Across a snowswept stretch of Wisconsin, twelve year old Robbie Eunson (Rex Thompson) drags a sled on which sits his youngest sister, sobbing her heart out because she is being given away to another family. Their sad story began in 1856 when Scottish immigrant Robert Eunson (Cameron Mitchell) and his wife Jo (Glynis Johns) arrived in the burgeoning town of Eureka, Wisconsin. Although the entire community pull together to help the Eunsons build their home, it is a hard struggle as Robert toils as a logger to earn enough money to start his own boat building business and Jo works hard to raise their six children, three boys and three girls with Robbie the eldest. When Robert succumbs to diptheria, young Robbie adopts his role as man of the house, selflessly sacrificing his schooling to support his family. Then when Jo contracts typhoid she summons Robbie to her death-bed and asks him to perform a sorrowful task which he handles as well as any adult could.
Given this film’s alternative title is: The Day They Gave Babies Away, it is not hard to guess what terrible burden Mrs. Eunson lays upon her poor, traumatised twelve year old son. Based on a heartbreaking true story, this vintage RKO drama shares notable plot similarities with the later, infamous Ann-Margret weepie Who Will Love My Children? (1983). Shot in warm, vibrant tones by William Shall with an emotive yet admirably restrained score from Max Steiner, All Mine to Give ranks among the most affecting Christmas movies ever made. For it is indeed on Christmas morning that young Robbie treks through the wintery cold to place each of his siblings in a loving home.
While the premise admittedly sounds hopelessly lachrymose and depressing, the film’s subtext is subtly upbeat as it reaffirms America’s self-image as the land that adopts outcasts and refugees to forge a brighter future. The experience of the Eunson children, scattered across the land but presumably nurtured to grow strong and prosperous, mirrors the life of every American pioneer to a degree. Not for anything does the script highlight the fact Robbie is born on the day Columbus discovered America. The film is equally an ode to community spirit as the townsfolk, save for crabby busybody Mrs. Runyon (Reta Shaw), repeatedly rally to the Eunson’s need whether assembling their log cabin or finding a home for the children.
It is a film of two halves, the first a pioneer story focused on the hardships endured by Robert and Jo as they strive to carve their slice of the American dream: poverty, sickness, prejudice, back-breaking work, etc. Scottish viewers will likely balk at the cutesy caricatures served up here, but aside from an admittedly dodgy accent Cameron Mitchell is otherwise solid and engaging. But it is Glynis Johns - perhaps best known as the dotty suffragette mum in Mary Poppins (1964) - who anchors the occasionally heavy-handed sentimentality of the first half and brings great pathos and dignity to her role.
Child star Patty McCormack, trying to shed her image as The Bad Seed (1956), acquits herself well as motherly eldest daughter Annabelle, however the second half of the film truly belongs to Rex Thompson, who played Deborah Kerr’s son in The King and I (1956). Thompson is deeply affecting as he goes about the task of distributing his siblings like Christmas gifts with a maturity that only occasionally cracks to reveal the heartbroken child buried within. “She didn’t even wave goodbye”, Robbie laments as one of his youngest sisters is carted away. Alan Reisner depicts the concluding events with understated warmth and a great deal of honesty about the way children react during a crisis, including some welcome comedy as the brothers debate whether to entrust their sister to the care of the local schoolteacher.