Classic Movies

Thoroughly MODern Alley: Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924)


The time is 1923, a few years after the Armistice…and the location is Köpenick, a suburb of Berlin.  In Köpenick, Polish refugees struggle to keep body and soul together—not an easy task, since food is scarce (and expensive) and jobs even more so.  A family consisting of The Professor (Erville Alderson), The Grandmother (Helen Lowell), The Aunt (Marcia Harris), and sons Theodor (Frank Puglia) and Paul (Neil Hamilton) occupy a few cramped rooms in Köpenick—Paul, a veteran of WWI, has just recently rejoined the family…much to the delight of Inga (Carol Dempster), an orphan who’s been living with the family since she was barely able to walk.  Inga and Paul are sweethearts, so it’s important to remember that their romance isn’t at all creepy because they come from different families.

Paul finds work in a shipyard, but it’s not too long before he falls deathly ill from all that poison gas he was exposed to at the battlefront.  He manages to walk it off and rub some dirt on it, and as proof of “Isn’t life wonderful?” he and Inga announce to the family that they plan to be wed.  Grandmama wont consent to the marriage—she points out to the starry-eyed couple that they have no money, no house, and no means of subsistence (food)—and until she does, the pair won’t be hearing wedding bells soon.  But with pluck and determination—Paul obtains a plot of land on which to grow food, and builds a small cottage out of wood from used ammunition crates—those two just might make it after all.

dvdGeoffrey Moss’ 1924 novel Isn’t Life Wonderful (also known as Dawn) inspired what many folks consider to be one of David Wark Griffith’s finest films.  At the time of Wonderful’s release, however, moviegoers said “Naw, mang”; despite positive critical buzz, Isn’t Life Wonderful was a bust at the box office and after it finished its theatrical run D.W. left United Artists for Paramount.  Kino’s VHS release of the film has been OOP for quite some time (for curious reasons, it didn’t make the cut on any of their Griffith Masterworks DVD sets) but Flicker Alley has seen fit to offer Wonderful as one of their many MOD titles.  (Grapevine Video also sells the movie, but its copy’s running time is a shorter 98 minutes.)

To be honest, I wasn’t quite as effusive about Isn’t Life Wonderful as some folks.  I recognize that there are some striking sequences in the film: the most memorable being where Dempster’s Inga stands in an indeterminately lengthy queue at the butcher’s shop…because after pooling her money with brother Theodor (who works at a nightclub while putting himself through school), they’re able to afford meat being offered at the inflationary prices that have resulted from Germany’s devastating financial crash.  (The director filmed this unforgettable scene on an actual street in Berlin, adding to its realism.)  That line is so very long, and as Inga waits patiently for her turn to capitalize on the bargain meat, a man emerges from the butcher shop to write the new prices on a chalkboard.  (Sadly, Inga is unable to execute any kind of transaction; the price spirals far above the amount she clutches helplessly in her hand.)

Neil Hamilton and Carol Dempster in Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924)

Many Wonderful fans are laudatory of Carol Dempster’s performance…though I personally thought she did a better job in Sally of the Sawdust (1925).  Dempster does have a lovely moment where, in her attempts to nurse Paul back to health, she puts two wads of cotton in her sunken cheeks to make him think she’s eating regularly and well.  (I kept expecting a title card to read: “Never tell anyone outside the Family what you are thinking again.”)  Neil Hamilton—The Man Who Would Be Commissioner Gordon—is okay in his role if nothing spectacular; still, the entire cast is quite solid and you might be as entertained as I was to see Lupino Lane in one of his early showcases as a musician who’s thrown his lot in with the family (he does some amusing acrobatic bits in a sequence where the family lets their hair down singing and dancing after a sumptuous meal of potatoes and liverwurst).

Some find Griffith’s films a bit goopy and old-fashioned; I’m a fan of his work for the most part—even though I acknowledge that his later films were a little out of step with the fare being offered up by his contemporaries.  Wonderful concludes with an exciting climactic sequence in which Paul and Inga, having harvested Paul’s garden, are desperately trying to make their way home to the family’s tenement…and are menaced by a gang who thinks the couple are “food profiteers.”  In Richard Schickel’s D.W. Griffith: An American Life, the famed film critic wryly observes “it’s a relief . . . to see a Griffith heroine assaulted not for her virtue but for a hoard of potatoes.”  Griffith could have ended the film on this note (Inga explains to a despondent Paul that they at least have each other—“Isn’t Life Wonderful?”) but I guess he had to tack on a happy ending that I honestly thought weakened the film.

Hamilton and Dempster

I won’t mince words—that “isn’t life wonderful?” mantra was starting to sound like sarcasm after a while.  (“We’re faced with crippling poverty and hunger…and the rampant crime that results—isn’t life wonderful?”)  And though the movie eventually gets to where it’s going, it kind of takes its sweet time about it; the first hour of this film went by so slowly I thought I was going to have to get out and push.  It’s not great Griffith but good D.W.—benefiting from realistic locations (Griffith shot extensively in Germany and Austria), and a prescient look at the conditions that would eventually result in the German people promoting a paperhanger with a little moustache obtain the highest office in the land—Charlie Chaplin.  (Okay, I’m kidding about that last part.)

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