Day 2 in the Four Days with Jane series, and we see another set of movies dealing with the immigrant experience, and spirited teenage hijinks. These two see Withers getting older, with the latter being the actresses’ solid foray into young adulthood. Once again, one is better than the other, and each have their individual merits.
Addie (Withers) and her family are transients who sell trinkets to townsfolk out of their wagon. When they reach New York City, they have to band together in order to prevent being split apart.
Chicken Wagon Family is a bizarre little film that tries to blend a family comedy with social commentary; one is good, and the other is just basic. With WWII on the rise, the story hopes to revitalize the belief in the American Dream, with the parents being immigrants and the older sister, Cecile (Marjorie Weaver) desiring wealth. There’s a clash of wills presented throughout the movie that never feels truly resolved. When the family moves to the big city you get shades of The Grapes of Wrath (or the East Coast version of the Beverly Hillbillies) and watch them compete in a world where money rules all. It makes for some humorous sequences, such as Addie using the barter system, and the belief that if a house is uninhabited why not use it, that make for good social commentary. The family makes use of all items and never let money get the best of them; if anything, Chicken Wagon Family teaches us how we should be better people. The narrative takes a turn for the serious when the family’s financial problems become an issue. Leo Carillo as the patriarch of the family has a tender-hearted speech he gives to the family mule; it may be an animal, but it’s the sweetest part of the movie!
As for Withers, this is the first movie I saw where she loses herself in young love. As Addie, she’s the little sister with a strong connection to her father, and competes with her pretty, older sister. In a few ways, the relationship between Addie and her dad is tighter than his relationship with his wife (father and daughter call each other “partner”). While Withers is still hammy with her big eyes and arms always moving, it works for the character; she’s a natural huckster and could sell ice to an Eskimo! I did appreciate Addie’s genuine surprise at being told she’s beautiful. It’s obvious the girl has never been told that, especially when compared to the beautiful Weaver. My issue is how that’s immediately contradicted by making Withers the dupe who doesn’t realize the guy she likes truly likes her sister. It’s all easily resolved, but I could have done without it, and it would have made Withers’ character stronger.
Next on deck is Golden Hoofs (yes, I realize it’s Hooves, but that’s what the DVD calls it). The story follows Jane Drake (Withers), who works on her grandfather’s horse farm. When an idealistic man named Dean (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers) wants to sell the farm, Jane has to find a way to get the man interested in the horses.
Golden Hoofs suffers from lack of time the most, clocking in at a measly 68 minutes. Withers is the best of the bunch, but the movie wastes her in trite love stories. The relationship between her and Rogers’ character is weird because she looks significantly younger than him. On top of that, the script feminizes her too much – putting her in dresses and constantly having to remind her she’s pretty. In Chicken Wagon Family, it worked because she was still a kid. Here, she’s a tenacious, resourceful young woman who shouldn’t have to be reminded of her worth via appearance nor should it make her incapable of doing her job. Of course we do get an abundance of cheesy moments such as Jane not realizing she’s singing out loud (although Withers is so fantastic at being precocious you can’t help but smile); I simply wish Withers was allowed to rise above, and not be reduced to the little girl lusting after the older man. With that being said, Withers has such a natural rapport with the horses in the film, and it’s not surprising that those are the best sequences in Golden Hoofs; that, and the ending horse race is filmed well!
Out of the two, the edge goes to Chicken Wagon Family. The close-knit ensemble works and there’s various layers in a way that’s lacking in Golden Hoofs. The latter film is fairly one-note outside of Withers’ acting and love for the animals. I’d say check out Chicken Wagon Family, and see Golden Hoofs if you’re a Withers completist.
Ronnie Rating for Chicken Wagon Family:
Ronnie Rating for Golden Hoofs:
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Chicken Wagon Family
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.