The Family Effect

Room for One More

Lately I’ve dipped my toes into a kind of literature that has all but disappeared. I don’t quite know what to call it. We’re talking about novels—not poetry, but novels that are meant for intelligent readers with a broad fund of general knowledge, without, however, presuming to be great epics or artsy forays into philosophy, and certainly not bare excuses for political action. No pretensions either, no sweeping romances with a lot of period costumery; so they aren’t Gone with the Wind, but they might well be set in a distant place and time, because many people used to enjoy reading history.Such books can be quite satisfying, like a well-cooked hearty meal of roast beef and potatoes: A.  J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom, Taylor Caldwell’s A Pillar of Iron, John Buchan’s Sick Heart River.

There used to be films like that, too—and in fact, some of the books I have in mind were made into excellent films. What you need is an intelligent script, no-fuss actors who will play their parts in a straightforward and human way, and direction that calls no attention to itself—we aren’t Hitchcock showing the face of the mad Anthony Perkins as the car with the body of Janet Leigh sinks with a sudden suction into the muddy pond—but that will linger on a scene to let the audience appreciate the humanity of it. These are B-movies not because they aren’t fine, but because they belong to a middle-brow form of art, and in that form they may well be flawless.

Love, Not Pity

So I recommend to you here a comedy based on a real American family, from the autobiographical book by the matriarch, Anna Perrott Rose: Room for One More. Mrs. Rose and her husband George, by no means rich, had several children of their own and became foster parents of several more, and that’s the setup for the film. Anna Rose (played by Betsy Drake, with her pleasant hint of a southern accent) and “Poppy” (Cary Grant, and I think nobody else but Jimmy Stewart could have been fit for the role) have three children already, but Anna is moved to take into their home, for a two-week vacation from the foster home, a teenage girl named Jane, who is deeply troubled, having attempted to take her own life.

The vacation becomes a kind of trial—will they take Jane into their lives for good, adopting her into the family? Love, not pity, must win the day, and it’s not always clear that it will win, either, because Poppy is not willing to let the girl harm his family, so that it’s not only Jane who must be won over. The decision must be unanimous.

Meanwhile, the people at the foster home have a crippled boy named Jimmy-John; he must walk haltingly, with leg braces. He is angry and unruly, and they don’t know what to do with him. He’s the one for whom the movie is named: will the Rose family have room for one more?

Don’t think that this is a sentimental film. The foster children have been badly used. Jimmy-John is twelve years old and can’t even read. He hates the Roses at first, smashing the bicycle of one of the boys, and carrying out his threat to leave them without taking a single thing they’ve given him, and that would include the clothes on his back.

“He’s stitch-stark naked!” cries Teenie, whose bike Jimmy-John smashed.

The movie, by the way, is worth watching just for George Winslow, nicknamed “Froggie” for the remarkable bass voice he had already when he was a little kid. You may remember him as the boy playing Indians with his fellows in Monkey Business, demanding several times that Cary Grant do the Indian raid in the right way: “You gotta have a war dance first.”

A Satisfying Simplicity

The Rose family doesn’t just exist in its private sphere, though. There’s school, and the neighborhood, and the town, and all the social business that Americans once took for granted. Jane has a crush on a boy who invites her to the prom, but his mother refuses to let him go—mothers, as usual, being the hardest on girls of dubious parentage who want to have anything to do with their sons. Jimmy-John wants to become an Eagle Scout, but that means learning to read, and embarking, in the middle of winter, on a long hike by himself, leg braces and all. Again, the Roses are not rich, and one more child and still one more child must mean sacrifices for everybody, and nowhere is that clearer than when they open their Christmas presents.

It’s a film that couldn’t be made now, because the foster children in it would have been brutalized by the chaos and the moral squalor of our common life—a Jane today would have been sexually active for years, and a Jimmy-John would have seen and perhaps engaged in more evil than Mrs. Rose herself could ever have imagined. Of course, it would have to have a partisan political angle, perhaps the stale old trope of opposition to racism, or one of the children would be gay, and the enemies would be religious prudes—the clichés write themselves.

Beyond that, though, you’d need innocence, because as bad as Jane and Jimmy-John can be, they are not wicked, and most of the people around the Rose family have good hearts. And you’d need a warm and grateful appreciation of the peculiar gifts of each sex for the other, as there is nothing like what Poppy does for Jane at the prom, and nothing like the moment when Jimmy-John gives a public tribute to his best girl, his mother.

Add to this a snappy dialogue with a lot of jokes and no flippancy, nothing snide, and the teasing but loving banter between the often-exhausted Poppy and Anna, and you have a deeply satisfying film which, without anyone’s intending it, offers a glimpse into an American world that no longer exists. Guidance, I should say, in building up a Christian culture again.

is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College and the author of over thirty books and many articles in both scholarly and general interest journals. A senior editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, Dr. Esolen is known for his elegant essays on the faith and for his clear social commentaries. In addition to Salvo, his articles appear regularly in Touchstone, Crisis, First Things, Inside the Vatican, Public Discourse, Magnificat, Chronicles and in his own online literary magazine, Word & Song.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #64, Spring 2023 Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo64/the-family-effect

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