My knowledge of this one going in was limited to the fact that Walter Brennan won the very first Best Supporting Actor Oscar for it – thank you, high school-era Oscar obsession! When I realized it was based on an Edna Ferber novel, I had a bit more idea what to expect, as I’m familiar with several other Ferber books and their film adaptations, and they generally have a few things in common: sprawling, multi-generational stories featuring self-made Americans in some particular 19th century-specific profession. Cimarron is about pioneers entering the Oklahoma territory, Show Boat is about performers and gamblers on Mississippi River show boats, So Big about a teacher/farmer in an Illinois Dutch community, and Come and Get It is about a logger/paper mill magnate.
Multi-generational stories tend not to be my favorite thing, but I can be persuaded. Generally I prefer the earlier parts of these stories the best, before they move on to the second generation, and that’s the case here. In the first half of the story, Barney Glasgow (Edward Arnold) is a go-getter young businessman who gets his hands dirty with his logging crew, pushing for more productivity, but also right there pushing the timber into the river for transport, hanging out in the saloon after the work is done, etc. He meets and quickly falls for the saloon singer Lotta (Frances Farmer), but opts to marry his intended back east and continue his rise to the top of the business. All of these scenes have a lot of vitality and humor, capturing the scope of the frontier and the kind of men (and women) who made their way in it. I’m a big fan of westerns in general, so I loved that stuff, even if the attempt to point out how devastating over-logging is to the land kind of fell flat against the epic visuals of logs being transported and processed.