For Reel

Sweepings (1933)
June 30, 2012, 7:46 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: John Cromwell

A tough, bitter melodrama about life’s greatest disappointments, Sweepings is a forgotten masterpiece of the pre-Code era. Directed by the underrated John Cromwell (who would go on to make Of Human Bondage and Abe Lincoln in Illinois) and produced by David O. Selznick (his last producing credit at RKO studios), the film was adapted by Lester Cohen from his 1926 novel of the same name. Lionel Barrymore plays a man who came from humble beginnings and, shortly after the Chicago fire of 1871, finds success with a department store. As much as he excels financially, however, his family life falls to ruins – his wife dies giving birth to their fourth child, and all of his children grow up to be ungrateful and unwilling to carry on his legacy. Like the films of Yasujirō Ozu, the picture’s presentation of the nuclear family is far from harmonious. A violent distinction is made between the younger and older generations, with the privileged young appearing as little more than selfish and thankless, whereas the old understand the importance of work ethic. Barrymore’s performance as the patriarch is heart-breaking and surprisingly harsh. He’s not a lovable man, never resorting to sentimentality and remaining absolutely stubborn to the core. Cromwell and cinematographer Edward Cronjager underscore the mood with shadows and gloom – in a late scene, Barrymore has a nearly-lethal fall after his loyal employee reveals the truth about the selfish children. It’s the most intense confrontation in the picture, and Cromwell and Cronjager shoot it entirely through shadows on the wall, as if both mercifully distancing us from Barrymore’s pain as well as suggesting his impending doom.

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