It’s taken me most of the day to watch this, it’s so grim: Carrie (Jennifer Jones) leaves the farm to be exploited in the big city, working in a factory where she’s forced to work so fast she gets a needle through her finger and gets fired. Soon she’s got no wages to give to her nasty brother-in-law. Desperate, she gets taken advantage of by a smooth fast-talking salesman (Eddie Albert) and he tricks her into living with him though he never keeps his promise to marry her. She then falls for George Hurstwood (Laurence Olivier) and runs off to marry him, though he fails to tell her he’s already married with two grown children and has robbed his workplace of 10,000 so he can be with her. The film changes focus as events catch up with them. The theft – which George saw as a temporary loan – is discovered and has made him unemployable; the first wife (Miriam Hopkins, glorious here), has all the marital property in her name and won’t even give him a divorce much less a cent. Thus begins George’s descent, and he goes down, and down, and down, right to the doss-house he gets kicked out of; until this viewer could barely stand it. Carrie, so proper at the beginning, a wised-up and successful actress at the end, tries to help him. He’d only come to the theatre she’s so successful at for a glimpse and for a hand-out, but leaves with the reassurance of her love and thoughts of suicide by gas in his future.
Did anyone think this would be a hit? It’s marvellous though, so I’m glad the filmmakers conned someone into thinking it might be. Wyler films in medium to long shot so that the environment is always part of the frame, a context and a history to the action. It’s quite beautiful; and Olivier, whom I don’t like on film, is here better than I’ve ever seen him. A great movie. Based on the Theodore Dreiser novel, Sister Carrie.
The Heiress is so great. There must be other films that are about the slow, brutal realisation that one is unloved, even by one’s nearest and dearest, and how that knowledge closes off and diminishes a person, but I can’t think of any. It would make a great double bill with Now, Voyager which has an almost opposite trajectory, ie learning to value and love oneself. Also interesting is the different traditions of acting all the protagonists –Olivia de Havilland, Ralph Richardson, Montgomery Clift, Miriam Hopkins –work in, and which Wyler prevents from clashing. Montgomery Clift is arguably at his most beautiful in the opening sequences. Wonderfully directed too so that space itself becomes allegorical (the uses of the staircase in the house). I want to explore the ending of the film more because doesn´t she in fact end up doing what her father wanted to and she herself railed against? In a way isn´t she defeated, bitter, vengeful and shut-in in her house, as her father wanted. Doesn´t patriarchy still win out in spite of Monty knocking desperately and helplessly at the door?
The Criterion is a great edition, and hidden amidst the extras is a fascinating short film on the role of the costume designer, using Edith Head’s decision making process through a film as a means to illustrate it.
Bette Davis’ recompense for having missed out on Gone With the Wind; one of her greatest hits; a legendary performance that’s still the gold standard for screen acting. The film’s themes – the conflict between North and South, the battle of the sexes, the constraints of societal morays on individual identity and expression, the price women pay for over-stepping those limits – all are expressively explored. William Wyler directs with great fluidity — the camera always seems to be craning, gliding, moving in, accenting – and in depth. Yet, it feels restrained – or rather, right: it never feels too much.
Watching the film is an immersive experience, as if one is drifting into a cloud of pure emotion, probably lifted there by Max Steiner’s score. The realm of feeling – complex, understandable, contradictory, ours – feels right on the surface of the film; on its skin; and communicated from there to our own. It’s almost a great film. What stops it from being so in my view is all the happy-clappy slaves singing their joy at the Halcyon plantation. This is by no means the worst offender in its time. In fact one can argue that there’s a context in which it can be seen as liberal and progressive. But it does offend current eyes and ears, at least mine.
And yet here is also Davis’ Julie, one of her most popular and celebrated performances, goading Pres (Henry Fonda), challenging his masculinity, confronting convention, proud, arrogant, spoiled, then humiliated and suffering. She’s great, a witch – we don’t know how she achieves what she does; how she communicates such complexity so clearly — and completely bewitching in all her legendary moments: getting off her horse, choosing the red dress, the ball sequence, goading Pres with his ‘stick’ in a phallic battle she wins, the humiliation of her attempts to win him back, her final self-abnegation at the end. A must for anyone interested in great screen acting.
Orry Kelly’s costuming is better than Walter Plunkett’s for Gone With the Wind
The first of three Davis films directed by Wyler, the others being The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941)
A lovely illustration of how Hollywood conceptualised, represented and satirised film spectatorship in 1935. Margaret Sullavan, just out of the orphanage, already enveloped in a cloud of romantic longings formed by fairy tales, is an usherette at Budapest’s Dream Palace, her first job. Reginald Owen is a viewer who will turn out to be her ‘good fairy’. Both are enraptured by the mannered, melodramatic and repetitive drivel they see onscreen. We understand why they are so involved. We also understand why others are not, and why they leave at a moment in the narrative before they arrive, i.e. why they might want to leave before seeing the whole thing. Fredric Molnar, who wrote the original play, and Preston Sturges, who adapted it, make for a lovely sweet and sour combination, all directed by William Wyler with great delicacy and respect for both his subjects and his audience.