MGM's filmic output during WWII can effectively be classified into two categories: the big budget spectacle and the 'little gem' - the latter, an intimate and timely production made more for prestige than profit. W.S. Van Dyke's Journey for Margaret (1942) is of this latter ilk; an cosy 'slice of life' melodrama. Based on the serialized novel by William Lindsay White, the film follows the exploits of American journalist, John Davis (Robert Young) assigned as a foreign correspondent in London during the blitz. John's editor, Herbert V. Allison (Nigel Bruce) has a keen eye for exploiting John's talents as a writer. Only John's pregnant wife, Nora (Loraine Day) knows just how uninspired her husband is with his current assignment.
John and Nora take a room at a local hotel. With Hitler's bombing raids nightly forcing guests into the hotel's basement for safety, John decides to help the cause by becoming an air warden. While out on one of his nightly patrols, John learns that the hotel where they have been staying has been bombed and that Nora is among those injured in the blast. Rushing to her side at the hospital, John learns from the doctor that not only has Nora miscarried their baby, but her injuries were such that an emergency hysterectomy had to be performed.
John enters Nora's hospital room to discover that his wife's once eternally optimism has been irreversibly shattered. Upon recovering from her physical injuries, John and Nora separate and Nora goes home to America to more fully recuperate from her mental wounds.
Allison's next writing assignment for John involves doing a cover story on an orphanage run by kindly, Trudy Strauss (Fay Bainter). Given his current upsets at home, John is naturally reluctant to commit to the piece until he meets war orphans, Margaret White (Margaret O'Brien) and Peter Humphreys (William Severn). These two incorrigibles delight at wreaking havoc on John's low ebbing temperament but also serve to lighten his mood.
Trudy asks John to take Margaret and Peter to their new foster home. However, upon meeting Mr. and Mrs. Barrie (Halliwell Hobbes and Doris Lloyd) the children are so stricken with anxiety that John realizes what a mistake it would be to leave them in their care - despite the Barrie's overwhelming kindness. Before long, John discovers that he has become emotionally attached to both children himself and writes Nora with suggested plans of adoption.
Nora, however, does not immediately write John back and her reluctance is misperceived as her rejection of the idea. In truth, having suffered a relapse at her mother's estate, Nora has been incapacitated since John's letter arrived. After recovering from her spell, Nora writes John with her buoyant acceptance. John makes haste to adopt Margaret and Peter, only to learn that war rationing restricts him from carrying more than forty pounds of luggage on his flight back to America.
Determined that he should take both Margaret and Peter with him, John attempts to contact other passengers in the hopes that one of them will leave their luggage behind and take one of the children under their care for the flight. Regrettably, none of the passengers acquiesce and John is forced to leave one of the children behind. Unable to make that choice on his own, Trudy administers an intelligence test to both Margaret and Peter that Margaret wins - meaning that Peter must return to the Barrie's. *The scene where John attempts to explain to Peter why he must remain behind is heartbreakingly rendered, ending with Peter refusing to look at John as his car pulls away from the Barrie's home.
However, at the last moment fellow passenger, Mrs. Harris (Heather Thatcher) has a change of heart. She retrieves Peter from the Barrie's and takes him with her to the airport where he and John and Margaret are reunited. Upon arriving in America, Margaret and Peter embrace Nora as their new mother - the promise of a happy family for Mr. and Mrs. Davis at long last fulfilled.
As directed by Van Dyke with his usual screen economy, Journey for Margaret emerges as 82 minutes of tight writing with some superfluous scenes thrown in. Too much is made of John's growing affections for Margaret and Peter at the expense of reducing Nora to a mere cameo in the story. Clearly the film has been designed as a debut vehicle for little Margaret O'Brien - arguably the most promising and successful child star since Shirley Temple. O'Brien cries on cue convincingly enough and exudes genuine harp notes of fear as one of Hitler's bombing raids come close to the orphanage. Yet, in favouring her role so heavily, the screenplay by David Hertz and William Ludwig also transfers that favouritism to John choosing Margaret to accompany him on the plane to America. Hence, when he has to leave Peter with the Barrie's, as the audience we don't really feel as though any great sacrifice on John's part has been made - rather, that as far as John is concerned the right child won the coin toss.
Also, there is something quite criminal about the way Loraine Day's character is expunged from the middle of the story. Save a brief flashback clumsily inserted with a voice over narration provided by Day to explain her disappearance from the story, we barely see Nora after the first 20 minutes. This absence somewhat blunts the emotional impact of Nora's first meeting with Margaret and Peter at the end of the film.
Nevertheless, and as a timely piece of war time propaganda, Journey for Margaret is modestly compelling. Despite its narrative flaws the story holds up remarkably well - thanks to Robert Young's central and mostly charming performance.
Journey For Margaret is a Warner Archive Release. Some age related artefacts are scattered throughout, but most of the B&W image exhibits and impeccably mastered gray scale. Grain is more prevalent during night scenes, but on the whole this is a very stable and visually sound presentation. There is no chroma bleeding (a problem inherent in other WB Archive transfers) and only a minimal amount of edge enhancement for a video presentation that is generally smooth and easy on the eyes. Occasionally, the image becomes more softly focused, but overall there's really nothing to complain about.
The audio is represented at an adequate listening level. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)