Monday, June 25, 2012

Movie Review: Friendly Persuasion

Friendly Persuasion (1956)
directed by William Wyler, starring Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire

(Note: This is my entry for the William Wyler Blogathon, hosted by R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector)

The year is 1862. The Civil War has taken hold of the American people and all across the nation, people are hearing the call to take up arms and fight. And even for a family of devout Quakers, the choice is not an easy one. Jess Birdwell (Gary Cooper) is a peace-loving farmer and his wife Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) is a Quaker minister. They are happy with their quiet life in Indiana. Jess's attractions to music and horse racing and Eliza's insistence on following Quaker tradition may cause friction but their love remains true. Their children Josh (Anthony Perkins), Mattie (Phyllis Love), and Little Jess (Richard Eyers) are likewise content. But the War draws ever closer, as Mattie falls in love with a Union soldier (Peter Mark Richman) and Josh struggles to reconcile faith and the desire to fight. It's a decision that all of them must face.

Hollywood doesn't like pacifism. I feel comfortable making such a broad generalization because well, how many pacifist cinematic heroes can you name? There's Atticus Finch, of course, and Gandhi and the many versions of Christ. But compared to the vast sea of bullet-plugging, sword-swinging fighters cutting a swath through our movie screens, those guys are a drop in the bucket. I don't think this is a comment on morality so much as the idea of what carries the forward momentum onscreen. A hero who decides to take direct action against evil registers more forcefully on film than a hero who's willing to be passive and restrained. When Gary Cooper was asked to take the lead role of the Quaker farmer in Friendly Persuasion, he was uneasy about the expectations of his fans, knowing that they would want him to pick up his gun in the final reel. He said as much to Jessamyn West, author of the original novel. She encouraged him to resist, telling him it would mean just as much for his audience to see a "strong man refraining."

I'll admit that when I decided to revisit Friendly Persuasion for the William Wyler Blogathon, that was the vague memory I had of this film: a Quaker family struggling through the Civil War until the father goes all Gary Cooper in the finale and finally picks up his gun. I remembered enjoying the film, but I thought of it as very simple and morally muddled product. But the surprise of Friendly Persuasion is that it isn't really about the will-he-or-won't-he of Gary Cooper. Instead, it's shockingly mellow and funny, a portrait of a family whose lives are taken up by problems like a violent goose, the purchase of an organ, and the father's desire to beat his neighbor in a race to church. The Civil War's there of course, but it's more of a distant rumble than a thundering climax. The themes of violence versus restraint call Witness to mind, but in fact, this film is a closer cousin to Meet Me in St. Louis. It's focused on incidents, on the rhythms of daily life. How much you like this film depends on your willingness to follow along with that, to spend time getting to know this Quaker family and see how they live. For myself, I enjoyed nearly every minute of it.

Wyler isn't normally thought of as a very funny or relaxed director, in spite of great romantic comedies like Roman Holiday and How to Steal a Million. But I think Friendly Persuasion shows that all that charm can't be placed on Audrey Hepburn's shoulders alone. Wyler manages to take what are, in essence very simple jokes (Jess's attempts to hide his organ from the visiting leaders of his church, for example) and make them work, simply by taking the time to set them up. He knows the rhythm of his situations. In the scene with the organ, he's already shown us Jess's hidden desires for music, his wife's desire to behave like a proper Quaker minister, the physical reality of trying to hide this damn thing, and the parallel situation of his daughter and her flirtatious suitor. All of it come together in a comic scene with the daughter and her lover playfully tinkering with the organ upstairs while Jess frantically tries to pray loud enough downstairs to drown out the music. All while the ministers of his church are praying very seriously for a solution to the Civil War. The longer it goes on, the louder and more incoherent Gary Cooper's prayer gets. When it's over, the ministers turn to him with great respect. "Thy prayer carried me so near to Heaven's gates, I thought I heard the choiring of angel voices," one tells him.

Gary Cooper responds to the relaxed nature of this film with a performance that feels very casual and warm; you'd have to really squint to see the actor's backstage fears over his age and character. The dramatic weight of the film falls not so much on Cooper as it does on Anthony Perkins, playing his troubled teenage son Josh. Josh is loyal to his family and church but feels the need to fight in the war. It was Perkins' first major role and while I think giving him a Supporting Actor nomination for it was a bit much, he does rise to the challenge, giving us the image of a boy who doesn't really want to fight but can't bear the thought that he might secretly be a coward. The moment when Josh finally kills a Confederate soldier is perfectly rendered by Perkins who squeezes the gun, his whole body racked with a silent sob, before blindly reaching to fire again.

However, good as Perkins and Cooper are, it's Dorothy McGuire who's the standout to me. The role of straight-laced, devout Eliza Birdwell was originally meant for Katharine Hepburn, who turned it down, and Wyler went through several possibilities, even saying to Jessamyn West, "How about Jane Russell? She's a very pious girl." Yet it's hard for me to imagine anyone handling this role as well as McGuire. She takes a character who could so easily have come across as the killjoy nag and makes her seem passionate and kind. Much as I love Hepburn, I can't help thinking that she would have been too inflexible as Eliza, playing up the sterner aspects of her character. McGuire is more evasive, more inclined to lead by gentleness than sharp lectures. It makes Eliza's relationship with her husband Jess into something that rises above a sitcom-style dynamic of "strict wife, boyish husband."

Few directors are as warm and perceptive on the subject of marriage as Wyler. You could put the relationship of Jess and Eliza Birdwell in a triptych with the disintegrating marriage of Sam and Fran in Dodsworth and the complex but loving Stephensons in The Best Years of Our Lives. Wyler's great ability with actors is revealed in how real these couples look onscreen, from Myrna Loy leaning in to kiss a snoring, hungover Fredric March to Ruth Chatterton tentatively trying to reassure the husband she is abandoning. And because Wyler always stressed nuance and ambiguity, the relationships in his films don't feel etched in stone. If the Stephensons tried to evade their problems, maybe they could one day become like the unhappy Dodsworths. And if the Dodsworths had been more patient and understanding, their relationship could have endured and improved into something like the contentious but happy Birdwell marriage.

Jess and Eliza rarely speak of their love in Friendly Persuasion but we're never in doubt. It's in the way they lean towards each other, the way he teases her, the way she graciously tries to ignore his little weaknesses. It's all there. Along with a strong sexual attraction that the movie is surprisingly open about. In one of the film's best scenes, Jess and Eliza quarrel over an organ that Jess has purchased. Eliza takes herself off to the barn to spend the night. But as she tries to make herself comfortable in the straw, Jess shambles in, clutching blankets and pillows. "Cooling down a bit, isn't it?" "I find it quite pleasant," Eliza responds. "So do I," he says, testing the straw with his foot as Eliza tries not to smile. They emerge the next morning, disheveled and grinning, holding hands and trying not to laugh. It's a brilliant romantic moment that makes the film's actual pair of young lovers look like paper dolls by comparison.

I'll admit here, to the likely horror of some of my readers, that I've never found Gary Cooper that sexy. Handsome sure, but he so rarely achieves chemistry with his leading ladies. His characters always seem to be gazing off into the distance, like they'd rather think about love than react to the woman in their arms. But that's not the case with Dorothy McGuire here. They look great together. 

There's a fly in every ointment and for Friendly Persuasion, it's the music. The worst part of this movie, hands-down, is that horrible, sugary theme by Dimitri Tiomkin that pops up periodically like an unwelcome shower of Hallmark cards. Pat Boone sings the pop version across the credits and all I can say for him is that he can take a lyric like "Thee pleasures me in a hundred ways," and starch it pure white. You can't even giggle at the innuendo. But more importantly, the sentimentality of the music jars with a film that takes great pains to show its characters as mature and wise.

On a more serious note, I do think there's a case to be made that Friendly Persuasion, in its focus on gentle comedy and slice-of-life storytelling, fails to reconcile the Civil War plot with the rest of the film. Not that the wartime scenes aren't good, because they are. Josh's decision to fight, the invasion of the home by a Confederate raiding party, the death of a beloved friend, everything's handled very well. Even the question of whether to fight or not to fight is done well; Friendly Persuasion doesn't judge these people on whether or not they choose to fight but simply shows them to us, free of prejudice. But I do think the film can't quite make the two elements cohere. The film is so bluntly comedic for over an hour that Anthony Perkins' stark question, "I wonder what it feels like to die?" just splits it in two. Either you've been getting tired of the farm life and praying for this interruption or you've been enjoying the humor and now feel blindsided. And the movie's ending, with its all's-well-that-ends-well tone, just can't stitch it all together.  I feel that if Wyler had been able to explore the wartime aspect as well as he does the Quaker lifestyle, he might have had a truly great film on his hands rather than one that's just very good.

In spite of its nomination for Best Picture, I feel like Friendly Persuasion is a film that's been unfairly forgotten over the years. Partly because it's overshadowed by the inordinate number of great films that William Wyler made, but I think more due to the public's terror of "wholesome" entertainment. That Pat Boone song, the enthusiastic Bosley Crowther review ("loaded with sweetness and warmth and... cracker-barrel Americana"), the threat of piety and sermons and's no wonder classic film fans have given it a wide berth. Critic David Thomson dismissed it as "one of the dreariest pictures (Gary) Cooper ever made." But this film is far smarter than it's given credit for. It's more interested in characters than in preaching. There are no pat answers, just people enjoying their lives and wanting to hang onto that. In the hands of a sentimentalist, maybe that would have been dreary. But as it stands, it's a testament to the skill of William Wyler, a director who could find just as much to value in a carriage race as he could in a battle scene.

Favorite Quote:

"I want you to know, sir, I honor your prejudices--um, uh, convictions." 

Favorite Scene:

My favorite scene has to be the final race to church between Jess and Sam Jordan. It's such a simple scenario and the stakes are small but the buildup to it has been perfect. For the sake of propriety, Jess can't admit that he wants to beat Sam on the way to church, but everybody in town knows it. Even Eliza knows it deep-down but (Dorothy McGuire's performance is pitch-perfect), she is trying so hard to pretend as if everything is normal and proper. The tension between Jess and Eliza, Jess's purchase of the butt-ugly but feisty Lady, the sly winks of his sons when they hand him the reins. All of it leads into a great race scene with the rickety carriages roaring down the road as the participants choke and cough from the dust. And as they round the corner, everyone in town cranes their heads to watch for the winner. All for a race that nobody wants to come out and actually acknowledge is happening. It's a scene that makes me laugh every time.

Final Six Words:

Conflict and love rise up together

First image credited to the Gary Cooper Scrapbook


  1. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this film. This is one I remember watching years ago, and I recall not liking it altogether much. But your post makes me want to revisit this movie and see if it makes more of an impact this time around. :)

    And I have to say, I agree with you on Gary Cooper's general lack of "sexiness." There IS a definite lack of chemistry with some of his onscreen partners (ahem Grace Kelly ahem) that makes the romantic elements awkward, if not unbelievable. (I also don't find him all that physically attractive in most of his roles, to be perfectly blunt. Sorry, Cooper fans!)

  2. This is a really fine review. I'm a big fan of Friendly Persuasion for most of the reasons you mentioned. The relationship between Jess and Eliza is the best part of the film. I always though Cooper did comedy well when he had a strong lead lady and he surely had one in McGuire here.

  3. Rachel, a welcome contribution to the Wyler blogathon, where your post joins other outstanding posts that have already been published. This is in many ways such an uncomplicated movie--being "focused on incidents, on the rhythms of daily life," as you aptly put it--that it's a testament to your powers of observation that you were able to write such a thorough and in-depth post on it. I liked your comparison to "Meet Me in St. Louis," one that hadn't occurred to me but seems wholly apposite. The several extended examples you gave to illustrate the ideas of the film's "relaxed nature" and Wyler's way of controlling the rhythm of a scene seemed very well chosen. I thought your point about the subtle and realistic way Wyler had of dealing with marriage relationships in this and other pictures was quite well made.

    I also liked the way you praised Dorothy McGuire. She's as actress I've always adored and thought was under-appreciated. David Thomson might not have thought much of this film, but he did call McGuire "tolerant and sweet-faced" and said she seemed born to play mothers. I'd say this picture offers good support for that observation. I haven't seen the film recently enough to recall the music of Dimitri Tiomkin in detail, but I did recently see another movie he scored where the music struck me as overbearing and inappropriate, so I understood your point.

    All in all, a great post on a film whose gentle, often comic tone is unique among Wyler's films.

  4. Great review, Rachel - you hit on so many points about this interesting film. I like Cooper so much in this film. I think his sexiness was purely of the American variety. When he played Continental or sophisticated, he lost something (to me, anyway). This film fit him to a tee. Wyler could do it all, couldn't he?

  5. R.D. Finch: Wow, there's so much to think about in your comment--makes me wish I could read your review of this film, should you ever post one. I second your thoughts on McGuire. She's not an actress I seek out, but after viewing this film again, I wonder, "Why the hell not?" And is it just me or is she more beautiful here at forty than she was at thirty?

    FlickChick: Always glad to see you stop by. Thanks for adding another dimension to the Cooper debate. An American sexiness, hmmm. I thought he and McGuire were pretty darn sexy in this film. And did I mention how funny his reactions are? The scene where he and Marjorie Main silently commiserate over her dead husband in hell cracks me up every time.

  6. Brandie: See, this is one of those films where, even though I enjoy it, I can easily see where someone wouldn't. Either the humor and situations work or they don't. And thanks for the support on the Cooper front. For me, the sexiest actors are the ones who can just laser in on their costars and convince you that they want 'em that bad. And Cooper rarely does.

    KimWilson: Now that you mention it, I think I do prefer Cooper's comedies, for the most part, to his dramas. And McGuire works so well with him here.

  7. This is a great review on a movie that I ended up loving even though I never expected it to be great. I tend to enjoy the prototypical Gary Cooper movies, but the lightheartedness of this one really blew me away. The horse racing was hysterical! I would have preferred the movie keep its lighter feel throughout, but it was still a movie that worked on many different levels. Thanks for your in-depth review and thoughts.

  8. Rachel: I'm very glad you gave emphasis to Dorothy McGuire in your review. She could be one of the most underrated actresses of Hollywood's Golden Age. Always good, often great, but rarely appreciated. I well remember the year she died, I was watching the In Memoriam segment at the Academy Awards, and she was left out! Even in death, I thought, and she still gets no respect. She is the cornerstone of "Friendly Persuasion", as you so aptly put it.

    I like me some Dmitri Tiomkin, but I must admit his score for "Friendly Persuasion" may be one of his worst. The main melody is pleasant, and would have been OK sans vocals. But Dmitri was always on the lookout for the next hit record.

    A wonderful post, Rachel.

  9. "Friendly Persuasion" is a movie that gets lost in the shuffle and it's a shame because you pointed out it's many delights in performances and scenes. Josh's discomfort and the easy way Jess handles the business with the widow and her girls tickles my funny bone no end.

  10. I always enjoy reading your beautiful writing on film. I haven't seen 'Friendly Persuasion' in a long time, but your essay makes me want to re-watch it very soon - thanks for a great post!

  11. Lasso the Movies: Thanks for your comments. I'm sort of torn about whether or not I would want the film to be light comedy. The darker element is interesting and gives us an insight into Quaker resistance so I don't want to lose it. I just want it to feel more organic to the rest of the film.

    Kevin Deany: Well, such is the fate for those "quietly excellent" performers. They snubbed Harry Morgan too this year. As for Tiomkin, he's hit and miss for me. The music would have been fine without that pop song.

    Caftan Woman: I remember reading some critics saying the widow scenes were cartoonish and out-of-place. But I love 'em. How can you not get a kick out of Marjorie Main shouting "Back" at her little Amazon trio? And that girl shoving skinny Anthony Perkins clear across the room. Real treat.

    Grandoldmovies: Thanks for commenting. It's not a film I would watch constantly but dipping into it every now and then is a real pleasure.

  12. Rachel, you definitely put me in the mood to watch FRIENDLY PERSUASION again. I remember it fondly and thoroughly enjoyed your review. I agree with most of your post, except that I believe the score (and, yes, even the song) enhance the film nicely.

  13. Rick29: Always nice to hear from you, Rick. I do enjoy some Tiomkin scores very much and that song did attain plenty of popularity so hey, I guess it all evens out.

  14. Great review, Rachel, though you'll have to put me in the camp who finds Cooper wildly attractive, and I also think he is a much better actor than he is given credit for. Sadly, I haven't seen this one yet - I'm trying to watch as many of Cooper's films as possible, and also the same with Wyler, but, as with 'The Westerner', this is not available on DVD in the UK so I can't rent it - it is available cheaply on import, though, so I will doubtless succumb and buy it soon!

    Intrigued by the Quaker storyline, which reminds me of 'Angel and the Badman', starring John Wayne in a surprising role for him as a gunfighter who falls in love with a Quaker woman and puts down his gun. Anyway I must agree with you that Wyler makes his married couples real and their relationships feel as if there is a lot more to them apart from the bit we see on screen - I suppose his famous multiple takes might have helped towards this, by making the actors more natural/tired. Judy

  15. What a well thought out review on Friendly Persuasion.

    I can't imagine Hepburn replacing McGuire here. As you pointed out, she was such a stand out. You have to admire Cooper for continuing on as the true professional that he was. Still turning up to give 100% until the very last moment of his career. Actors today could learn a lesson on how to act off and on the set as they approach middle age and beyond.

    Loved all of your extra behind the scenes trivia.

  16. Nicely done. I especially like your views on Cooper and McGuire as a cinematic couple and how Wyler understood long-term relationship, having an uncanny ability to convey them realistically.

  17. Movieclassics: There's probably quite an interesting essay somewhere about the role of Quakers onscreen--and how the devout Quaker always seems to be a woman. I really have been wanting to see Angel and the Badman; I never pass up the chance to stare at Gail Russell.

    Page: I do feel that Cooper deserves a lot more credit for his savvy handling of his career. He was a leading man for 30 years!

    Classicfilmboy: The relationships in Wyler films are endlessly fascinating to me. Even 76 years later, the couple in Dodsworth still looks like one of the most affecting portrayals of a divorce I've ever seen.

  18. I'd more or less forgotten "Friendly Persuasion" but it has cropped on TCM over the last few years and I revisited it not that long ago. I liked it better than I remembered from the first time around. Perhaps I hadn't paid enough attention to the relationships depicted in the film or appreciated the Quaker story line. As for Gary Cooper, I find him attractive in his early '30s films, but late in life I don't see it. In fact, his pairing with Audrey Hepburn in "Love in the Afternoon" seems - ill-advised. Thanks for a very fine review of what may be one of Wm. Wyler's more overlooked films.

  19. The Lady Eve: Love in the Afternoon is just, for me, one of those films that looks perfect on paper but just left me cold when I watched it. I'm sure the age difference between Cooper and Hepburn was part of it.

    1. Billy Wilder wanted Cary Grant (as he so often did) for the Cooper part. Grant could easily carry off May/December pairings and would have, I think, added great charm to a film that desperately needed it.

  20. A lovely, lovely piece, Rachel, on a picture that I agree is shamefully neglected among Wyler's output. Perhaps it's because it doesn't have the fireworks -- emotional or literal -- of some of the others.

    I'd never heard about Hepburn turning down the role of Eliza, but I think she'd have been fine. I'm not sure she'd have been too stern for the role; I suspect she learned her lesson in that direction on The African Queen, and I'll bet she'd have shown the same sort of smiling strength here -- plus, we'd have had at least one movie co-starring Hepburn and Cooper.

    But you're right, Dorothy McGuire is wonderful as Eliza, and bless you for saying so. This kind of sturdy, loving wife and mother was her forte, as witness her very next picture, Old Yeller. In all the understandable enthusiasm for that amazing dog, cute Kevin Corcoran, and Tommy Kirk's really first-rate acting, McGuire tends to be overlooked, but I think that was the performance of her career.

  21. Count me as another huge fan of Dorothy Maguire, even if I always think of her as Ol' Yeller's mom. She was a lot more versatile than that, though. Also: ditto on Gary Cooper. I've never been much of a fan, even when he was young and (allegedly) handsome. Okay, that's unkind, but he's not the kind of guy who makes my heart go pitter pat. It's been more years than I care to admit being alive since I saw Friendly Persuasion, but I remember liking it. My mom certainly liked it and she generally had good taste.

  22. First-rate piece, Rachel. This is one that I not only haven't seen, but hadn't previously heard of. I really enjoyed your keen insights and excellent writing, as always.

  23. Sorry for not responding earlier to comments, guys. I was traveling.

    Jim Lane: I'd probably have fond memories of McGuire in Old Yeller, if the movie hadn't traumatized me to the extent that I refused to re-watch it. I think Hepburn's "smiling strength" works so well in The African Queen because she's up against a guy who, quite frankly, is kind of a bum and a drunk. In Friendly Persuasion, Eliza's contending against things like organs and dancing that the audience probably doesn't find at all sinful. It's hard to be that character and not seem pretty stiff.

    Vulnavia: Whenever I think about Gary Cooper and romance, my mind always wanders back to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and that final image of Jean Arthur peppering his face with kisses while he keeps his mouth and expression completely closed. But in his youth, the man was quite a looker, I will give him that.

    Karen: Thanks for your comments. Always glad to bring lesser-known films back into the light.

  24. Great post. I said more or less the same thing in my own review, that it's a great character study more than a drama with capital-letter Themes. In my opinion, though, Perkins certainly deserved his Oscar nomination. He's so luminous, tons of screen presence even then.

    Also agree with the insightful comments you made with regard to the Cooper/McGuire marriage, which is indeed beautifully portrayed. Aside from the barn reconciliation, my favourite scene is probably the extended fair sequence. So many threads woven together so expertly.