Wednesday, May 1, 2013

THE KEEPER OF THE BEES (1935)

The novel upon which The Keeper of the Bees is based would likely have my wife swoon, "Oh, I loved that book when I was growing up!" Lightly allegorical, vaguely ethereal, The Keeper of the Bees demonstrates how a chance meeting between two strangers can affect not just their own lives but those of everyone around them, all for the better. It's about dropping masks and embracing love -- without being stung. It's also as complicated as heart surgery in a blackout.

"I knew Rin Tin Tin. Rin Tin Tin was a
friend of mine. And you're no
Rin Tin Tin."

Army veteran Jamie McFarland, given six months to live, is hitchhiking to Chicago when he's picked up by Molly, who is immune to his attempts to pick her up. After being kicked to the curb, Jamie tries to follow her, only to have a dog tug him to its sick master, Michael, an elderly beekeeper. Before taken to the hospital, Michael makes Jamie promise to care for the bees until he returns. Jamie receives help from a neighborhood kid nicknamed Little Scout, and Margaret Campbell, the housekeeper.

"I don't have to change
diapers? Where do I sign up?"
While out for a walk one evening, Jamie runs into Molly, who tearfully admits she needs "the protection of a man's name."  Jamie offers to marry her -- he's only got six months to live, after all. Molly accepts, but only if they go their separate ways immediately after the ceremony, never to communicate with each other again. How many husbands would pay good money for that kind of marriage?

Just don't expect the
same salary as guys, kiddo.
Months pass. Michael, the old beekeeper, dies in the hospital. Jamie and Little Scout inherit the property. Jamie's health is renewed by the simple life he once shunned but now loves. But now Little Scout faces a crisis, being outed by friends... as a girl. Jamie assures her that girls can assume the same leadership positions as boys. (Remember, this is a work of fiction.)

A phone call from the hospital alerts Jamie that "Mrs. McFarland" is dying after giving birth to "his" child. Expecting to see Molly in the maternity ward, Jamie discovers a total stranger instead. Nevertheless, he leaves with the baby... just as Molly (Jamie's real phony wife) swings by the hospital to visit the now-passed mother.


Shortly after Jamie returns home with the baby, Molly arrives. The truth is revealed. The woman whose name Molly signed on the wedding license, Louise Campbell, was her cousin -- and Margaret's runaway daughter. Molly had been trying to protect Louise's reputation by giving her a husband, if in name only.  It appears that Jamie and Molly will marry eventually, this time with her real name on the license.


There's something of a spiritual feeling running through The Keeper of the Bees, like a light mist drifting across the story and its characters. Michael (the beekeeper) plays a Godlike role in his care of the bees and setting in motion the events that will lead the others to a happy end. Too, the Archangel Michael is the patron saint of soldiers -- like Jamie.  And only after dropping the uniform of war for a life of peace does Jamie become restored whole -- reborn, you might say. As his true nature comes to the surface, so do those of Molly and Little Scout.
"I've got the
script and
I'm confused."

But not Margaret, who overhears Molly and Jamie discussing the circumstances of Louise's death. Yet when told a moment later that her daughter was killed in a car accident -- a more acceptable death than illegitimate childbirth? -- Margaret (played by Emma Dunn) goes along with the ruse. She thus becomes the only character in The Keeper of the Bees choosing to live some kind of a lie, even as she looks forward to helping to care for the infant she now realizes is her granddaughter.  
  

Little Scout (Edith Fellows) brings her own set of conundrums. Like -- where the hell are her parents? Do they know she's dressing in male drag? Isn't there a school in this town? And was Harper Lee  aware of The Keeper of the Bees before creating a small-town tomboy named Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird?

To be sure, unintentional chuckles are scattered about. Jamie asking the stricken Michael, "Where are the aromatic spirits of ammonia?" -- apparently a common household item in 1935. Molly walking the cliffs at night in heels. Little Scout and her friends playing with a loaded rifle. Margaret ordering Little Scout to get two bottles, four nipples and a quart of high-quality olive oil for the baby. I don't recall my wife giving me this shopping list when we brought our daughter home. (And so you don't get the wrong idea, Margaret rubs the olive oil on the baby -- another thing we inexplicably forgot to do.)

Had it been made at one of the A-level studios, The Keeper of the Bees would have featured stars like Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert. Instead, Monogram Pictures picked up the movie rights, doubtlessly in an effort, like Little Scout, to play with the big boys. Neil Hamilton and Betty Furness, one-time contract players at the majors now freelancing on Poverty Row, play Jamie and Molly. Perhaps it's for the best. They don't come off as movie stars -- all the easier to get lost in the movie's subtle charms. Even the dog is a little scruffy around the edges just like, you know, real dogs. (Thirty years later, Neil Hamilton would gain everlasting fame as Commissioner Gordon on Batman -- a series about two guys whose whole raison d'etre depends on literally wearing masks and living a lie.)

As delicate as the pollinated flowers that sustain Jamie's apiary, The Keeper of the Bees requires an audience willing to go with its gentle flow. It's a quiet movie, literally and figuratively -- Neil Hamilton is particularly soft-spoken -- lacking today's bombastic scores that artificially cue one's emotions. Margaret's repeated axiom, "Have faith," might just be as well aimed at the viewer: Have faith that you can watch a movie lacking cynicism. Have faith that life can be lived the same way. It's apt that the opening credits are seen inside a frame. The Keeper of the Bees is, in its own way, a little work of art.

                                         
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