- Fred's Favorite
Born this day 109 years ago, esteemed director Fred Zinnemann (1907-1997), after delivering one of 1952’s most admired and popular movies in High Noon, owed its producer Stanley Kramer another picture. Kramer, who made an early-career specialty – with decidedly mixed success – of populating his cinematic pipeline with stage-to-screen adaptations (from Home of the Brave, Cyrano de Bergerac and Death of a Salesman to The Four Poster and The Happy Time), offered Zinnemann yet another one, The Member of the Wedding (1952), which the director considered a stroke of “great good fortune.” Carson McCullers herself adapted her 1946 book into a 1949 play, which had a healthy 501-perormance run, and the three well-honed Broadway principals – Ethel Waters, Julie Harris and Brandon de Wilde – would reprise their roles. Zinnemann wrote in his autobiography: “My job was, in a sense, to transfer to the screen a work that was already powerfully alive.” Though Zinnemann tried to source the original novel to make the piece more cinematic and took the action outdoors when he could (to the small northern California town of Colusa, an amazing stand-in for the Southern locale of the story), adaptors Edna and Edward Anhalt (recent Academy Award® winners for Panic in the Streets) took care to maintain the author’s distinctive voice. To Pauline Kael, “the Carson McCullers dialogue is one of the high points of literacy in American films – sharp and full of wit, yet lyrical.” The poignant, fragile story of lonely, loquacious 12-year-old Frankie Addams (Harris), whose obsession one fateful summer with leaving her humdrum life behind and joining her soon-to-wed soldier brother Jarvis (Arthur Franz) and his fiancé Janice (Nancy Gates) on their honeymoon trip is doomed to disillusionment. But she persists, and it’s up to Frankie’s day-in/day-out companions, the understanding family cook Berenice (Waters) and the sensitive 10-year-old cousin John Henry (de Wilde) to soften the blow and help the frustrated teen face reality. Scoring her one and only Academy Award® nomination, “Harris’s performance deserves superlatives,” historian David Shipman wrote in The Story of Cinema. Shipman also commended one of the filmmaker’s additions. “The best sequence was not in the play – when she (Frankie) is picked up by a drunken boy G.I.; suddenly the book’s central subject, adolescence, is presented without coyness, and Zinnemann’s feeling for the terror and romance of nighttime America comes across with force.” The director was unequivocal in his praise of Harris, who at 26 “did the impossible job of playing a 12-year-old pre-adolescent with such confidence that she was completely convincing, especially in her great close-ups, wonderfully photographed by Hal Mohr. (Hal was using new lenses, by Garutso, which gave enormous depth of focus to his shots.)” Although he would go on to make powerful and popular classics like From Here to Eternity, The Nun’s Story, A Man for All Seasons, Julia (the last two on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray) and several others, the four-time Academy Award® winner would maintain that The Member of the Wedding “has always been my favorite picture, perhaps because it is not entirely my own – or perhaps because of the quality of pure love that seems to radiate from it so strongly.” With an Isolated Track of the lovely score by Alex North (who also had a stellar 1952 with this and Viva Zapata!, Les Miserables and Pony Soldier, the last on TT Blu-ray), plus two Audio Commentaries -- one by McCullers biographer Virginia Spencer Carr and the other by the trio of acclaimed singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega (also a McCullers enthusiast and chronicler of note) and film historians David Del Valle and Derek Botelho, The Member of the Wedding casts its eye on the sparrow June 14 on a beautifully rendered TT Blu-ray. Preorders open June 1 and you’re invited.