Movies taught me everything I know, alas

all mine to giveLast night, I watched all of All Mine to Give on TCM, and it was not an easy thing to do. I rolled my eyes for 103 minutes, and, when it was over, I vowed to express my vexation in writing. I was not so much bugged by its melodrama, though it was hard not to giggle at the overacting, backlot sets, and emotionally leading music. Happily, cinema has evolved. I was bothered more by the idea that movies like this helped to shape my sense of the world and the part I was required to play in it.

Set in 1856 America, All Mine to Give (based loosely on a true story and originally titled The Day They Gave Babies Away) tells the tale of Scottish émigrés Robert and Mamie Eunson (played by Cameron Mitchell and Glynis Johns), who settle in Wisconsin at the invitation of a relative, have a litter of six children, and succumb to diphtheria and typhoid fever, respectively.

On her deathbed, Mamie tells her eldest son, Robbie, that he must find good homes for each of her soon-to-be orphaned children. After her death—and on Christmas day, for crying out loud—he sets out in the snow to deposit his brothers and sisters in homes he has chosen for them, and he does so without first conferring with the adults who are to assume this burden. “Sure,” they tell 12-year-old Robbie when he appears out of the blue on their doorsteps, siblings in hand. “We can take another kid. No problem. And, hey, don’t be a stranger. Bye.”

So, when I was young, and impressionable, this is what I learned from All Mine to Give and movies like it:

1. To survive, you need to buck up and never complain, even if you are asked to do something no child should ever be asked to do.

2. You should not feel, much less show, sadness when sad things happen, like when your spouse dies, or when your parents die, or when your brothers and sisters are taken away from you—and from each other—and you are left all alone.

3. Children are really small adults and don’t much need the comfort or counsel of real adults.

4. Though life is impossibly hard, solutions to impossible problems are easy to find. Why, you can give away a kid just like that, and no one will even blink.

5. Everything in life should happen fast: Above all, grief over the loss of a loved one should never extend beyond 103 minutes.

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