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Hearts of Humanity

D: Christy Cabanne / 65m

Cast: Jean Hersholt, Claudia Dell, Jackie Searl, Charles Delaney, J. Farrell MacDonald, Richard Wallace, Lucille La Verne, John Vosburgh, George Humbert, Tom McGuire, Betty Jane Graham

Based on the story by Olga Printzlau, Hearts of Humanity is set in a bustling neighbourhood in New York where one of the pillars of the community is genial Irish cop Tom O’Hara (MacDonald).  O’Hara’s wife and young son are travelling by ship from Ireland to be with him, something he has been waiting for (it seems) for quite some time.  O’Hara lives above a second hand shop owned by Sol Bloom (Hersholt), a kindly old widower whose son, Joey (Wallace) is always getting into trouble (though bunking school and stealing fruit from local merchant Tony (Humbert) seems to be the extent of his wilfulness).  A few days before his wife and son’s arrival, O’Hara receives a telegram informing him that his wife has died during the voyage and been buried at sea.  That night, Sol’s shop is broken into; when O’Hara attempts to apprehend the burglar he is shot and killed, but not before he extracts a promise from Sol that his son, Shandy (Searl) will be looked after.

Shandy is “adopted” by Sol (and calls himself Shandy O’Hara Bloom!), and the boy fits in well with the rest of the neighbourhood, including Ruth Sneider (Dell), whose mother (La Verne) runs a cleaning and dyeing store.  Ruth is seeing local ne’er-do-well Dave Haller (Vosburgh), whose dapper fashion sense and expensive car have turned her head, despite the attentions of beat cop Tom Varney (Delaney) who is in love with her.  When Shandy inadvertently uncovers the source of Haller’s “income” he brings the issue to a head; at the same time, his discovery that Joey has stolen a dollar from the till sets in motion a series of events that involve the threat of juvenile hall, a talent show, the theft of a violin that was given to Shandy by his mother, and a near-death inducing bout of pneumonia before everything is resolved satisfactorily.

With its melting pot background and portrait of an immigrant community coping with every day problems, Hearts of Humanity has a poignant approach – most typified by recurring shots of Hersholt smiling heavenward – that adds to the simplicity of the dramatic elements and elevates them appropriately.  The various story elements gel together naturally and the sense of a community committed to providing support for all its members is well-handled (and with a minimum of undue pathos).  It’s a tribute to the script by Edward T. Lowe Jr that these elements – already well on the way to becoming stereotypical – are moulded into such an entertaining whole, and that the characters, while instantly recognisable, are imbued with all-too understandable and relatable foibles and behaviours.  The dialogue is refreshingly naturalistic, without any of the archness that was present in so many movies from the early Thirties, and there’s an equally refreshing lack of artifice or contrivance (a good example of this is the fact that O’Hara’s killer is never caught).

The cast – all seasoned professionals at this point (with the exception of Wallace, making only his second screen appearance) – inhabit their roles with an easy conviction, and each gets a chance to shine.  Hersholt, already well established as an avuncular father figure following his success as a villain in the silent era (see von Stroheim’s Greed (1927) for a great example of this), comes close to being overly sentimental but manages to rein in the script’s occasional extravagance in this direction (though one scene with Wallace in particular might challenge a modern day audience’s view on the matter).  Searl, a child actor who was known as “The Kid Everybody Wants to Spank”, struggles with an awkward Irish accent that lapses almost as much as it’s actually put into play, but impresses in his scenes with Hersholt, and more than holds his own with the rest of the cast.  Dell, while given relatively little to do, invests Ruth with a steely vulnerability, and is complemented by Delaney’s dogged pursuit of her as the likeable Varney.  But if this is anyone’s movie in particular, then it’s MacDonald’s.  It’s a measure of the impact he has on the movie’s opening minutes that, when he’s killed, his presence is sorely missed from thereon.  The scene where he receives the news of his wife’s death is beautifully played, and quietly haunting.

In the director’s chair, Cabanne shows a sure hand, balancing and judging the disparate dramatic and comedic elements with aplomb, and making the whole experience a pleasing one that lingers in the memory, despite the movie’s short running time.  Ably supported by Charles J. Stumar in the cinematographer’s chair, Cabanne moves the camera around with surprising fluidity, and also has a keen eye for an effective close up.  Usually quite a workmanlike director (and once described by Kevin Brownlow as “one of the dullest directors of the silent film era”), here Cabanne ups his game quite a bit, and the result is appealing and engrossing in equal measure.  It’s no masterpiece, to be sure, but it is a lot of fun.

Rating: 7/10 – amusing and affecting in equal measure with confident performances throughout, Hearts of Humanity is a modest movie that, at the same time, has no intention of hiding its light under a bushel; in many ways a simple tale but told in such a persuasive style that the viewer can’t help but be absorbed by it.

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