The Actress 1953 Based on Years Ago, the autobiographical play by Ruth Gordon. Although Gordon did in fact become an Academy Award-winning actress, the film ends without the character achieving her goals. Directed by George Cukor. In 1913, Massachusetts girl Ruth Gordon Jones (Jean Simmons) dreams about becoming an actress. Discouraged from giving up higher education by her father, Clinton Jones (Spencer Tracy), and boyfriend, Fred Whitmarsh (Anthony Perkins in his film debut), she nonetheless secures an audition at which she’s dreadful.
Ruth is crushed. Seeing her so distraught, her father sells his most valuable possession to support a year in New York. Sincere. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Until They Sail 1957 Based on a story by James A. Mitchner. Directed by Robert Wise. A restrained romantic drama about four sisters and their relationships to American marines in WWII. The Leslie siblings share a family house in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anne (Joan Fontaine), the oldest, is responsible, strict, suspicious, and prudish – especially about fraternization. We unfortunately know nothing about what brought her to this state. Barbara (Jean Simmons), married after a single month, sees her husband off to war without really knowing him.
Lonely and restless, Delia (Piper Laurie) weds the only man available, Phil “Shiner” Friskett (Wally Cassell), a no-account, ill mannered bore Anne and Barbara tolerate. When he’s finally drafted, Delia goes to Wellington where the men are and, hungry for connection, embarks on a series of liaisons with Americans “until they sail” that will come back to haunt her. Anne is judgmental, Barbara understanding. Evelyn (Sandra Dee), all of 14, is excited when the soldiers arrive, open and friendly. She keeps chaste company with an 18 year-old private under the sisters’ watch.
Much to her surprise, Anne gets involved with Captain Richard Bates (Charles Drake), a gentle, principled man. After her husband’s death, Barbara is drawn to Captain Jack Harding (Paul Newman) whose cynicism about wartime relationships derives from being assigned to screen perspective military wives in relationships that develop too fast for the wrong reasons. War takes its toll. Three of the women survive, each in her own way. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Home Before Dark 1958 Based on the novel by Eileen Bassing. Often called Simmons’ finest performance. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Professor Arnold Bronn (Dan O’Herlihy) picks up his wife Charlotte (Jean Simmons) at a state mental institution where she’s been for a year. She’s shaky and excited, he’s distant. They return to a home shared with Charlotte’s controlling, hyper-critical stepmother Inez Winthrop (Mabel Albertson) and her stepsister Joan (Rhonda Carlisle). Actually Charlotte owns the house – the money is hers, but we don’t find that out until much later.
Charlotte was incarcerated for imagining an affair between Arnold and Joan that grew into overriding paranoia about everything. The minute she gets back, she’s under a collective thumb. Arnold is sleeping downstairs, Inez dictates what Charlotte eats and wears, Joan seems kind, but spends a lot of time with Charlotte’s husband helping him achieve tenure and none sticking up for her sister.
Also in the mix are border Jacob “Jake” Diamond (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), who shares the heroine’s reaction to pompous college goings on from which they’re both excluded while observing what the family is doing to her and college boyfriend Hamilton Gregory (Steve Dunne), who’s still in love with “Charlie” and wants to help. Unable to let go of the frigid Arnold no matter what, Charlotte vacillates between hysterical behavior and grounded insightful reaction until…It’s rather like a modern day Henry James.
Except for one’s frustration with Charlotte, the piece is highly watchable entertainment, characters rewarding. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote, “Jean Simmons gives a reserved, beautifully modulated performance.” Rent on Amazon Prime.
State Fair 1945 A musical adaptation of the 1933 film, itself an adaptation of 1932 novel by Phil Strong, and remade in 1962 with Pat Boone and Ann-Margaret. Directed by Walter Lang. The All-American Frake family is going to Iowa’s State Fair, each with his/her own hopes: Father Abel (Charles Winninger) hopes to win for a prize pig about which he has bet his neighbor. Mother Melissa (Fay Bainter) submits pickles and mincemeat into competition unaware these have been doctored by her well meaning husband.
Son Wayne (Dick Haymes) plans to reconnect with his girl. Daughter Margy (Jeanne Crain) doesn’t love her fiancé and is melancholic. Wayne meets and falls for band singer Emily Edwards (Vivian Blaine). Margy meets and falls for journalist Pat Gilbert (Dana Andrews). Neither romance is smooth. The pig has issues. The 4H cooking contest offers humor. Pleasant. Straight-laced.
The only Rodgers and Hammerstein musical written directly for film. In 1996, it was adapted again for a Broadway musical, with additional songs taken from other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Dick Haymes and Vivian Blaine did their own singing. Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews were dubbed. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Pinky 1949 Adapted from Philip Dunne/Dudley Nichols novel Quality. Directed by Elia Kazan. An earnest race drama for which all three main actresses, Jeanne Crain (not physically credible), Ethel Barrymore, and Ethel Waters were nominated for Academy Awards. Light skinned Negro, Pinky Johnson (Jeanne Crain), was sent up north from an impoverished, segregated, southern upbringing to give her a chance at a better life. Her grandmother, “Aunt Dicey” to the community (Ethel Waters), took in laundry to send Pinky through nursing school. The young woman has consistently passed for white.
Running from inability to share her heritage with Dr. Thomas Adams (William Lundigan), the man she loves, Pat/Pinky returns to her ramshackle home only to be faced with bigoted mistreatment and literal danger. Dicey conscripts her to act as nurse to dying Miss. Em (Ethel Barrymore) about whom they share opposite feelings. Dicey does the old woman’s laundry for free aware that her pillared mansion belies a woman with few resources and only a single mercenary relative. She and Miss Em have become such friends (each in her place), that Miss Em nursed Dicey through pneumonia.
Pinky remembers being unceremoniously thrown out of Miss Em’s garden as a child, can’t comprehend her not paying Dicey (after all, she has expensive possessions), and resents her imperious manner. In the end, however, she complies, getting to know an obstreperous old woman who’s not what she seems. When Tom shows up, he’s told the truth, but still accepts her. No one up north will know. The balance is radically, publicly tipped with Miss Em’s Will. Life paths change. Believable? You judge.
Both Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were interested in playing the role of Pinky. Elia Kazan, who took over directing duties after John Ford was fired, was not happy with the casting choice. He later said, “Jeanne Crain was a sweet girl, but she was like a Sunday school teacher.” Members of the Board of Censors in a Texas town testified that they objected to the picture because it depicts (1) a white man retaining his love for a woman after learning that she is a Negro, (2) a white man kissing and embracing a Negro woman, and (3) two white ruffians assaulting Pinky after she has told them she is colored. The exhibitor was convicted and fined $200. Rent on Amazon Prime.
A Letter to Three Wives 1949 Adapted from John Klempner’s novel A Letter to Five Wives. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Best Director and Best Screenplay Academy Awards. A romantic drama. Addie Ross (the voice of Celeste Holm) has written a letter to three wives telling each she’s left town with the woman’s husband. Missives are delivered as Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Rita Phipps (Ann Southern), and Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) embark on a charity boat trip. The distraught women can do nothing until they return to shore. With Jeffrey Lynn, Paul Douglas (film debut), and Kirk Douglas as the husbands.
Shown in flashback all three marriages are strained. What they share and withhold is pivotal. All three assume the worst. Truths come out. Well written and acted. The novel gives no indication that any of the couples will work through their problems while the film, ambiguities notwithstanding, has a decidedly happy ending. The identity of the errant husband is also different (though not his reasons). Rent on Amazon Prime.
People Will Talk 1951 based on Curt Goetz’ German play which had been made into the German movie Doctor Praetorius. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. An entertaining comedy/drama in which Cary Grant plays genuinely irresistible paragon Dr. Noah Praetorius who runs a private clinic, teaches at a university – and leads it’s orchestra! The unwittingly high profile physician has a reputation for his unusually humanist approach to patient care.
Jealous, small-minded, departmental professor Rodney Elwell (Hume Cronyn) is out to discredit Praetorius for incomprehensible (to him) past practices and the presence of mysterious and rather slow Mr. Shunderson (Finlay Currie) who seems to be valet, assistant, bodyguard. When unmarried Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain) comes to the doctor fearing she’s pregnant (she is), the doctor is reassuring without fully understanding her situation. Higgins tries unsuccessfully to kill herself, yet is in no way a classic, timid female.
Praetorius and Shunderson drive out to the farm where she lives with her father (Sidney Blackmer). Things take a very different trajectory. Eventually Elwell gets his self-appointed adversary called before the university board where a remarkable story comes out. Also featuring an appealing Walter Slezak. Without reference to politics, the film’s integrity is said to reflect Mankiewicz’s own experiences during the communist witch hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s, while he was president of the Directors Guild of America. Rent on Amazon Prime.
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