“Can’t Stop Marathon” Review #2: Little Man, What Now? (1934, Borzage)

July 8, 2011 — Leave a comment

My “Can’t Stop Marathon” continues, this time with another Borzage film, the 1934 talkie, Little Man, What Now?. In som respects the film is something of a mess. The plot veers course in weird ways and some of the characters can come off as silly or shrill. But somehow it all worked, and in the end, Little Man, What Now? turned out to be a beautiful, magical little film about perseverance learning to love the important things in life.

The story tells of a young man, Hans Pinneberg, living in post-WWI Germany and trying to make a decent wage to support his wife and their future child. Hans loses a job, gets more work, tries to get by, and all the while has to deal with superiors and family members who have a lot more money. He dreams of being successful and living among the higher classes, but his pride keeps him from becoming too chummy with those people.

I won’t go further into the plot developments because I don’t think they are especially important. What makes the film sing is the performance by Douglass Montgomery as Pinneberg. His journey through the film is so anchored by the emotions he so easily conveys. There are times when Pinneberg becomes something of a loathsome character, but he always remains relatable. Had that not been the case, the film would have been a disjointed mess.

The ending of the film brings a bit of a magical quality to the film, and while I’d normally write it off as deus ex machina, here it seems to stem naturally, not from the characters or the plot, but from the emotion of the scene. It’s actually quite marvelous, and to a certain degree the rest of the film carries that same quality. The way Borzage plays with the dark and the light, the sad and the blissful, reminds me quite a bit of Frank Capra. While Capra is overall more successful with films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, Borzage is quite a bit more artful about it. He lingers more on character depth to give us that emotional anchor, and there’s no doubt it works wonders.

This was only my second Borzage, and the more I see the hungrier I get for more. Little Man, What Now? is the kind of film I love watching. It is a film about what it is to be a human being. It revels in the simplicity of humanity, whether it be the good times or the bad. We go on an emotional journey with Hans Pinneberg that ultimately reveals the beauty in simply living, loving and raising a family.

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