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

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Farewell, Ray Bradbury

We were put here as witnesses to the miracle of life. We see the stars and we want them. We are beholden to give back to the universe.

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)