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    Christmas Presents of 1952 – Part One

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Opening on Christmas day at the cozy, now long-gone Beverly-Canon Theater in Los Angeles 65 years ago came that rare movie gift: an adaptation of a hit Broadway play featuring five members of its original New York company, particularly the three key leads that made its acclaimed 14-month stage run at the Empire Theater a magical experience in live performance. In doing so, the team behind the screen version of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (1952) – producer Stanley Kramer, director Fred Zinnemann and adaptors Edna and Edward Edna Anhalt – took a huge gamble with this loquacious and tender reminiscence of life and longing in a sleepy post-World War II Southern town, for its headliners were not ready-made movie stars and its structure was episodic in nature, the dialogue was poetically pitched and the storytelling rooted in gradual character revelation and transformation rather than overt incidents. Though not restrained from adding new moments not dramatized on stage, the creative team opted to focus its “opening-up-for-the-screen” efforts on drawing the camera up close – to the actors’ eloquent faces, to the wonderfully detailed kitchen and backyard sets and, as a felicitous result, to the richness of McCullers’ language. Time’s reviewer was on the film’s wavelength, observing: “The total effect is nonetheless a film poem. In Fred (High Noon) Zinnemann’s direction, it often reaches successfully for that most elusive of movie qualities – the catch in the throat.” This was in line with Zinnemann’s intent, as he expressed in his 2011 autobiography: “The original cast of the play – Julie Harris, Ethel Waters and Brandon De Wilde – had been together for a long time and they were in fact a close, living family. Their performances had been conceived and crystallized in the stage play, produced by Robert Whitehead; my job was, in a sense, to transfer to the screen a work that was already powerfully alive. It was mostly a question of balance, of emphasis and non-projection, and of creating a mood of suspended animation around those three human beings.” A less felicitous result of this approach, in part due to the lack of a conventional narrative and its producing studio’s lack of confidence in its commercial prospects: failure at the 1952-53 box office. Now, in a year when diverse coming-of-age stories of yearning and nettlesome children and young adults like Call Me by Your Name, The Florida Project and Lady Bird have gained box-office and artistic traction, The Member of the Wedding could stake a claim to audience appeal and award-worthy marketplace attention. Due to the indelible work of Waters, Harris and De Wilde, it nonetheless defiantly endures in its precise, gemlike shape and scope. 

    Biographer Donald Bogle writes in his 2011 Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters: “When the camera came close for Waters’ soliloquy about Ludie, the man she loved so passionately, and the self-destructive path she set on after losing him, her face was unlike any that Hollywood had ever recorded of an African American performer. Zinnemann got inside her heart, her soul. Ethel gave herself to the camera. As with the play, she had no distance between herself and the character. She was Berenice. Ultimately, it would be her greatest screen performance.” In a reflective August 2014 appreciation of Harris’s fabled career, blogger Dan Callahan observes: “Harris rips into all of these heightened McCullers speeches with such lyric abandon that it's easy to get lost in Frankie’s freakishly insightful observations, her huge emotional needs, her fears and her imperious anger, her longing to fit in and her defiance in the face of more ordinary people. Harris goes all out, and there are very few other actors who have ever been this good so far out on a limb. When Frankie is pulled screaming from the wedding car of her brother and left in the dust as the car pulls away, Harris is so deep down in her character’s bottomless adolescent pain that it feels like she'll never make it out again. This is a performance to be savored, to be studied, to be treasured for every McCullers line and every Harris line reading.” For the Cine-Files website, Murray Pomerance’s thoughtful evaluation of the then-10-year-old future star of Shane, Blue Denim, All Fall Down, Hud and In Harm’s Way notes: “To both stage and screen De Wilde brought a certain palpable innocence coupled with a directness and physical attractiveness that could be variably modeled depending on narrative needs, much as would a major star but already at his very young age. In the film, some of De Wilde’s gestures, sharply articulated, were plotted into the background; yet cinematographer Hal Mohr’s precise lighting plan always picked him out, and Mohr assisted his performance further by shooting with Garutso balanced lenses, a favorite of Kramer’s, which focused light of plural wavelengths. Even with wide apertures and figures in near focus there resulted a sufficiently deep focus to bring distinct clarity to John Henry, wherever he was in the shot.” The combined work of the three in tandem is articulately analyzed by critic/historian Michael Sragow in his 2016 Library of America The Moviegoer piece, accessible here: Outfitted with two expert Audio Commentaries, two documentaries on the McCullers legacy and the material’s page-to-stage-to-screen journey, and an Isolated Music Track of Alex North’s lovely score, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of The Member of the Wedding preserves in lustrous hi-def the McCullers dialogue which Pauline Kael deemed “one of the high points of literacy in American films – sharp and full of wit, yet lyrical” in “a remarkable film.” Merry Christmas.