Watching 1939: Chicken Wagon Family (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.

chicken wagon21939 film:
Chicken Wagon Family (1939)

Release date:
Aug. 11, 1939

Cast:
Jane Withers, Leo Carrillo, Spring Byington, Marjorie Weaver, Kane Richmond, Hobart Cavanaugh, Inez Palange

Studio:
20th Century Fox

Director:
Herbert L. Leeds

Plot:
The Fippany family travels to towns, swapping goods for chickens. After living on the road, Mrs. Fippany (Byington) and their grown daughter Cecile (Weaver) have grown weary of life on the road, which Mr. Fippany (Carrillo) and their daughter Addie (Withers) thrive on. However, the family makes the decision to settle down and take their mule-driven wagon to New York City where they find a very different life and Mrs. Fippany’s old flame (Cavanaugh).

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– Jane Withers was in four films released in 1939.
– Leo Carrillo was in six films released in 1939.
– Spring Byington was in seven films released in 1939.
– Kane Richmond was in seven films released in 1939.
– Marjorie Weaver was in four films released in 1939.
– Inez Palange was in four films released in 1939.

chicekn wagon2

Other trivia:
• Remake of The Dixie Merchant (1926), which was directed by Frank Borzage
• Originally was set to be made with Will Rogers and Jane Withers, but it was shelved after Rogers’s after his death in 1935.
• Based on the book “The Chicken-Wagon Family” by Benny Benefield.
• This was the first film to use 20th Century Fox’s new “East Side” city set that was newly constructed.

chicken wagon3

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Something happens to every child actor — they grow up. This is often a curse for most child actors (and their parents) as many times a film career ends when a kid begins growing.

In 1939, this began happening to Jane Withers, one of the few child actors who successfully seemed to successfully transition into a teen and adult film and television career. While still a youth, Withers had outgrown babyish roles and was now given the opportunity to be cast in coming-of-age roles where she gets to be a young lady.

For example, in this film, she has a crush on a grown man (who unfortunately likes her older sister) and primps in the mirror — powdering her face and fascinating a flower in her hair for allure.

All the while, Withers is funny, energetic and often acting circles around her adult co-stars.

In CHICKEN WAGON FAMILY, Withers plays Addie. With her parents Mr. and Mrs. Fippany (Carrillo, Byington) and sister Cecile (Weaver), the family lives on the road peddling and swapping for goods. Mrs. Fippany confides to Cecile that she has been saving a nest egg of money so the family can eventually settle down. But Mr. Fippany discovers the money (not knowing where it came from) and gambles the money away. The missing money is the last straw for Mrs. Fippany (not knowing how the money is lost), and the family moves to New York City. Riding into the city with a covered wagon and mule, they are out of their element as they try to adapt to their new life … and come across an old business partner (and flame of Mrs. Fippany) who felt he was wronged by the family.

This movie is a good bit of fun, though it’s a bit frantic at times. Like in most of her films, Withers is the highlight. She’s energetic and it’s humorous to watch her make a sale or trade. It’s also sweet (and heartbreaking) as she has a crush on a local policeman (Kane Richmond), who really likes her older sister.

Spring Byington is usually wonderful, but unfortunately here, they had her put on an Italian accent and don a dark wig. It’s not great, and sometimes Byington seems to forget she’s supposed to be putting on an accent.

Leo Carrillo is wonderful, per usual, and Marjorie Weaver really just acts as window dressing.

The real highlight for me is Hobart Cavanaugh, who is humorous in this film.

There are some fun moments in this movie, like the montage as the family rides in to New York City on their wagon, marveling at the sights.

Admittedly, the ending gets a bit chaotic as an auction scene reaches a fever pitch. It’s a bit headache inducing and a real shame for a film that otherwise as sweet and fun.

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