What an intriguing cast! The top four billed actors in Adam Had Four Sons were such very different performers that I've never before considered associating any of them with one another. Apparently neither had anyone else. None of the four principals, Warner Baxter, Ingrid Bergman, Susan Hayward, or Fay Wray, ever share a scene with one another anywhere but Adam Had Four Sons.
The big two are Ingrid Bergman and Warner Baxter and despite Julian Marsh, despite my own fondness for Baxter, I find that title card very jarring. But Ingrid Bergman isn't quite Ingrid Bergman yet and at this time Baxter even has one more Oscar than his co-star. Bergman would eventually win three Oscars, two for Best Actress and another for Best Supporting Actress, and co-star Susan Hayward would win her sole trophy for Best Actress many years after Adam Had Four Sons. Today Baxter is probably one of the least remembered Oscar winners of all-time for his portrayal of The Cisco Kid in early talkie In Old Arizona (1928).
Adam Had Four Sons is only Bergman's second Hollywood film and it wasn't released until a year and a half after her successful American debut for David O. Selznick in Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939) a remake of the successful 1936 production of Intermezzo that Bergman had previously starred in in her native Sweden. In between the success of Selznick's Intermezzo and his loan out of Bergman to Columbia for Adam Had Four Sons, Bergman spent much of her time in Hollywood waiting for Selznick to find a project which they both felt was prestigious enough for her to appear in. With Selznick distracted by the success of back-to-back Best Picture winners Gone With the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940), Bergman expected to be starred in what she anticipated to be his next great film, Saint Joan. Instead she was tortured by inactivity and eventually headed to Broadway to star in Liliom, then even further east, back to Sweden, to appear in a film there.
When Adam Had Four Sons came along Bergman was unsure if she should do the film and Selznick advised her that the part of Emilie wasn't good enough for her. Despite Selznick's willingness to pay her to remain inactive, Bergman longed for the work and accepted the role, later commenting, "At last something my teeth could bite into but it was not such a good apple" (Leamer 66). Like Intermezzo, Adam Had Four Sons was directed by Russian born actor-director Gregory Ratoff, whom Bergman, according to her biographer Laurence Leamer, flattered in person but was "bitterly disdainful" of behind his back. At the other end of the spectrum co-star Hayward was so enamored of Ratoff that she would name one of her sons after him.
Ratoff wrote parts of Adam Had Four Sons during its filming, seemingly making it up as he went along. (The film was based on a novel by Charles Bonner which I have not read.) The finished product was such a mess that Selznick himself, despite having no official association with the film, spent a week editing it to prevent his star, Bergman, from having appeared in a film he felt would have otherwise been a total mess (Leamer 66).
It's still a mess, but a very entertaining one!
Beyond Bergman and Baxter we have former scream-queen Fay Wray playing Baxter's demure and fragile wife, Molly. She's much more whisper than scream here, but there's no denying her Molly is the true boss of the Stoddard clan. Finally, after a little more than a half hour, youthful Susan Hayward appears, practically skipping across the screen as we met her heavy-handedly named scarlet woman Hester. Even then, hidden behind the cheerfulness of her youth we already know, even in 1941, that this girl is no good.
Baxter and Wray; Baxter and Bergman; Bergman and Hayward. Plus a little Baxter and Hayward with her making me wince a little each time she called him, "Dad," with such cheery perverseness. And Wray with Bergman, a brief but tender pairing as the torch is knowingly passed even if it takes the entire 80 minutes for Adam to figure it out.
The Stoddards are an old family consisting of patriarch Adam (Baxter) who runs Stoddard & Company, a New York Stock Exchange brokerage firm. Molly is his youthful, doll-like wife, played by Wray, and together they have four sons: Jack, David, Chris, and Phillip by order of age.
Adam Had Four Sons opens as the family poses for a portrait before driving to the train to meet their new governess, beautiful Emilie (Bergman), who initially startles Adam and Molly by her youth. The Stoddards drive Emilie to Stonehenge, their Connecticut home, where they are greeted by butler Otto (Pietro Sosso). Emilie astounds them by predicting Stonehenge's entire lay-out because it is just as she had imagined on the boat ride over. Her enthusiasm wins every member of the family over for once and for all.
The Stoddards are an old American family, yet they have only one living relative, ancient Cousin Philippa. She is played by Helen Westley in a manner recalling Lionel Barrymore. Especially Barrymore in The Devil-Doll (1937).
Adam Had Four Sons takes a sharp turn when it allows several years to pass in between Adam's misfortune, circa 1907, and his rehabilitation to fortune coinciding with America's entrance into the first World War. It's then that Hayward's Hester first explodes upon the scene and there her passions light up with insane swings between lust and hatred that this movie, previously one which gave me a sort of Magnificent Ambersons type feel, veers another way and turns to soapy camp.
Good camp, fun camp, but to the uninitiated completely jarring after building the drama solely through nostalgia and family for a good half hour. It's no accident that Adam Had Four Sons was made for a 1941 release with a focus on hard economic times and a World War, two facts of life for the audience that the film assures them will each eventually end. Instead of keeping the focus on those elements Adam Had Four Sons takes a sharp shift to sex with Hayward's performance certainly raising some eyebrows.
The movie takes its turn almost immediately after the touching scene that sees Adam, his fortune gone, send Emilie home on a midnight ship. Recalling the early Ingrid Bergman biography it seems similar to her own return to Europe in response to her inactivity after making a hit in Intermezzo. But Emilie didn't want to go. She begs to stay, even offering to take no payment to do so. But Adam is so destitute that there's no other choice, which I suppose means that he can't even feed her despite the not too shabby apartment that Cousin Philippa has found him in Brooklyn.
With Emilie gone time passes fast. 1907 turns to 1918 through a montage consisting of both low and high economic times and scenes of the Great War. The child actors playing Adam's four sons are replaced by young men with Richard Denning playing the eldest, Jack. Warner Baxter has touches of gray in his hair. Yet there is their former butler, Otto, returned to work after the 11 year hiatus, looking every bit as old as he had in 1907. And sure enough Emilie comes back, nothing having come up for her in the previous eleven years either. Perhaps Bergman, looking every bit as beautiful as Emilie 1918 as she had as Emilie 1907 had been put in some sort of stasis to keep her both available and young once the Stoddards again required her services.
But before we can question any of this too much, Hayward's Hester lights across the room, wife of Adam's second eldest, David (Johnny Downs). It only takes as long as clearing the men from the scene for Hester to go after Emilie, asking, "Why are you here anyway? Surely you don't think the boys need you now?" Then she gets personal: "What does a woman think of when she crosses the ocean to be governess to four grown men ... Or perhaps it wasn't the sons that brought you back. Perhaps it was another interest altogether. Did that hit the mark?"
But Emilie shall push forward, managing the house, the sons, and the feeling she has for Adam which Hester had correctly picked up on during that first meeting.
Hayward is a fun soap opera villain bringing so much trouble to the family that I was tempted to cheer when Bergman's Emily had finally had enough and begins packing her bags for her. Bergman elevates the proceedings as she stands on the landing, speechless, even as Hayward tears things back down by hissing her innocence in Adam's ear just before the movie comes to an end. She's such a monster that at least twice, and almost a third time, I expected various characters in Adam Had Four Sons to actually turn to murder, but the movie never twists over to that dark of a place.
Adam Had Four Sons certainly has a colorful cast from the over-the-top Hayward to Bergman's proud Emily. Helen Westley barks her way through her part fueled by Cousin Philippa's love of straight gin and cigars. June Lockhart, as neighbor girl Vance crushing on Adam's youngest, fits the description cute as a button about as well as anyone ever has. Richard Denning is smoldering and angry as Adam's oldest son, Jack. The other boys sort of blend in with the scenery but on that count so too does Warner Baxter and despite everyone else's obvious display of their craft his was the performance I kept coming back to.
Baxter is awkward from the start. I don't know if this guy was a weightlifter or, like Adam, a former football player, but man, he's got some wide shoulders and a barrel chest!
But while his body type is powerful--he looks more like a fighter than a businessman--his personality is understated to the point of blandness. He's the decision maker yet at the same time he's just sort of there. It's not in him to express his true feelings to Emily but that's not because he doesn't have any. You can see him softly trying to make them come out. You know he wants to jump out of the carriage and stop her from getting on the boat back home, but he can't. It just wouldn't make good sense. You can tell he's almost there over a decade later when he reminiscences with her about her first day at the house. But she's at her bedroom door and he's by his and that timing just doesn't seem proper for a gentleman like Adam.
I honestly don't know if Warner Baxter had the skill to put this kind of understated nuance into his performance and on that note, some credit should go to director Gregory Ratoff for allowing him to remain so sedate. But even if he's not your taste I don't think you can quite call Baxter's Adam completely vanilla on the count that there's always the idea that that big wide body is necessary in order to hold in all of the emotion that threatens to shake the house down around him. Playing oldest son, Jack, Richard Denning gives the performance that I think Baxter kept bottled inside of Adam Stoddard. In the end I think even-keeled Adam can probably be credited more to casting than to Ratoff or even Baxter himself, who does what he typically does with the part. It works here.
Adam Had Four Sons moves fast, especially upon Hayward's arrival, but it's main problem seems to be that it never takes the time to slow down and revel in Adam's anticipated explosion once the time for it does come. You've no sooner sit up straight in your chair before the movie ends. In the big scene Baxter is left to react to the chaos around him rather than act upon it. Thinking back to Thanksgiving Eve at the beginning of the film, when signs of economic panic where first making themselves apparent, it's no wonder Adam cheerfully left the office behind so quickly to be with his family. Adam couldn't face adversity and Baxter is too conservative to ever give him a chance to.
Recommended especially for Hayward fans. Less so for Bergman fans though it's a nice curiosity in that case. Despite the early shift from something that seemed bigger Adam Had Four Sons manages to be very entertaining for its entire 80 minutes.
Available on DVD
Adam Had Four Sons was put out on DVD by Sony in 2004. You can pick up a copy through my Amazon affiliate link HERE. And Turner Classic Movies does air it from time to time if you prefer to wait, though it does not appear to be scheduled within the next couple of months at the time of writing.
I mentioned at the beginning of this article that none of the four primary stars had ever appeared with one another on screen before or since Adam Had Four Sons. That said, Warner Baxter and Fay Wray do share a single credit and it is a fun one! Available for viewing at the Internet Archive, The Stolen Jools is a 1931 National Variety Artists short featuring anyone who was anyone on the screen from that period.
Baxter appears as The Cisco Kid while Wray doesn't speak a line in her scene with Jack Oakie and the detective, Eddie Kane.
The jewels in question belong to Norma Shearer, who puts in an appearance with Hedda Hopper, and Kane is on the case after the call comes into Wallace Beery at police headquarters. You'll also see Laurel and Hardy driving for Kane, Our Gang on Norma's front stoop, thieves Edward G. Robinson and George E. Stone doing their thing from recently-released Little Caesar (1931), and a roll call of others including Joan Crawford with William Haines, Barbara Stanwyck with husband Frank Fay, Wheeler and Woolsey, Irene Dunne, Gary Cooper, etc., etc., etc. Watch it here.
- Leamer, Laurence. As Time Goes By: The Life of Ingrid Bergman. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers: 1986.