The Sun Comes Up (1949)


Released February 1949
Directed by Richard Thorpe
Produced by Robert Sisk
94 minutes

Prerelease titles: Sun in the Morning, A Family for Jack
French title: Lassie Perd…et Gagne (Lassie Loses …and Wins)
Dutch/Flemish title: Lassie verliest, Lassie wint. (Lassie Loses, Lassie Wins)

Based on the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings short story, “A Mother in Mannville” in the Saturday Evening Post, December 12, 1936 and her six-part serial, “Mountain Prelude” in the Saturday Evening Post, April 26 through May 31, 1947. Screenplay: William Ludwig and Margaret Fitts. Musical Score: André Previn. Director of Photography: Ray June. Art Directors: Cedric Gibbons and Randall Duell. Set Decorations: Edwin B. Willis, Hugh Hunt. Sound: Douglas Shearer. Gowns: Irene. Editor: Irvine Warburton.

Jeanette MacDonald (Helen Lorfield Winter)
Lloyd Nolan (Thomas Chandler)
Claude Jarman Jr. (Jerry)
Percy Kilbride (Mr. Willie B. Williegoode)
Lewis Stone (Arthur Norton)
Nicholas Joy (Victor Alvord)
Margaret Hamilton (Mrs. Golightly)
Ida Moore (Sally)
Esther Somers (Susan, the Maid)
Dwayne Hickman (Hank Winter)
Hope Landin (Mrs. Pope, orphanage matron)
Teddy Infuhr (Junebug)
Barbara Billingsley (Nurse)
Charles Trowbridge (Dr. Gage)
John A. Butler (Doorman)
Peter Roman (Love)
Mickey McGuire (Cleaver)
Cameron Grant, John Sheffield, Douglas Carter, Wilson Wood, Barry Norton (Music lovers)
Paul E. Burns (Dr. Sample)
Guy Wilkerson (Man)
Lassie (Lassie)
Timmy Hawkins, Alan Dinehart III, Michael Dill, Charles Bates Perry, Jimmy Crane, Bobby Beyers (Orphans)
Henry Sylvester, John Beck, Ed Peil Sr., Frank Pharr (Ad Lib Bits)
Cy Stevens, Cosmo Sardo, Stuart Holmes, George Calliga, Albert Pollet, Ed Agresti (Musicians)
Cecil Stewart (Accompanist)
Jessie Arnold (Woman)


Jeanette’s last film found her competing for close-ups with another lady who had fallen into disfavor at MGM: Lassie. The success of Lassie Come Home in 1943 had started a string of “Lassie” films, but the studio was taking less and less interest in the vehicles of their canine star. Lassie made only one more film after The Sun Comes Up, a 1951 cheapie. Then her trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, bought the TV rights from MGM and made television history.

The Sun Comes Up is a pointless title for a story about a war widow who loses her only son and withdraws from the world, full of bitterness and self pity. Eventually she recovers from her loss by mothering an orphan boy, played effectively by Claude Jarman Jr.

Jarman had made a stunning debut in The Yearling (MGM 1946), a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novel about a boy and a deer. The Sun Comes Up was taken from two Rawlings stories. In 1936, the Saturday Evening Post printed her moving first-person account of meeting the orphan, Jerry (“A Mother in Mannville”). She expanded the simple story into a six-part fictional serial, “Mountain Prelude,” for the same magazine in 1947, padding her usually tart and tight narrative with all kinds of continued-next-week devices, most of which found their way into the film.

While many incidents and much dialogue are identical, there are some interesting differences. In the magazine serial, Helen Jackson is a pianist-composer who fashions a “Mountain Prelude” from one of the folk melodies that Jerry plays on his harmonica. Jerry is the hero, not the victim, of the orphanage fire, rescuing the matron and catching the infants that Helen tosses to him from a second-story window. Bill Chandler, the romantic interest, is a badly crippled war vet who adopts Jerry, hoping that Helen will marry him to complete the family.

MGM obviously hoped for the success of The Yearling to rub off on the venture, but the basic humanity of the tale is ignored for a Lassie-rescue finish. The genuinely touching moments between the woman and the boy are crushed beneath monumental crescendos of the “important” style of orchestration so popular at the time. (It was one of twenty-year-old André Previn’s first scoring efforts.) With Jeanette singing opera, Lassie performing ridiculous feats, and Claude Jarman Jr. grown well beyond his child image but not permitted to act it, the film could not have entirely pleased any segment of the audience.

Director Richard Thorpe was a workmanlike craftsman who turned out an average of two films a year, year after year, featuring Lassie or Tarzan plus a sprinkling of comedies. His output included the 1937 Night Must Fall and The Crowd Roars (1938) with Robert Taylor. He later directed The Great Caruso (1951) with Mario Lanza and Ivanhoe (1952) with Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor.


Our story opens with singer Helen Winter (Jeanette) rehearsing “Tes Yeux” in her spacious country home while her son, Hank (Dwayne Hickman, later television’s Dobie Gillis), romps on the lawn with Lassie. Hank calls his mother to watch a trick he has taught the dog. He runs and Lassie trips him. “Please be careful,” Helen murmurs as she smiles gallantly.

Her business manager, Arthur Norton (the brilliant character actor Lewis Stone, nearing the end of his career), arrives and tells her that the concert, her first in three years, is a sell-out. Still she is nervous and concerned whether she has made the right decision. After her husband was killed, she realized how much time her music had taken that she might have spent with him. Hank is all she has now and she doesn’t want to waste a minute.

Arthur tells her that she can’t live in the boy, that he must have some freedom to grow up. She admits Arthur may be right, but she will quit her singing if it ever comes between them.

The concert is a great success with “Un Bel Di” from Madame Butterfly as the final selection. Helen and Hank gaily leave the concert hall on their way to a party when Lassie arrives in a chauffeured car. She spots Hank and dashes toward him across a busy thoroughfare. Amidst a blare of horns, orchestral and auto, we hear a car accelerating as they only do in Hollywood, then cries of “Lassie, get back,” and Hank runs into the street to save the dog. Naturally, he is killed by a speeding truck.

Helen takes to her bed for weeks, avoiding the sight of neighborhood children and, most of all, of Lassie. When spring makes the children’s shouts unbearable, she decides to go away, as far as she can from her memories. As she prepares to drive off, she instructs her maid, Susan (Esther Somers), to give Lassie away.

But Lassie has other ideas and follows the car. Susan begs Helen to take the dog. Lassie has suffered as much as Helen has, Susan tells her. What would Hank think? Lassie gives Helen a long, brown-eyed look, and she relents.

They drive south, on and on through pine forests and farmland and mountains, with the Santa Cruz mountains doubling for the Blue Ridge variety of the story. Finally, Helen comes to a nice-looking house with a “For Rent” sign. The property is being leased by Mr. Williegoode of the general store. The owner is Tom Chandler, a nice fella from the city who writes books. Mr. Williegoode (Percy Kilbride of “Pa Kettle” fame) is a character and extracts a good bit of business from depositing her rent payment in his ancient cash register.

He then requests her “poke” to pack up some supplies she will need. She discovers that he refers to a sack and, when it is full, she can’t lift it. Mr. Williegoode reckons it won’t kill him to carry it to her car this once (especially since he has gotten an exorbitant rent from her). Helen finds a group of children gathered around the car petting Lassie. Angrily she orders them away and drives off.

The next morning, she finds a harmonica-playing orphan named Jerry (Claude Jarman Jr.) waiting on her doorstep. Mr. Williegoode has sent him to do her chores. “All of us here are obliged to be handy for folks hereabout.” She dismisses him and tells him she will send a dollar to Mr. Williegoode for the work he has already done. Best not, he replies. He’s had his fun out of it. “Fare you well, Miss Lady,” he mutters and shuffles off.

Lassie follows him and encounters her first rattlesnake, which Jerry dispatches with a stick. Jerry wonders at a dog so dumb that she tries to chase a rattler. He reckons he could teach her a lot of things. Helen reckons he could too and gratefully tells him he can be her “handy boy.”

She decides to stay on in Brushy Gap, as the place is called, and goes down to the general store to send a telegram to Arthur. He is her manager, she explains to the curious Mr. Williegoode. She used to sing. At last his face lights up. He tells her that her landlord, Tom Chandler, sings too. Almost as good as the radio. Mr. Williegoode is still astonished by the extravagance of a telegram and even more surprised when Helen asks him where she can find a maid. He looked around after his wife died, he tells her, but there was nary a maiden in the whole valley.

Miz Sally (Ida Moore) and Miz Golightly (Margaret Hamilton) enter, vigorously ignoring Helen. They are miffed that she has “run off their youngin’s,” Mr. Williegoode tells Helen. The ladies are eager to learn all about the telegram as soon as Helen has left. A relative? they ask. Her manager, Mr. Williegoode tells them. “She comes right out with it, don’t she,” gasps Miz Golightly.

Twilight is descending over the quaint old house, and we can hear Helen singing “Songs My Mother Taught Me” as Jerry listens outside. He finally knocks. She is delighted to see him because oil lamps are a mystery to her. The boy happily shows her where Mr. Tom keeps the oil and how to light them. Mr. Tom was a great one for music too, he says. Jerry tells her about the feeling he gets from music, like you get from “the sun in the morning” (the original film title.)  Helen offers to play any piece he fancies, and he asks for the one she was just singing. She sings for him in the lamplight, a lovely moment indeed. When she reaches the line about children,” she breaks down and cries. She had a boy once, she tells Jerry, and now she doesn’t have him any more. Jerry is standing there with such eyes and such funny big boy’s feet—she turns sharply and asks him to leave. She had no right to say those things. He tells her he’s proud to hear anything she feels like saying. He’s not so young he doesn’t know what losing means.

Jerry comes to Mr. Williegoode’s store the next morning, proudly clutching the dollar Helen has given him. He is followed by a large group of curious youngsters. He selects a mouth organ, much to their disgust. Mr. Williegoode suggests he “put the dollar by” and just borrow the mouth-organ, as he has always done. It blows the same either way, he says, but Jerry reckons it blows sweeter when it belongs to you.

The children pour along the road and discover Helen’s convertible. Jerry hops in and gives the wheel a few turns. Helen appears, and the children back off in alarm. Instead of scolding, she offers them a ride. The car is too full for Jerry and his friend, Junebug (Teddy Infuhr). Jerry yanks one of the older boys from the back seat and thrusts Junebug into his place as the car pulls away.

The jaunt gives the boys a chance to sing a tedious, pseudo-folk song, “Cousin Ebenezer.” Helen offers to drop the boys at their homes and learns they all live together. Their home is the county orphanage.

They question Helen closely, wondering if she thinks eating too much is bad and if she approves of chores on Sunday. Her negative answers please them, and they nod happily. They want to be sure she isn’t adopting Jerry to have an extra farm hand. Helen starts to protest, but they run off across the fields toward the grim orphanage.

Helen returns to Mr. Williegoode’s store and telephones Arthur. He is to reinstate her canceled concert tour. She will meet him in Atlanta in a few days. Jerry comes to the store after she has left and has a philosophical chat with Mr. Williegoode about wanting people. Jerry agrees that one person wanting just ain’t enough.

Helen sees Jerry walking past her house and joins him. She is going away, she tells him cheerfully, but she will write him. Does he like letters? He’s not sure, he replies. He never got any. She’s not to worry about him, though, since he is going away soon himself. He’s going to live with his mother in Mannville. Helen is so surprised that she doesn’t see he is obviously lying. She leaves Lassie with him while she goes to Atlanta and Jerry sobs his grief into the dog’s soft fur. This is no time for chores, he decides, and together they go off for a romp that lands Jerry in an icy creek. He returns to the orphanage thoroughly chilled. By dinner time he is looking poorly, but he assures kindly matron Mrs. Pope (Hope Landin) that he will be all right.

Lassie whines outside the window during the meal, and Jerry tries to send her away. She won’t go, so Jerry waits until bedtime, then sets out to take her back to Helen’s house. They are caught in a storm reminiscent of the finale of Moby Dick. Lightning flashes, cymbals crash, and Jerry sinks unconscious on Helen’s doorstep.

Helen returns home the next day to find Jerry bedded down with pneumonia. Her landlord, Tom Chandler (Lloyd Nolan), had decided to pay her a visit and found the boy. A doctor has been called, and Helen is told that Jerry can’t be moved. The doctor (Paul E. Burns) says the boy needs a nurse, and Helen decides to go for his mother. Jerry becomes hysterical. She mustn’t bother anyone, he cries. The orchestra underlines each word so ostentatiously that the scene loses any real drama.

With the care of Helen and Tom, Jerry slowly returns to health. (In the magazine version, Chandler owned another house down the road, but the film never makes it clear where he is staying.) Miz Golightly, who had snooted Helen, becomes downright friendly when she sees the care the boy is getting. She grudgingly acknowledges that Helen is not as peculiar as she had thought and offers some posies for the boy. Helen wants to return the favor and asks Mr. Williegoode what would be an appropriate gift.

“Snuff,” he replies. Of course, she mustn’t present it as a gift. He explains the local etiquette. She must tell the lady that she has somehow gotten more snuff than she can use, and she’d be obliged if the lady would take it off her hands while it is still fresh. He outlines the dialogue that will ensue, and it does, word for word.

Unfortunately Miz Golightly insists that Helen join her in partaking of the snuff. Helen tries bravely to imitate her but swallows it. “I always eat it,” she chokes. Miz Golightly is rightfully impressed with the hardiness of city women. (Again the background music intrudes, cutting the effectiveness of the simple scene.)

Jerry and Mr. Tom sit outside the house, listening as Helen sings “Romance.” Jerry wonders when Mr. Tom is going to sing for Miss Lady, but Tom says he can’t compete with singing like that. (With the constant references to Tom’s singing, we are all set for a charming, impromptu duet, but, alas, it never happens.) Mr. Williegoode comes by to bring Helen her train ticket. Jerry and Tom are both hurt and surprised. Jerry reckons he’s well enough to ride along with Mr. Williegoode to the orphanage. They are short handed for the harvest. He’s not sure he’ll even have time to come back for goodbyes. Helen is very upset at his leaving. She defends herself to Tom, saying that what she is doing is right. She can’t take Jerry away from his real mother. “You already have,” Tom says.

On her way to the train station, Helen stops at the orphanage to say goodbye to Jerry. Then she drives off amidst shattering violin harmonics, and Jerry rushes upstairs to hide in a store room. A lamp is tipped over, and flames begin licking the wooden walls. From the depot, Helen and Tom hear the fire bell. They rush back to find Jerry. He, of course, is stuck in the store room. A flimsy wooden catch has dropped into place that any healthy five-year-old could dislodge, but the six-foot boy must summon Lassie with his cries. The dog unlocks the door and rescues Jerry.

The now-homeless children of the orphanage are divided up among the town folk, and Helen takes Jerry back to Mr. Tom’s place. She decides to drive to Mannville to give Jerry’s mother whatever she needs to have Jerry come home.

After she leaves, Tom learns that Jerry has lied about having a mother. Lassie scratches at the door, and a car is heard coming down the road. Helen is returning. She didn’t try to find Jerry’s mother, she tells Tom. She changed her mind. Why should she give Jerry back to her when she needs him more?

They go to find Jerry, but he has fled across the fields. “Trip him, Lassie,” Helen cries, and the dog tackles the boy. They are all reunited amidst tears and violins, and we assume they will form a family. The final shot is of Lassie yipping her delight into Jerry’s ear, a wistful ending to Jeanette MacDonald’s last film and to a career that spanned the first two decades of the film musical.


“Eminently suitable for the family trade….Miss MacDonald maintains her high standard of singing,” said Film DailyTime Magazine, at the other end of the spectrum, said the film “is as unnatural as a purple zebra.”

A. H. Weiler in the New York Times took a middle course: “Wholesome, inoffensive, sometimes banal, always standard. While the new film arrival sheds plenty of Technicolored light, it sheds little warmth. Jeanette MacDonald never looked lovelier. And she proves she has kept at her vocal exercises by neatly rendering several lieder and an aria from Madame Butterfly. The proceedings are all very sweet and simple, perhaps too sweet,”


Jeanette recorded:

“Romance” (“If You Were Mine”)
“Songs My Mother Taught Me”
“Un Bel Di”

Music in the Film

In listing performers after each title, “and” denotes a genuine duet, while commas between names indicate a sequence of singers.

Overture: theme by André Previn, used throughout the film
“Tes Yeux” [“Thine Eyes”] fragment (Mac Donald) – music by René
Alphonse Rabey
“Un Bel Di” from the opera Madame Butterfly (MacDonald) – music by Giacomo Puccini,
libretto by Luigi Illica and Guiseppe Giacosa
“Als die Alte Mutter” [“Songs My Mother Taught Me”] (MacDonald) – music Antonin
Dvorak (opus 55, #4,) German lyrics by Adolf Heyduck
“Songs My Mother Taught Me” reprise (MacDonald) – music as above, English lyrics by
Natalie MacFarren
“Cousin Ebenezer” (MacDonald and boys) – music by André Previn, lyrics by William Katz
“Romance” [“If You Were Mine”] (MacDonald) – music by Anton Rubinstein, lyrics by
Paul Bourget
Finale: Previn theme

Prerelease publicity stills show Jeanette and her stage Roméo et Juliette costar, Armand Tokatyan, in what is described as a scene from La Traviata. She and Tokatyan are in street clothes on an opera set. Pay records indicate Tokatyan sang and acted in a sequence “Oh, Gran Dio.” However, this sequence does not appear in the completed film.