White Banners from 1938 with Fay Bainter, Claude Rains, Bonita Granville, Jackie Cooper and Kay Johnson
White Banners is a charming movie with a fairytale quality whose strong writing and talented acting prevent it from becoming cloying. It's easy to understand why this uplifting story and the novel it is based on were well-received in the challenging 1930s.
Fay Bainter plays a drifter in the Depression who shows up one day at the back door of a middle-class family comprising a mother played by Kay Johnson, a father played by Claude Rains, a teenage daughter played by Bonita Granville and a baby.
Johnson hasn't fully recovered from the birth of her new child, plus she's stressed because money is tight mainly for the reason that her husband, highschool teacher Rains, spends all their excess funds on his, so far, unsuccessful inventions.
Daughter Granville, as cute a teenage girl as was ever made, has a crush on the son of the town's wealthy banker, played by famous child actor Jackie Cooper. He likes her, but he's also a bit of a spoiled troublemaker who acts up in Rains' classroom at school.
As only happens in a movie, Bainter stays with the family as a kindly housekeeper working for a pittance. Her presence immediately changes the atmosphere of the household for the better.
She smartly stretches the family's modest food budget, allows the mother, Johnson, to get some much-needed rest, sets up a laboratory for Rains' inventions in the basement and helps sooth Granville's crazy-normal teenage mood swings.
Cooper, steered by Bainter, and, initially, as punishment for misbehaving in Rains' class, starts helping Rains with his first invention that shows promise, a refrigeration system to replace the icebox.
From here, the story is one of a kid, Cooper, a natural at science, maturing as he sees the value of hard work and honesty, while Rains' family go through some more ups and downs as his invention succeeds, but the patent is potentially stolen.
That off-the-shelf-story, which could be the plot of a Hallmark movie today, is almost unimportant as the magic in this movie is Bainter's calming influence and turn-the-other-cheek philosophy that changes everyone's outlook and fortune.
When crises hit, Bainter keeps morale up. When Rains or Cooper want to fight an injustice, she encourages them to move on to positive work and not burn energy fighting. You might not agree with her passive philosophy, but it helps the family.
Bainter, playing a modest-looking middle-aged woman, gives an inspiring performance as a Christlike figure dropped into this struggling family to improve everyone's life with kindness, decency, charity and a preternaturally forgiving outlook.
Rains, too, is pitch perfect as the somewhat bumbling, but kind titular head of the household who needs Bainter guidance. Granville and Cooper are wonderful as "typical" teenagers who bloom under Bainter's calming influence.
Johnson shines in the small but impactful role of the weary mother and wife trying to hold her family together under the strains of the Depression. Her situation had to be very relatable to 1930 audiences facing the exact same challenges.
There's a well-telegraphed twist revealed later on (no spoilers coming) that explains Bainter's presence in this particular family, at this particular time, but it's almost unimportant as this is a story of hope and faith, not facts and logic.
The special ingredient in White Banners, the reason the movie works, is the exalting feeling of joy you get seeing Bainter's uplifting spirituality and innate serenity revitalize a family in peril. It's fantasy, but it's wonderful fantasy.
White Banners could have easily failed as adult fairytales are hard to pull off. But smart writing, thoughtful directing by Edmund Goulding and incredibly talented acting created a magical movie that uplifted Depression-era audiences, something it still has the power to do today.