The Little Minister (1934)
Director: Richard Wallace
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, John Beal, Alan Hale
Synopsis: The stoic, proper Rev. Gavin Dishart, newly assigned to a church in the small Scottish village of Thrums, finds himself unexpectedly falling for one of his parishioners, the hot-blooded Gypsy girl Babbie.
‘Mother, now ye shall have an egg to your breakfast each morning!’ declares diminutive young Gavin Dishart (John Beal), the newly installed minister of the picturesque village of Thrums in Bonnie Scotland. Mother is Beryl Mercer, who some might remember as Paul’s mother in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or as Jimmy Cagney’s mother in Public Enemy (1931). When it came to playing the mother of diminutive men, she had the market sewn up it seemed. Dishart quickly wins the favour of his new parish when he delivers a sermon warning of the wicked ways of wanton women, so it’s perhaps understandable that he’s a little wary of whimsical Gypsy girl Babbie (Katharine Hepburn), who delights in tying him up in tongue-tied knots.
Babbie’s also something of a political activist on the sly, warning the workers of the local manufacturer’s plans to call in the troops when they are on strike, and even manages to con Gavin into blowing the horn that warns them of the soldier’s imminent arrival. Many men would steer well clear of Babbie following that little escapade, but it’s not long before the pair of them find themselves falling for one another, a turn of events which threatens Gavin’s position and status in the village.
The Little Minister ladles on the small-town charm in huge measures, employing Hollywood stalwarts such as Hepburn and Alan Hale to adopt wobbly Scottish accents in their depiction of lovable people of simple means. Hale’s the town drunk who wanders around with pieces of string tied around the knees of his raggedy trousers, and his is a sub-plot that never really works. In fact there’s something a little off about the whole thing. It has that charming quaintness about it which Hollywood seemed able to manufacture at will back in the 1930s and 40s, but it stubbornly refuses to engage. John Beal, who never made it as a star in Hollywood, tries hard but he makes a dull and uninspiring leading man so that his romance with Hepburn’s feisty Babbie comes across as highly improbable at best.
The film is based on either the stage play of author J. M. Barrie’s novel, or upon the novel itself (the credits are vague). The novel was actually the third of a trilogy, which perhaps explains the sketchiness of some of the characters in the movie despite a running time which runs close to two hours.
(Reviewed 5th September 2013)