Saturday, April 10, 2021

Stubs - Rationing

Rationing (1944) Starring: Wallace Beery, Marjorie Main, Donald Meek. Directed by Willis Goldbeck. Screenplay by William R. Lipman, Grant Garrett, Harry Ruskin. Produced by Orville O. Dull. Run Time: 94 minutes. USA. Black and White. Comedy.

Marjorie Main is probably best known for her appearances as Ma Kettle in eight films opposite Percy Kilbride and one opposite Parker Fennelly between 1947 and 1957. Prior to that, she had a fairly successful career at MGM, including such films as Stella Dallas (1937), Dead End (1937), The Women (1939), and Another Thin Man (1939). Additionally, she starred in 6 films opposite Wallace Beery, including Wyoming (1940), Barnacle Bill (1941), Jackass Mail (1942), Bad Bascomb (1946), and Rationing (1944).

To give a little background, during World War II, Americans on the home front were called upon to make sacrifices so that there were materials and food available to the troops. People could buy goods but they had to, in some cases, have coupons. On August 28, 1941, before the U.S. entered the war, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8875 created the Office of Price Administration (OPA). The OPA’s main responsibility was to place a ceiling on prices of most goods, and to limit consumption by rationing. Americans received their first ration cards in May 1942. The first card, War Ration Card Number One, became known as the “Sugar Book,” for one of the commodities Americans could purchase with their ration card.

The OPA rationed automobiles, tires, gasoline, fuel oil, coal, firewood, nylon, silk, and shoes. Americans used their ration cards and stamps to take their meager share of household staples including meat, dairy, coffee, dried fruits, jams, jellies, lard, shortening, and oils.

At the same time, black markets sprung up around the country, offering limited goods at a premium, and some people took to hoarding ration stamps and precious supplies.

With that, some of what goes on during the movie might make more sense.

The film opens with Ben Barton (Wallace Beery), the beleaguered grocer in Tuttleton, barely making it back to town after picking up a load of watermelons. Actually, his gas runs out before he makes it all the way back and he is forced to push his car the rest of the way.

Cash Riddle (Howard Freeman), who runs the local gas station, suggests he request more gas coupons from Iris Tuttle (Marjorie Main), the postmistress and the head of the local rationing board. There is history between them, which dates back over twenty years. Instead of granting his request, she instead gives him a lecture on thrift.

Ben Barton (Wallace Beery) tries to figure out all the regulations around rationing.

Dorothy Tuttle (Dorothy Morris), Iris’s daughter, comes to Ben frustrated that his adopted son, Lance (Tommy Batten), has been gone for three days and hasn’t contacted her. When he does arrive, she tries to play it cool at first. Lance informs them that he has joined the Army and ships out in three days. He also announces that he’s going to marry Dorothy before leaving for training camp.

Ben Barton (Wallace Beery) learns his adopted son Lance (Tommy Batten) has joined the Army.

Ben gives them his blessings but warns them about Iris, to whom he had once been engaged. He doesn’t think that she will be as generous. However, to everyone’s surprise, Iris gives her blessings but strongly suggests that they wait until after the war to marry.

Dorothy rejects her mother’s advice, but Lance has second thoughts. He knows that Ben and Iris' feud started when Ben inadvertently married a French woman while he was a soldier during World War I. He claims he was asking for a root beer and ended up married.

In order to raise $2000, Ben sells half of his grocery store to Cash Riddle (Howard Freeman).

After Dorothy angrily breaks off with him, the heartbroken Lance leaves for the city. After he’s gone, Dorothy explains to Ben that Iris would have endorsed their elopement if he had had $2,000 in the bank. Hoping to improve matters, Ben tells Dorothy that his birth parents left him a $2,000 inheritance, which is, of course, a lie. To make it true, Ben rushes to sell half of his grocery store to Cash Riddle.

Miss McCue (Gloria Dickson), the comely new barber, needs a new girdle.

Later, a jealous Iris follows Ben as he takes a girdle from his store to Miss McCue (Gloria Dickson), the comely new barber. Afterward, Iris informs Ben that girdles have been "frozen" by the government and audits the girdles in his store. He is one short, so Ben is forced to retrieve the girdle from an uncooperative Miss McCue. He tries to fish it off her bed through a skylight while she’s sleeping but is nearly caught when he wakes her and other men in town come to her aid.

Ben gets the runaround trying to find out information in Washington.

After that, Ben goes to Washington, D.C. to see fellow veteran Senator Edward A. White (Henry O'Neill). Ed is out of town, however, so his staff sends Ben all over town in a futile attempt to "unfreeze" girdles.

Days later, Ben is finally able to speak with Ed, he asks the senator to “pull some strings” so he can re-enlist. Ed agrees to give him a war-related job but unbeknownst to Ben, it’s not in the Army. As Ben is leaving, Ed informs him that girdles have never been rationed.

When Ben returns home to await his enlistment papers, he tells everyone that he’s going to be an officer but is shocked when he learns that Ed has appointed him head of the Tuttleton rationing board. Ben then discovers that his store has been without meat since his departure. When Ben offers to discuss the shortage with the government-sanctioned cattle sellers, Cash, who has been running the store in his absence, insists on doing it himself.

Unknown to Ben, Cash is involved in a black-market ring, led by Dixie Samson (Douglas Fowley), and has been selling illegal meat using a phony government stamp. To keep Ben from getting suspicious, Cash insists that Samson give Ben six sides of illegal beef.

Tuttleton's sudden influx of beef grabs the attention of butchers from neighboring towns, who demand to know why Ben's trucks have been seen carrying loads of meat when they have been meatless for weeks. Although Cash explains that Ben has been making deliveries for the Army, the butchers, as well as the townspeople, remain suspicious.

Ben is also suspicious and demands to meet the government representative for whom Cash claims to be working. Cash sends Ben to see Samson, and while posing as a civil servant, Samson offers Ben a bribe. Demanding $5,000, Ben pretends to go along with the scheme, but later telephones Ed to report the situation.

Soon after, Ed arrives in Tuttleton, and together, he and Ben deduce the location of Samson's illegal slaughter-house, as an old out-of-the-way ice house. But before Ben leaves, Lance arrives back in town, with a two-week furlough so he can marry Dorothy. While Ben goes off to confront Samson at the slaughter-house, Lance prepares to marry Dorothy.

At the remote slaughter-house, Ben is tied up and imprisoned by Samson. When Cash arrives, he too is taken hostage and Ben talks him into freeing him. Ben then knocks him out and becomes embroiled in a fight with Samson and his men.

Meanwhile, Lance and Dorothy hold off their wedding ceremony, awaiting Ben's return. Ed then reveals to the townspeople that Ben may be in trouble and rallies them to help.

Ed, the police, and the others race to the slaughter-house and, after a fierce fight, subdue the criminals.

Later, Iris informs Ben that she has bought Cash's half of the store and hands him a marriage license to sign. Ben at first refuses and instead wants to dissolve the partnership. However, when he sees the seventy-two forms she says he needs to fill out in order to rescind it, he gives in and signs the marriage license.

While Wallace Beery was one of MGM's top box-office stars, by the 1940s Louis B. Mayer had relegated him to lower budget films. Beery’s lovable rogue characters played well in the Stix, as the industry used to refer to rural America, and no matter how much or how little the studio spent on the film it would make money there. For Beery, he didn’t care about the budget as long as he got to take a daily nap and go home at 5:30 every night.

Beery is the main character here, or as T.M.P., The New York Times movie reviewer at the time, put it, "’Rationing’ is Mr. Beery's picture—nobody else could get away with the things he is called upon to do and still hold an audience.” And that is true. He commands the screen whenever he is on it and his grousing about the home front issues are well played.

Marjorie Main holds more than her own with him and manages to play off him as well. She is a strong female character when maybe that was more the exception than the rule in films at the time.

Wallace Beery with Dorothy Morris and Marjorie Main in Rationing.

The film is best when it is the two of them on the screen. They have some very snappy dialogue and one very memorable series of toasts. In a scene where Iris comes looking for whiskey to aid her ailing tooth, the two of them toast first to “Pigs in the Pen” and “Grass in the Front Yard” and then to “Eggs in the Coop” and “Chickens in the Eggs.”

The film gets a little bogged down with the Black-Market bit. As T.M.P. calls out in his review, ”somebody had to spoil the fun by dragging in the black market.” While that part was probably necessary since that was also going on in the country, it is not really as funny as the rest.

Rationing was well-received in the Stix and played well on Army camps, where the soldiers delighted in its comic vision of life back home, it was not loved by the wartime Office of Censorship, Los Angeles Board of Review. The film was denied for export, the complaint being its "undue emphasis on rationing throughout" made it unacceptable for overseas distribution. In January 1945, after the studio had made a number of eliminations, however, the Board approved the film for export.

The film is a bit of a forgotten commodity. Recently, when the Warner Archive put together a box-set of Beery and Main’s films, Rationing was left out. However, that oversight doesn’t mean that you should not take the opportunity to watch it. Even though it may drag a bit in the middle, the film is worth watching especially when Beery and Main are on screen together. That alone should put the film on your “to watch” list.

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