Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Frances Marion, Leonard Praskins, and Zelda Sears
Emma is 72 minutes long, which we might barely consider feature length today, and while of course it's not notably short by the standards of Clarence Brown or any other director in 1932, you do still notice that it's only 72 minutes long. Harken to me, reader, for you might never see me make this complaint again: it's too short. It just doesn't have enough time to get its story out without the effort feeling a little clipped, sometimes already like its own summary. Few movies have a single scene that encapsulates its problems so succinctly (but then, the problem is succinctness), and even fewer where that scene is still more-or-less effective, but Emma does, when its titular heroine finds herself for the first time alone in the grand mansion that has been her home for many years, and which she now owns; having just thrown out her late husband's ungrateful children, she is immediately stricken by ghosts of happier times, when the children were young and they still needed her as much as she needed them. Presently, two memories cry for Emma—in a consecutive pair of comparatively easy-to-accomplish but nevertheless remarkably-good effects shots—and her confrontation with these two vanished echoes of a life that now seems to have been, in a sense, wasted, is poised to be a little heartbreaking. But I should have mentioned: there are four children. But as we've got only 72 minutes and we really must be moving along, even by the time we get to just the second phantasmal symbol of Emma Thatcher Smith's broken filial relationships, it doesn't really even bother cluing us in on whatever this weenie baby is crying about. Probably, she's just being a stupid brat, given that as a grown-up she's still a stupid brat.
This brusqueness is the main problem with a story that, by the same token, clicks along. It concerns the family Smith, a surname that one suspects, given their patriarch's thick accent, along with its "no, is Anglisk name" genericism, is not the one he was actually born with. That patriarch is Frederick (Jean Hersholt), a striving inventor on the cusp of great success, and when we meet the Smiths in the early 20th century, he's already sired three children. These are Isabelle (presently Anne Shirley, later Myrna Loy), Bill (presently Jay Ward, later George Meeker), and Gypsy (presently Edith Fellows, later Barbara Kent, reuniting with Brown the actress you might not remember from Flesh and the Devil to play the Smith you're least likely to remember here, albeit through no fault of the actress; the name is also fairly strong evidence that "Gypsy" has not historically been as much of a racial slur in American English as in Europe). The Smiths are expecting yet another child, though you'll see why I haven't credited Frederick's wife: she is not played by anybody at all, except by the notional offscreen space in what are probably the worst-composed shots of the movie, albeit for the understandable reason that merely being in the same room was perhaps already testing the contemporary censorship regime. Somewhere below the frame, then, the first Mrs. Smith perishes before the eyes of the family's loyal maid, Emma Thatcher (Marie Dressler). But out of sorrow comes some surcease, for Emma resuscitates Ronnie (presently a doll, later Richard Cromwell), the non-responsive infant Mrs. Smith died to bring into the world.
One giant ellipsis later, it's roughly 1932, and both much and little has changed: the kids all still live at home (two of them apparently live there with their spouses, even Isabelle's spouse (André Cheron), who's somehow a French count despite French aristocratic titles having been abolished for the third and final time sixty-two years earlier), and Frederick has never remarried; however, they have become extravagantly wealthy in the intervening years, the result of their father's many patents. Emma is still their servant but in ways that place her both at the top of the hierarchy of the small army of servants they now employ, and completely apart from it, for naturally between there and here she has been as much a mother to these four kids—and even to their absent-minded, increasingly-sickly father—as she's ever been any mere maid. It's still been work, so Emma is preparing to take what is basically her first-ever vacation; but when Frederick accompanies her to the train station and realizes that she's almost too scared to leave at all, he confides his own loneliness and affection for her, and asks the old maid to marry him, thereby turning her solo shuffle off to Buffalo into a classic Niagara honeymoon.
This is where that abbreviating impulse does its profoundest damage, because practically the very instant they're married (not that we see them get married), Frederick dies of his equally-vaguely-defined health issues, and I do think this is by some margin the movie's most obvious flaw: when Frances Marion was plotting it, I don't know if she was engaged to come up with only a loose framework and the other writers neglected to buff it up, or if she was actively instructed to keep her scenario this rawboned. To their credit, the movie's had a 30s-normal romantic dramedy pace up till this point (we can accept that it doesn't insist upon more than just the one scene-setting prologue, though this was, surprisingly, a reshoot Brown commissioned at the last minute, suggesting that this movie was originally somehow shorter), but the savage suddenness it takes on here renders Emma's cute, mature, heartwarming romantic centerpiece feeling a little too much like the instrumentality that, I suppose, it fundamentally always was. It even does damage to what's come before, because with Frederick's exit we realize we're never going to get so much as a modestly textured appreciation of what their relationship is and has been like, let alone what their new relationship entails, despite some efforts by Brown, Marion, and the two dialogue writers to give it texture in the space afforded.
But Emma is, after all, not as concerned with that marriage as with how Emma's "children" react to it (this is true despite their reaction occupying less than half the brief runtime), and that reaction is mostly pique inflected by white-hot shame. Accordingly, when Frederick dies and leaves his entire estate to his new wife, they don't waste a second attempting to overthrow his new will—and the film, for its part, doesn't waste a second doing probate, because the kids go immediately to the D.A. to get Emma outright charged with their father's murder, which would probably remain even in the richest possible treatment of Emma's story, simply because a criminal trial is fraughter and therefore more melodramatic, but the legal-minded viewer will wonder if they must truly believe she killed him by overdosing him with his oft-forgotten pills, since as a matter of legal strategy, just challenging the will on its merits would be easier, and they could still do so, regardless of the criminal verdict. Emma's one ally in this crisis, besides Frederick's faithful attorney (Purnell Pratt), is the one child who didn't accuse her, Ronnie. Too bad that he's gone out on an aviation jag before the homicide accusations start flying, only learning belatedly of Emma's danger, which provides an opportunity for even fraughter melodrama (but also giving Brown an excuse to play around on-screen with his own hobby, airplanes, prefiguring the whole movie he'd soon make out of his hobby, Night Flight).
I've accused this of being rushed and it certainly is, and it affects the storytelling more than I'd prefer. But even amidst a brevity that actively hurts the characterizations, Brown and the writers still manage a surprising amount of sharp observation about this family's dynamics. Pleasingly, most of it's implied rather than subject to exposition; the biggest thing is one of the smallest, a little tangent about whether Emma will wear a cap like a proper serf that emphasizes without ever overstressing it that when the Smiths ask her to do things, she can tell them no. Meanwhile, I'm not even entirely sure that the Smiths are supposed to be immigrants, or if Hersholt, product of Denmark, still just sounded like that fifteen years after his own emigration to the U.S., but I like to think it's purposeful, and the transatlantic accents of his hoity-toity kids being juxtaposed against his nasal Scandinavian is a deliberate gambit to underline how shallow their new money pretensions to superiority really are. Likewise, if I feel there's not enough between Dressler and Hersholt, that's because I enjoy what Dressler and Hersholt there is, and while I'm not sure I agree with leaving "why now?" unsatisfactorily answered, maybe there's something productive about letting us imagine for ourselves whether Frederick's proposal was an impulsive inspiration, or if the strong and rational case he makes for it means he'd been planning it for ages.
So I've grumbled about that relationship, and I could grumble as much about how much the bad children merge into an undifferentiated mass of resentful assholes (Loy was right to think the role thankless, and I'd have honestly expected that she'd have been too famous for this by now); and yet the amorphousness kind of works. The movie isn't wrong to give Cromwell second billing, even above Hersholt, inasmuch as it is above all invested in the relationship between Emma and the one child who really does own her as his mom. Which is another thing that's more implied than spoken aloud: the other three still remember their birth mother, however dimly, but Emma's the only mother Ronnie's ever known. (Maybe as much to the point, it seems that wealth is also all Ronnie's ever known, and, counterintuitively, it's made him generous; it's clear that with the other three, however keenly they remember their mother, they absolutely remember being middle-class.)
This rapport is borne out in Cromwell's interplay with Dressler: if Ronnie does only ever refer to Emma her by her given name—in truth, he probably more frequently calls her by his pet name for her, "Beautiful," which aggravates her, probably all the moreso because, with apologies, that's not one of the things Dressler was—and if this suggests Ronnie is somewhat of a dipshit in his own right, Emma still manages a marvelous thumbnail portrait of a mother/son relationship, for certainly teenaged sons can be dipshits, and mothers can at least sometimes choose their favorites for good reasons; there's a great deal of natural, unforced intimacy here. I rather like the scene where Emma goes to scope out Ronnie's flying hobby and, thrilled to see her, he puts her in a flight simulator. I don't like it because it's very funny, because it isn't, despite this scene mostly being here to put some sloppy japery into this Marie Dressler comedy (on this metric, I guess I prefer the gag about a busted suitcase, a ball of yarn, and a plus-size structural undergarment that Brown effects with a long take at the train station; if I'm being frank, however, I don't know if this movie actually qualifies as "a comedy"). Well, Ronnie is cajoling, bordering on coercive, to get her in the pilot's seat; but when the simulator inevitably goes out of control, he doesn't find that amusing, even for a split-second. He just wanted to show his mom his toy. The funniest part of this not-really-a-comedy, anyway, is Cromwell's, when Ronnie whoops with the smuggest-ass glee because Emma has thrown his hateful siblings out of the house in the one time she ever loses her temper with them; and it really is the only time, even when they try to have her executed.
It is, at bottom and by explicit design, Dressler's movie. Built around her curious stardom, it turned out to be one of her last, for she passed in 1934 of a cancer that was making her sick already in late 1931, and it's not implausible that her mortality informed this performance. (Interestingly, Dressler left a lot of money to her maid, too—around a million in 2023 dollars.) Dressler had had several slumps across her career on both stage and screen, most recently when she'd gotten on the bad side of Irish-Americans in one of her comedies a few years prior, The Callahans and the Murphys, though she rebounded and in an unusual progression, she ended her life, at 65, at pretty much the height of her fame and appeal. Emma was one of her biggest hits—for all the suffering it contains, it was a reassuring heartbalm in the depths of the Great Depression—and it's at least the best performance I've personally seen from her, though my perspective is limited because my homework consisted of 1930's Min and Bill and I decided to apply my energies anywhere else if Dressler's filmography is, on average, more like that than like this. (Min and Bill, shockingly, does remain a fairly well-regarded early sound dramedy, despite being pretty boring to look at and borderline-unwatchable in its shrillness.)
This, anyway, may really be Dressler at maximum "not on"—the weird tongue-out "blegh" sound she sometimes makes notwithstanding—and there's a lot of lovely humanity in this performance despite the goal of the film being to beatify Emma's saintly sacrificial mothermood; Dressler overarticulates her expressions, a lot, but in ways that feel correct, and while she can be stern and blunt and sometimes frightfully angry, there's a core of instinctive kindness (even overindulgence) that Dressler captures that is not, for instance, really properly put forward in her similar-but-screechier adoptive mother figure in Min and Bill. So when Emma hurts, Dressler's doing her job and making us hurt on her behalf. She earned a Best Actress nomination, though she was beaten by Helen Hayes for The Sin of Madelon Claudet, which is sort of like Emma except the suffering mother is also an MGM fallen woman. I expect there was some reluctance to give her two Oscars in a row; but I find it kind of incomprehensible that Min earned her a statue and not this.
As for Brown, this was a change of pace, and I assume a well-needed one—speaking of MGM fallen women, Brown had just come off fully five damn movies in a row on that subject, not even counting the one he shadow-directed uncredited, and he was on his way right back to another one with Letty Lynton. Motherhood was not entirely new territory for him (I just alluded to This Modern Age, and of course there's resonance to be found with 1925's The Goose Woman, another story of a mother's infinite commitment to a child), and it wouldn't be the last time he took the subject on (there'd be a pinch of it in Letty Lynton, and 1938 would bring Of Human Hearts); but this is likely his best treatment of unconditional mother-love as a theme, albeit not his best treatment of a more complicated motherhood (which, in each one's distinctively jaundiced way, would be either 1944's The White Cliffs of Dover or 1946's The Yearling). Unlike Possessed the year prior, Emma doesn't present itself as a cinematic playground, but it still winds up with a noticeable amount of diligent craft—I've mentioned a few things already, like the whimsical comedy vignette at the train station, and the truncated gesture of Emma's ghostly memories—but as far as Emma herself goes Brown is committed predominantly to matching Dressler's performance with unobtrusive observation, as when we explore the tiny nook she gets for a bedroom in this enormous mansion, following Frederick in its confined space without any editorial imposition as he realizes her walls are covered in a photographic record of motherhood-in-all-but-name. The neatest filmmaking attends the three assholes, with some downright superb blocking from Brown that finds a number of ways to frame them as a flock of ghouls. The single best shot of the film, therefore, doesn't have Emma in it at all, managing an almost-spiral-like arrangement of bodies and faces around the Niagara hotel maid (Dale Fuller) as she's interrogated by the D.A. and the bad children, who are in their turn framed by the bleak, dark faces of legal assistants encircling them; it's a weirdly tense tableau that somehow gets a motion picture to have the same exact kind of incipient violence you'd find in a Baroque painting about Judas.
Emma is the central figure, so she gets some big moments; alongside DP Oliver Marsh, Brown has throughout been honoring the influence of his mentor, Maurice Tourneur, and thus there are many stately compositions with pools of light framed around dark, sometimes unaccountably dark, foregrounds (there's the matter of "deep staging before the invention of deep focus," but it still looks cool). The most unaccountably dark, anyway, is pure expressionism, the light around the edges fading before our eyes while Frederick passes away on his bed, in order to provide Emma the questionable mercy of an unknown number of minutes where she can remain happy in newlywed contentment, before the whole scene fades to black. It's very beautiful, but then, right away we stumble again into Emma's basic problem: the movie completely forgets that it should, you know, grieve.
I didn't fall in love with Emma the first time I saw it, but I confess it's grown on me. I worry I'm underrating it now. But maybe I was just ready for its deficiencies this second time around, which is not even entirely due to its elisions; it's also another 30s film with a courtroom finale, and though it replicates the "I move for a mistrial" issue from A Free Soul's bombastic courtroom finale, it's always resting on stronger dramatic foundations. Better yet, we get a triple-wallop of denouements afterward, and these are all strong, sad yet hopeful in their construction, and all about finding new purpose in the banal business of life; the very last beat of the film is actually great, finding Emma at her happiest and, oddly, her most dignified, however absent of trumpeting glory it is.