Come and Get It (1936):  Bad Adaptation, Great Film

Frances Farmer and Edward Arnold around the gambling table in Come and Get It (1936)
Come and Get It 1936 Opening Banner

Sandwiched between Cimarron and Saratoga Trunk, Edna Ferber wrote Come and Get It, a novel criticizing the American logging industry of the 1880’s and detailing what she called “the rape of America.”

By this Ferber meant the non-sustainable practices of cutting down trees without replanting, polluting rivers and streams, and using barely legal tactics to scoop up huge tracts of land.  (The same illegal tactics the robber barons used to steal the farm of Clint Maroon’s parents in Saratoga Trunk.) 

Thus, the provocative Come and Get It title refers to the trees—and the wealth—there for the taking in the lush and seemingly endless American forests.

Ferber sold the film rights to producer Samuel Goldwyn, extracting a promise that he would make a prestigious “issue” film that got to the heart of her story. 

Goldwyn had every intention of honoring this promise, until fate—and Howard Hawks—intervened.

Goldwyn assigned Hawks—never known for “issue” films—to direct Come and Get It, with the plan to keep a close eye and tight leash on the independent director who had a habit of bending source material to his version of the story.

During the filming of Come and Get It, Goldwyn was hospitalized due to problems with both his gall bladder and appendix.  While Goldwyn recuperated, Hawks began a wholesale rewrite of the script.  His film begins with thirty minutes of impressive footage showcasing how trees are felled and then sent down the river to the saw mill using dynamite and the flow of river water.

After that brief nod to the logging industry, Hawks introduces us to Barney Glasgow (Edward Arnold), a big, gregarious, and ambitious lumberjack.  He’s clutch in a barroom brawl (and we get to see a mighty one) but he’s also got big plans for his future.  He pitches a partnership to his boss based on a legally dubious plan to gobble up Wisconsin land for their logging operation.

Barney falls in love with Lotta Morgan (Frances Farmer), a beautiful barmaid he meets on the night of the aforementioned brawl.  He teases marriage, but in the end he throws her over to marry the boss’ daughter and secure his rise up the logging ladder.

Walter Brennan, Frances Farmer, and Edward Arnold in Come and Get It (1936)
Walter Brennan, Frances Farmer, Edward Arnold

Of her own novel, Ferber wrote many years later that it was, “about 70 per cent good.  In it I committed a serious error.  A little more than halfway through the book I killed the character called Barney Glasgow, and with his death the backbone of the book was broken.  He was the most vital and engaging person in the story.”

Howard Hawks didn’t make the same mistake.  He knew Barney Glasgow was the heart of the story, and he intended to keep the gregarious lumberjack turned magnate onscreen until the final frame.

We fast-forward a few decades to find Barney a rich and successful paper mill tycoon.  He butts heads with his son, who wants more sustainable logging practices, dotes on his daughter, and has a cordial if not loving relationship with his wife.

He has everything he’s ever wanted—except Lotta, the love of his life who (reluctantly) married his best friend (Walter Brennan) after he threw her over.

His life is upended when he meets the now-deceased Lotta’s daughter, also named Lotta (and also played by Frances Farmer), the spitting image the woman Barney loved all those years ago.

The rich and powerful Barney makes an absolute fool of himself in pursuit of young Lotta.  He gives her father a job in his company so that they can move closer to him.  He showers her with expensive clothes, buys her an apartment, pays for her education. 

He’s infatuated with now-Lotta, confusing her with the woman he once knew.  And confusing himself with the much younger man he once was.

Lotta is at first flattered, then increasingly alarmed and eventually repulsed by Barney’s attentions.  She fears retribution against her father if she outright rejects Barney.

Frances Farmer and Edward Arnold in Come and Get It (1936)
Frances Farmer, Edward Arnold

When she falls in love with Barney’s son Richard (Joel McCrea), the film has completely transformed from a critique of the logging industry into a highly entertaining yarn about an old man and his son being in love with the same woman that bears little resemblance to Ferber’s novel.

At this point of the film, I’m on the edge of my seat—how will Lotta manage this lecherous patron who has given her family so much?  What will Richard do when he finds out that his father has been making advances on the woman he hopes to marry?

What will Barney do when he realizes Lotta loves not him but his son?

Frances Farmer and Joel McCrea in Come and Get It 1936
Frances Farmer, Joel McCrea

It was about this time in the filming that Samuel Goldwyn recovered enough from his gastrointestinal issues that he first asked—then demanded when he met resistance—to see Hawks’ footage.

When he saw what Hawks had done to Ferber’s material, he blew a gasket.  Hawks felt that the second half of Ferber’s novel was “lousy,” and he’d made it into a good story for film.  They had a heated argument, and depending on who’s telling the story, Goldwyn either fired Hawks or Hawks quit. 

Either way, Hawks was off to RKO to make Bringing Up Baby with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and Goldwyn was left with an unfinished picture.

Samuel Goldwyn called in William Wyler to finish directing the film.  William Wyler would go on to have a stellar career making prestige films, including Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Heiress (1949), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Roman Holiday (1953), and Ben-Hur (1959).  He would collect three Academy Awards for best directing and twelve nominations throughout his long career.

Had Wyler directed Come and Get It from the start, I’m certain he would’ve better captured the spirit of Ferber’s novel.  But I’m not sure he would’ve made a more entertaining film.

Regardless, Wyler was loathe to finish the work of another man, and only did so after Goldwyn threatened to sue him for breach of contract if he refused.  He ended the film but kept Hawks’ vision intact.

In the final moments of the film, father and son get into a physical altercation over Lotta.  She breaks them apart, begging Richard to stop hitting his father, and calling Barney, “just an old man.”

The words land harder than any punch he’s ever taken.  He suddenly sees himself through Lotta’s eyes—not a legitimate rival for her affection, but a pathetic old pervert.

His ambition has brought him money, wealth, and power.  But it never brought him either Lotta, and it can’t preserve his youth.

Wyler never counted Come and Get It as one of his films; he’d completed only 14 days of shooting vs. Hawks’ 42.  He fought against Goldwyn’s desire to remove Hawks’ name completely from the film.  Wyler insisted they share screen credit (though he would have preferred his name left off entirely) and insisted Hawks’ name come first.

Come and Get It is an unjustly forgotten film; perhaps because of the two directors, perhaps because the stars aren’t as well remembered today.  And although it doesn’t tell Ferber’s story, it does tell a good one.  Hawks wasn’t one to moralize, but he knew how to keep an audience’s attention.  Watching Barney throw over one Lotta only to leer at another is a fascinating study of human behavior.

It’s got a quick pace, a good cast, and Edward Arnold nails his part as Barney Glasgow.  Perhaps due to Wyler, the somewhat zany story comes to a poignant end.

For future Jeopardy players, take note that Walter Brennan won the first ever Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Swan, Barney’s best friend and young Lotta’s father.

And what did Ferber think of this fast and loose adaptation?

Across two memoirs, she never once mentions the film.  She had no problem praising or criticizing the films made of her books, so we’ll all just have to draw our own conclusions regarding her silence.

Come and Get It Verdict:  Give It A shot

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.
  • Madsen, Axel. William Wyler:  The Authorized Biography.  2015.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Frances Farmer and Edward Arnold around the gambling table in Come and Get It 1936.

7 thoughts on “Come and Get It (1936):  Bad Adaptation, Great Film

  1. TIIMMBBEERR! Was Edward Arnold really the ‘lustiest timberwolf of them all?’ Do like to see Frances Farmer, always seems like a very modern presence, even in old movies…this looks like a good laugh, even if it wasn’t what the author intended…

  2. Pingback: Show Boat (1936): Ferber’s Glamour Girl - Melanie Novak

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