When I reviewed Christmas In Connecticut, Kristina from Speakeasy recommended 1944’s Sunday Dinner For A Soldier to me. It just so happened that the film was already on my Amazon list, and lo and behold, I got it for Christmas. Funny how things work out. Anyway, the film is the story of a poor family who want to do their part to help the troops.
The film opens at a beach in Florida, where the Osborne family are going about their daily routine in and around their houseboat. Tessa (Anne Baxter) is putting her latest crab catch in a basket for market, with her little brother, Michael (Billy Cummings) helps her. The youngest, Jeep (Bobby Driscoll) is flying a kite while his sister, Mary (Connie Marshall) polishes Grandfeathers’s (Charles Winninger) boots. The family is very hard-up, but are scraping together what they can to have a soldier over for dinner. Every morning they wave at the bomber fleets flying over, and are delighted to see one of them tip its wings back at them.
The Osborne family members are pretty easy to peg. Tessa and the other kids lost their parents in a car accident, and ever since then they’ve had to live on the houseboat with Grandfeathers. As the oldest, Tessa is the one trying to hold the whole family together, watching every penny and finding ways to make ends meet on no budget. Her only dress fell apart, so she has to go around in blouses and dungarees. The family’s situation got even more dire when Mary got sick, further draining the finances. Tessa not only dreams of finding a way to really take care of her family, but she dreams of dancing and music. An unfinished club down the beach is where she likes to go and imagine this other life. She even thinks she can hear the orchestra playing.
Tessa worries that Grandfeathers doesn’t understand the gravity of their situation. He’s an old Navy man who wants his family to live the good life, but he has a habit of improving on the truth, so his grasp of reality is sometimes tenuous. Fortunately, Tessa’s younger brothers and sisters are an enterprising and cheerful bunch. Michael is her right-hand man who wants just as badly as Tessa to help the family, and he looks for odd jobs around the community. Mary, who’s still recovering from her illness, does what she can around the house. She has a beloved pet hen, Miss Easter, who she treats with kid gloves. Last but not least is Jeep, who stands on his head and whistles when he’s feeling good.
Tessa dispatches Grandfeathers and Michael to town to sell the crabs. However, it’s not that easy, as Michael gets into a fist fight with a bunch of kids, who surreptitiously replace the crabs with a couple of bricks. Michael and Grandfeathers go into the USO to leave their address for the soldier they’ll be hosting, where they’re followed by Agatha Butterfield (Anne Revere), a local poultry farmer who’s sweet on Grandfeathers. She wants to buy the crabs for when she hosts soldiers for dinner, and Grandfeathers gives her the basket at no charge. Agatha smirks all over the place until she opens the basket and sees the two bricks. It’s an honest mistake, but Agatha is so ticked she tears up the card with the Osbornes’ information on it.
Once they’re back at home, Grandfeathers shows off his haul. Tessa is chagrined to find out that her crabs went for nothing, and that Grandfeathers has brought back what she thinks are frivolous purchases, although she’s touched to see that he bought her a dress.
Tessa takes a walk in her new dress after dinner, and ends up at the unfinished club, where she stops to dream for a bit. Her gentleman caller, Kenneth (Robert Bailey) finds her down there, and he tries talking Tessa into marrying him. He can give her everything she could possibly want–new dresses, music, a fine home. He can also see that her brothers and sister are taken care of…in schools, far away from them. Same thing with Grandfeathers, only minus the school part.
Tessa hesitates. She doesn’t want to break up her family, not only because she loves them but she has another reason that Kenneth doesn’t understand. It’s clear he doesn’t get Tessa or her situation. However, she agrees to consider the proposal while Kenneth is away on a business trip.
From then on, it’s all about getting ready for the soldier. The family worries about having a chicken to fry, and Grandfeathers wonders if Miss Easter should become dinner. Tessa is horrified at the idea, and tells him they’ll find another way. But first she and Grandfeathers have to do damage control with poor little Mary, who’s afraid her beloved hen will be on the chopping block.
It’s a funny thing about the Osbornes: Their fortunes never quite hit rock-bottom. They go from wondering what they’ll feed the soldier to having three chickens. It’s even in doubt if the soldier will show up, as the town suddenly becomes devoid of servicemen. Then one Sergeant Eric Moore (John Hodiak) appears walking on the beach, and it’s “a genuine miracle,” as Mr. York (Chill Wills), the bus driver would say. Everything suddenly falls into place in the nicest possible way, and all the family can do is sit back in wonder.
Sunday Dinner For A Soldier isn’t full of glamorous women swanning around in haute couture, but regular people who get dust on their faces and have maybe one good suit. One of the nicest things about the film is that it’s good with the Osbornes being poor. They make up for their lack of funds with kindness, persistence, and innovation, and the only way they can go is up. On the way, they learn that they don’t have to go far to find out what’s really important. The film is a gentle story, nicely diverting and an atypical wartime movie that has seemed to wear well.
Thanks Kristina, for the recommendation! See everyone next time…
This film is available on Amazon.