Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Written by Anita Loos and Ralph Wainwright
Spoiler alert: inapplicable? though Edna Gladney is not, I daresay, actually well-known, plus they make up a whole lot of stuff, so "moderate"
So I've talked a big game about Mervyn LeRoy being one of the greats and how the first half of the 1940s served as the foundation of his finest work, not least because of the rise of the woman's picture, of which he may have been Hollywood's finest practicioner (take that Cukor, and Sirk, and maybe even Wyler). So of course, now, right after tackling an absolute masterpiece, Waterloo Bridge, we arrive at Blossoms In the Dust, LeRoy's very next woman's picture (though not his immediate next film, for LeRoy, like most 40s directors, was tasked with constant projects, and by today's standards would be considered absurdly prolific). And of course Blossoms In the Dust turns out to be one of the most archetypically okay—maybe just okayish—pieces of biopic Oscarbait ever made, even by the standards of an era where biopic Oscarbait did not need to pretend to be anything besides the inspiring story of true fake events.
It is, as a compensation, at least of some importance: on a minor note, this Oscarbait caught, getting LeRoy his first Best Picture nomination for a film he'd directed since 1936's Anthony Adverse; more significantly, it inaugurated the long-running screen partnership of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, as well as Garson's frequent collaborations with LeRoy; likewise, it confirmed Garson's career as an full-on movie star after her breakthrough with Goodbye, Mr. Chips in '39, and solidified her screen persona in finely-honed detail as the sacrificing angel, whose loved ones always seemed to die off with an alarming frequency, though thankfully later Garson vehicles did tweak this a little.
It is not important, I'd daresay, for what it's about, or at least it isn't now. It shares that in common with many inspiring biopics, and even though this one was ripped from the headlines—its story concludes in 1939—it feels as archaic now as 1936's The Story of Louis Pasteur, and, given today's own vaccination "skepticism," perhaps even moreso. Unlike Louis Pasteur, Blossoms is not complete garbage as a movie. However, like Louis Pasteur, Blossoms is pretty short—99 minutes—and that redounds to its favor as social problem Oscarbait. Also like Louis Pasteur, it grabs your attention in the first few minutes by having its particular social problem result in somebody getting shot in the head, which was cool even in Louis Pasteur's reduced circumstances, and actually pretty affecting here.
Anyway, what it's about is the stain of illegitimacy, and despite my very incorrect assumptions, evidently that did still matter in 1941, or had in its very recent past. (Now, it even still matters today in ways that are annoying, but are usually a component to another issue, for example, the continuing inapplicability to nonmarital children of American fathers by foreign mothers of the doctrine of ius sanguinus—that is, blood citizenship—which is what we usually just refer to as "racism of sufficient intensity that it's happy to hurt white people, too"). One way it does seem to have still mattered in 1941 is that in real life its protagonist also had an unknown father, and while I suppose it's left ambiguous enough here that you could say that this film's heroine could also be illegitimate, or at least an adoptee, and the film would not, I think, actively contradict you, it may well explicitly state out loud that she's the genetic child of her parents. I didn't take a note about it, because one would assume that a movie about how illegitimate children are children would not erase its heroine's illegitimacy. But perhaps it was considered expedient: the word "bastard" seems to have retained enough power that, in this movie about bastardy, it's never uttered once onscreen. Still, I should like to take an opportunity to congratulate Blossoms In the Dust on a very pretty title.
What it's about specifically, then, is the amped-up life story of Edna Kahly
née Nell (Garson), and Blossoms begins long before her advocacy to remove the stamp of "illegitimate" from birth certificates in Texas did, which, counter-intuitively, actually turns out to have been a good move. While broadened scope usually doesn't benefit the biopic, this is perhaps the exception to the rule, letting you sort of get to know this largely personality-free avatar of goodness before she fully became little more than a lonely force of local history. Principally, this comes through her relationship with her sister, Charlotte (Marsha Hunt), and her romance with Sam Gladney (Pidgeon). The latter is highly fictionalized, and the former, well, fictitious entirely, but let us not hold this against Blossoms because both things work pretty well on its behalf. As we begin, Edna is not in any romance at all with Sam; she is in fact engaged to be married to some man or another, who probably did have a character name, and who probably qualifies as a catch in her small Wisconsin town, but Sam is a strapping man of means on his way to Texas to build a mill, and when Edna catches Sam's eye at the bank, and he is insufferably rude to her, suggesting that she won't be marrying that other fellow after all, we know that it's only a matter of time before she proves him entirely right. She and Charlotte, engaged to another perfectly decent Wisconsite, who got lucky in that no second Texan came along, begin preparing for their double wedding, which would be the happiest day of Edna's life, no doubt, if a little hitch hadn't come up for Charlotte—they both know Charlotte was adopted by the Kahlys, but Charlotte's illegitimacy comes as surprise—and with her in-laws protesting the nuptials, Charlotte decides not to wait to see how it turns out, ascends the stairs back to her room, and blows her brains out.
Edna marries solo and soon she's in Texas, where numerous other extremely bad things happen to her, leaving her rudderless in life until she fixes upon taking care of orphans and placing them in loving homes, though this is not enough once she's reminded that in Texas, too, illegitimacy is a dirty word and an obstacle to marriage, to adoption, and other aspects of social survival. To this end, she throws herself into activism, and ultimately gives a humongous speech from the gallery of the Texas legislature, shaming and inspiring them in equal measure to change the state's registry of births for justice.
I know: that sounds pretty bad. That it is not bad is a testament to the talent involved, principally LeRoy, but let's do him last. Anita Loos's screenplay (working from Ralph Wainwright's story) is not as shabby and didactic as it could be (it is, obviously, not not didactic). In fact, it manages a surprising amount of humanity for a woman it's loath to consider human, albeit mostly through just brutalizing this poor woman in ways she was not brutalized in history (as far as I can determine, Edna Gladney was only a good-natured reformist busybody, not this tragic figure), ultimately giving her a focus for her affection in the form of her favorite orphan, who calls her "aunt" though she plainly wishes to be more, a cute and not-even-very-annoying moppet named Tony (Pat Barker), who, for good measure, is disabled. Gosh, I am not selling this, but this honestly does work.
Might as well wedge it in, too, that Blossoms is persistently racist, thanks to the depiction of Edna's servants Zeke (Clinton Rosemund) and Cleo (Theresa Harris). For the most part, this is in ways sufficiently unstressed—by the narrative—that you can grit your teeth through their servile caricatures if you're used to this crap, but even then there's a bit of comic relief here and there that makes the racism more than incipient, and I somewhat don't buy that the housekeeper for a wealthy family would be totally illiterate. And, mind you, that's just by the narrative, but if you've seen Harris in any other media, even in black-and-white, even in photographs, you also realize that for reasons that are quite literally opaque, they put the black actress in black face, so in this Technicolor film she's rendered nearly violet. (I'd initially put this down to a "quirk" of early Techicolor, but clearly it's not.) This is nuts, and I don't know what they were going for (extra... comedy?), but it's not an especially laudable example of Technicolor in any respect. Overlit and flat (it was LeRoy's first color movie), its Oscar nomination for this suggests that the category "Best Cinematography-Color" existed in 1941, but perhaps didn't have a lot of eligible participants. Meanwhile, "Best Art Direction-Color," which this actually won, seems to have been awarded on the basis of Cedric Gibbons, Urie McCleary, and Edwin B. Willis convincing people that recreating old-timey reference photographs was serious art rather than just, like, their jobs.
But I want to say some nice things about it: it's on much better footing as a Garson and Pidgeon vehicle than almost anything else, which, if you know what happens halfway through, is somewhat ironic. Still, you can certainly see why they'd star in seven more movies together, and even with the somewhat more standard and initially more forceful male lead that Pidgeon presents here with Sam, there's a surplus of that Garson/Pidgeon (and LeRoy) gentleness, and it's a very nice, sometimes even a very lovely thing. Garson, by default, gets much more to do, and lives up to the strengths of the inspiring biopic, which are always dishonorable but we might as well admit they're real, giving Garson many chances for moral indignation and righteous declamation that she pulls off with a sense of fiery conviction and faintly crazy eyes. It's not exactly Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but modestly enjoyable to watch. Garson, inevitably, is more affecting before Edna enters the public sphere, and she's required to deal with the script's meticulous, almost sadistic pruning of her domestic attachments. This movie has just a staggering amount of death (it's the melodrama's answer to a slasher film), and Garson feels every one, on camera, but the curious thing about that is one of the few things that LeRoy does that isn't very specifically Garson/Pidgeon-related that makes Blossoms feel like it's actually a movie, or (frankly) that LeRoy gave the first shit about making it at all.
Even so, it's one hell of a thing: for with every passing LeRoy throws the film into a crazed montage, starting with the most jarring possible cut. It almost feels like a horrible mistake, or an artifact of some especially emotionally-obtuse brand of 40s filmmaking. The first and second deaths are attended by a montage of flowers, which the first time you assume is for a funeral, though you're wrong; both blow through years in seconds, and into a new situation entirely. (I'm disappointed that LeRoy didn't manage to satisfy the rule-of-threes with a third floral montage, but the third death occasions the same basic kind of trick, cutting from another dead loved one to Garson grinning like a maniac as Edna goes door-to-door to raise orphanage funds.) What it's getting at—and it must be, because it's too damn disorienting to not be entirely deliberate—is a cinematic expression of its heroine's indomitable will, unbowed by leveling personal tragedy, even if it keeps happening over and over. And honestly? In these moments Blossoms is briefly kind of great, sharpening Edna into that aforementioned force of history. But I like the final moments, too, which at last concede that she is a person, and therefore should be allowed, sometimes if not very often, to actually get to feel her sadness, since, after all, it's never left.