Watching 1939: The Great Man Votes (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
The Great Man Votes (1939)

Release date: 
Jan. 13, 1939

John Barrymore, Virginia Weidler, Peter Holden, Katharine Alexander, Donald MacBride, Esther Dale, Benny Bartlett, Elisabeth Risdon, Brandon Tynan, Elisabeth Risdon, Granville Bates, Luis Alberni, William Demarest

RKO Radio Pictures

Garson Kanin

Gregory Vance (Barrymore) was a Harvard graduate and successful college professor. But after his wife died, he became an alcoholic and now works as a nightwatchman, caring for his two children, Joan (Weidler) and Donald (Holden). Joan and Donald still believe their father is a great man. When a political giant, Iron Hat McCarthy (MacBride) is trying to win the election for mayor, Vance is finally treated as a great man when the political machine realizes he holds the deciding vote for the election.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– John Barrymore was in two films released in 1939. He retired from films in 1941.
– Virginia Weidler was in 10 films released in 1939.
– The only film Peter Holden was in.
– Katharine Alexander was in five films released in 1939.
– Donald MacBride was in 10 films released in 1939.
– Esther Dale was in 13 films released in 1939.
– Granville Bates was in 16 films released in 1939.
– Primarily a writer, this was only the third film Garson Kanin directed. He directed two films in 1939.

Peter Holden, John Barrymore and Virginia Weidler.

Other trivia: 
• Victor Moore and Zasu Pitts were considered for lead roles in the film.
• RKO considered producing a sequel called “The Great Man in Politics.”
• Because of John Barrymore’s alcoholism by this point, director Garson Kanin had to persuade producer Pandro Berman to allow him to hire Barrymore for the lead in this film.
• Based on a short story by Gordon Malherbe Hillman published in the November 1933 issue of American Magazine.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Hailing from one of history’s top acting families, actor John Barrymore was one of stage and screen’s top stars – along with his father Maurice and brother and sister Ethel and Lionel.

John was also known for his dashing good looks with a strong profile that he was famous for. Starting in films in 1912, he was a top matinee idol starring in films like “Sherlock Holmes” (1922), “Don Juan” (1926) and “Dinner at Eight” (1933).

Biographer Martin Norden calls Barrymore “perhaps the most influential and idolized actor of his day.”

But Barrymore’s personal life didn’t shine like his screen prescience. He had long struggled with alcohol abuse and by the mid-1930s, his alcoholism caught up with him and hurt his career.

Studios weren’t willing to employ Barrymore and his appearance was changing.

Still acting throughout 1937 and 1938, Barrymore’s career was slowing in 1939. He only appeared in two films that year compared to the five he appeared in 1938, though these were supporting parts rather than the leading roles he was accustomed to.

However, while many were reluctant to work with Barrymore, director and writer Garson Kanin rallied and campaigned for Barrymore to star in his film “The Great Man Votes” (1939). Producer Pandro S. Berman was reluctant but agreed.

Once filming began, Kanin felt Barrymore had lost respect his respect for himself, so he tried to bolster his esteem. Kanin asked the rest of the cast and crew to address him as “Mr. Barrymore” so he would feel respected. It seemed to bolster his dignity, according to John Barrymore, Shakespearean Actor by Michael A. Morrison.

The result of “A Great Man Votes” (1939) is a sweet film, and Barrymore gives a restrained role. He is flanked by two children: The wonderful child actress Virginia Weilder and Peter Holden, who made his only film appearance in this film.

“A Great Man Votes” was Barrymore’s last really serious film.

What makes me sad is that most of Barrymore’s later roles are him cast as alcoholics – art imitating real life.

The year 1939 seems to have been Barrymore’s last hurrah with his career – with both “A Great Man Votes” and “Midnight,” two quality and entertaining films.

The films Barrymore acted in 1940 and 1941 lack that same quality, and he died in 1942.

In “A Great Man Votes,” he turned to drink after the loss of his wife. Later in both “The Great Profile” (1940) and “Playmates” (1940), Barrymore plays an actor who drinks too much. It all seems so cruel.

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2 thoughts on “Watching 1939: The Great Man Votes (1939)

    • Peter Holden is Peter Parkhurst who did many renditions of a play in NYC. He died in the Palo Alto, CA area on July 27, 2020.


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