’s not the cutting-up kind, but she does quietly twinkle. Bruna is the one who tips Martinius off that a circus is rolling through Fuller Junction in the dead of night. She laughs and jokes with her family on Christmas day. Bruna is also practical. She’s resistant to Martinius wanting a new barn. She wants her husband to be happy, and she knows how important a good barn is to a farm. However, Bruna has her eye on the bigger picture. She sees a new barn as a drain on her husband’s energy and a debt magnet. “It’s better never to have a thing, than to have it and be afraid,” she says.
Even though her part is longer, Agnes’s Bruna is still a pretty minor character. The relationship between Martinius and Selma is one of the main thrusts of the film, and it’s really very endearing. Selma is Daddy’s girl. She’s out in the barn learning how to raise livestock. She and Martinius play checkers when the weather gets bad, while Bruna sits nearby and knits. If Martinius is napping on the floor, Selma is right there on the floor with him. Martinius calls Selma Jente Mi, or My Girl. Edward G. Robinson and Margaret O’Brien have great chemistry in this film–it’s almost in the same vein as Atticus and Scout, only with less of a legal bent.
The other major themes, community and growing up, work so closely that they’re one in the same. The state of the town at the beginning of Grapes is encapsulated in the subplot of its saddest resident, Ingeborg Jensen. Abused by her father and going through life like an animal caught in a trap, Ingeborg is deprived of friendship and independence. People avoid her because they think she’s strange and scary, and it’s essentially the lack of community that kills her. “Why did Ingeborg have to die? Is it because she got lonesome for her mother?” Selma asks.
“Yes, I suppose it is,” Martinius tells her quietly.
Ingeborg’s death seems to be the catalyst for what happens during the rest of the film. All throughout, the film drives home the point that building community causes people to grow and freedom to flourish. Martinius was lonely as long as he wanted his new barn, but when he turned outward and began thinking of ways he could take care of his family and those in need, he was suddenly contented and surrounded by friends. Bruna, too, finds a way to move forward when she tells Martinius that he should go ahead and build his new barn, even though she was against it before. She’s very touched to find that Martinius has met her in the middle.
Martinius and Bruna aren’t the only characters who learn a thing or two. Selma and Arnold go from arguing over skates and calling names to listening and taking turns. Viola Johnson, the schoolteacher, considers Fuller Junction a backwater village until she allows herself to give the tolerance she requires of others. When a neighbor’s barn burns down, a collection is taken in church to help him get back on his feet. People put their spare change in, but it’s not until Selma offers something very dear to her that they begin to really help. Suddenly, the members of the congregation are pledging silage, hay, livestock, and seed, and all because of one little girl who chose to step outside herself. “The pussy willows are growing,” Selma later remarks after church. “I’m growing, too.”
“Yes, Jente Mi,” replies Martinius, as they walk through a grove of blossoming trees. “We all are.”
Bruna, meanwhile, watches them from the church steps with pride and love on her face.
Our Vines Have Tender Grapes is one of those films that is ignored all too much today. Dalton Trumbo’s being blacklisted as a communist was a big reason it was swept under the rug for a long time, and again, there are no big A-listers or major dramas happening. However, films (and art in general) don’t always have to be that way. When life gets harsh, pretty stories can help calm the spirit. Our Vines Have Tender Grapes is one such tale. Since it was released to the general public just days after World War Two ended, it probably had a healing effect on audiences. The movie even closes with a statement that the film would be shown free of charge to servicemen on the battlefront.
As for Ms. Moorehead, it’s refreshing to see her smiling and enjoying herself onscreen. The characters she played in films usually looked as if they could bite through nails, or were at least modest and retiring, and it’s interesting to wonder what her career would have been like if she had been able to play Bruna types more often. She’s a joy to watch in this movie.
That wraps up Day Two of our Agnes Moorehead Blogathon. Check back here tomorrow for Day Three, and until then, Crystal has more Agnes at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. See you all on Tuesday…