Saturday, September 30, 2006

1936: The Overlooked -- JANE DARWELL in “RAMONA”

"Ramona” spins the bittersweet tale of a young Indian couple in old California. Filmed in dream-like Technicolor, the story’s told with swift economy. Production values are superb. My only quibble is that Fox was unwilling or unable to secure the rights to the famous song “Ramona” (written to promote the ’28 silent version). Its absence from the soundtrack is conspicuous. Above all, though, the film’s constructed as a showcase for the exquisite Loretta Young. Emotional investment in the tale wouldn’t be nearly what it is without her melting expertise. Which is not to say “Ramona” doesn’t contain fine work from other cast members. Katherine DeMille, for instance, is quite startling as a determined rival for the hero’s affections. It’a bold, sexually charged turn, uniquely seasoned with her own striking brand of dignity.

But the standout supporting performance comes from Jane Darwell as the frontierswoman who shelters Ramona and her beleaguered family. Darwell is Aunt Ri, a sturdy practitioner of the Golden Rule, who instinctively does more for others than she’d probably ever expect to have done for her. The character could prove – in other hands – too good to be true. But Darwell’s sleeves-rolled-up approach is just too genuine to be doubted. Aunt Ri’s a hardy Tennessee transplant, equally at home toting a rifle or rocking a baby. She’s a woman who could spell Lillian Gish on that porch in “Night of the Hunter” and never let any sneaking Robert Mitchum get past her. Even before the script supplies a few details about her past, we sense she’s preserved her generous spirit in the face of obstacles likely to have flattened most of us. When so inclined, Darwell could play harridans to a fare-thee-well (see “Ox-Bow Incident”). But indomitable Earth Mother is the role that fits her most snugly. That’s what she is in “Ramona”. And when she’s around – even if it’s only onscreen – the world seems like a better, safer place.

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