Friday, February 20, 2009

Friendly Persuasion (1956): Thou Swell

Friendly Persuasion (1956), a William Wyler movie based on The Friendly Persuasion, a collection of short stories by the writer, Jessamyn West, who was of Quaker descent, starred Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins and the great Marjorie Main in a small role. The film, which is available on DVD, is being broadcast on TCM on January 15, 2011 at 3:00 AM ET.

It is a simple story. A 19th century Quaker family squabbles over the encroachment of the outside world on their idyllic rural lives. A forbidden horse race disturbs the peace of the Sabbath, a Quaker meeting interrupted by news of approaching armies, a county fair with all its temptations takes place, a new courtship begins for young lovers and a renewed one for a married couple, a young man looks for the strength within himself to choose the right path in his life, and life and death inevitably intrudes on our reverie. The themes of love, death, honor and human foibles are eternal.

I am drawn to the way that the movie recreates a bucolic rural world of an Indiana farm in the 1860s that seems to echo the images of Winslow Homer, N.C. Wyeth, and Tasha Tudor paintings. The soft color and beautifully detailed touches in the world inhabited by a Quaker family, the Birdwells, created by Jessamyn West and based on her own family. Filmed at the Rowland V. Lee ranch in the San Fernando Valley, are rendered so well thanks in part to the color cinematography of Ellsworth Fredericks and Ted Haworth's art direction. Initially, William Wyler's first film in color may seem to be a sunny, even smug paean to a utopian America that never existed.

That is the superficial view that has led some contemporary critics, such as David Thomson, to dismiss the film as "one of the dreariest pictures [Gary] Cooper ever made." Thomson and others reject what they regard as "pieties" in the story that they may believe earn "respectability and serious themes a crushing reputation," despite six Oscar nominations and winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Sadly, despite the generally good reviews at the time of the movie's release Friendly Persuasion, which had been budgeted as $2 million, but ultimately cost over $4 million, the movie was a disaster for Allied Artists, affecting the indie production unit's ability to make and market future films.

Friendly Persuasion does presents a rustic world punctuated by familial comedy in the first part of the film. As it follows a Quaker family's philosophical and emotional journey through the Civil War and the challenges it presents to each family member, the film darkens. As a commercial production with a desire to draw in an audience, Wyler and his collaborators included a treacly theme song sung by one of the era's heart throbs, Pat Boone, called "Thee I Love" with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster and music by Dmitri Tiomkin.* In the same era as The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause as they grapple with keeping their love alive against the background of teen angst experienced by Anthony Perkins and Phyllis Love as the family teenagers, and leavened by the childhood antics of Richard Eyer's put-upon Little Jess. Eventually, the more thoughtful aspects of the film focusing on  the three main character's depth of religious belief, the threat posed to the family unit by the outside world (a theme that Wyler had explored in his previous film set in 1955, The Desperate Hours), and the strains that imposed on their love for one another, their home and their individual consciences. As he had done in in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Little Foxes (1941), Wyler composed scenes beautifully, with action occurring in the foreground and sides of the screen, as well as in the distance. 
Gary Cooper with Richard Eyer in Friendly Persuasion (1956).
 10-year-old Richard Eyer, (who had also appeared in The Desperate Hours) the understandably stubborn, bad-tempered youngest son whose unfettered desires and ongoing war with the family goose were least likely to be checked by any external set of beliefs brought out some of the best comedic moments in the movie. His antics were complemented by Robert Middleton, who played a rare positive role as a non-Quaker neighbor of Jess Birdwell (Gary Cooper) who loves to race his friend to their separate churches--to the mortification of Eliza Birdwell (Dorothy McGuire). Other episodes unfurl like a sampler, with moments at a county fair, a Quaker meeting, a brief foray away from the farm to visit with Marjorie Main's frontier mother of three girls, and inside the Birdwell home filled with color, detail and a good-natured acceptance of individual differences among the characters.
Maybe best of all, is the mature, occasionally tense love story between Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire. Though some biographers maintain that Cooper and McGuire disliked one another on the set, on the screen, they do seem very much like a long married pair who are still discovering one another. I was touched by their efforts to treat one another and their children with respect even while occasionally finding one another exasperating. The family dynamic may have mirrored some of the underlying tension on the set, since reportedly--as with many actors over time--Wyler's working methods may have put Dorothy McGuire's guard up, and Anthony Perkins felt somewhat ignored by Gary Cooper, who told a visiting reporter bluntly that "I think he'd do well to spend a summer on a ranch--it would toughen him up and he'd learn a lot from another kind of people." Ah, every family has problems. It was ever thus, no?

In 1955, Wyler had originally tried to cajole Katharine Hepburn to play the pious, bossy Eliza Birdwell, but the flinty actress proved elusive. His pursuit of a leading lady led to his pleading with Vivien Leigh who was committed to a season at Stratford-on-Avon, followed by Ingrid Bergman, who was the first choice of Gary Cooper. The refusal of the plum role by Bergman, whose detente with American blue noses would have to wait for her turn as Anastasia (1956), led the director to seek out a long list of actresses between thirty and fifty-five, including Maureen O'Hara, Jane Wyman, Eleanor Parker, Mary Martin, Martha Scott and Teresa Wright. At one point Jessamyn West found herself on the receiving end of Wyler's dead pan humor when he took her aside and asked with a straight face: "What do you think of Jane Russell? She's a very pious girl, I understand. Goes to church, teaches Sunday school, sings hymns."
The choice of Dorothy McGuire proved apt, even though Wyler felt that she initially had difficulty getting into character. "He had me spending I don't know how many hours a day before production, kneading bread," McGuire later recalled. "He never explained why he did something, he just asked that you do it. It was funny. What director would ask you to knead bread? I guess it put me into a different period of time, with a different way of thinking." Her discomfort on the set may have reflected the actress's inability to mold her enviable career path along the lines she wished after her long tutelage under David O. Selznick's somewhat smothering wing in the 1940s. She never became a big star in the sense of a Bergman or a Hepburn, but McGuire's appearances as a matriarchal figure in the '50s brought her renewed attention, beginning with this role.
Dorothy McGuire as Eliza Birdwell with Anthony Perkins as Josh Birdwell in Friendly Persuasion (1956).

McGuire's spare beauty and the underlying latent girlishness gives her role as the often disapproving mother of three in Friendly Persuasion an appealing quality. Eliza Birdwell is the primary representative of Quakerism, a religion advocating pacifism, the equality of the sexes (McGuire's character is a leader of her sect), and an archaic speech using "thee" and "thou" for pronouns as a way to remain mindful of the sacredness in everyday life. Most audiences in the fifties and certainly now would find this manner of living rather rigid and alien. Despite the director and star's apparent  dissatisfaction with their leading lady, Dorothy McGuire's portrayal of her strong character whose beliefs provide much of the story's conflict is important to the film. While she is firm in her views, Eliza Birdwell is humanized by an awareness of her own awareness of her fallibility and her love for her husband and son as they are drawn into the conflict as Confederates near their idyllic farm. (You can read several more posts on this blog related to Dorothy McGuire here).
Anthony Perkins, new to films, was chosen for the conflicted adolescent son, Josh Birdwell, after James Dean's agent let Wyler know that his client would not be accepting any supporting roles. Perkins, who had appeared in a few small parts in films, had been forewarned about Wyler's deafness, but he was surprised that the director had rehearsals prior to filming, an unusual practice in Hollywood. "I was just a brash kid who didn't know much about anything. The names William Wyler and Billy Wilder were interchangeable to me. I was just careful to keep my mouth shut, so I wouldn't make any mistakes." Unfortunately, Perkins was chided during their first full cast read through prior to filming. "Don't blow this by introducing the serious aspect of these characters too soon," he was told by Wyler. "Get into the fun of it. Get into the family life, the casualness of it." The over-eager Perkins, who characterized himself as "a bit pretentious" at this early point in his career, found that Wyler actually appeared to enjoy it when he came to rehearsal each day with four different versions of a scene slated to be filmed that day. The veteran filmmaker would often tell the actor to use some parts of the different approaches to a scene, telling the neophyte actor to "Begin with the second one and end with the third one."

In the end, Perkins' pensive character, faced with the arrival of the Civil War on his doorstep,  declares honestly that he does not know whether or not he
Cooper and William Wyler discussing Friendly Persuasion on the set.
The terse relationship between Cooper and Wyler sometimes seemed to consist of highly technical instructions, such as "Enter the room, swallow, and count to three."  According to Perkins, when you saw Gary Cooper perform these simple, mechanical actions, his "artistry...could translate a technical direction into something very soulful. And I saw him do this time and again."

  My small quibbles with this movie, to tell the truth, are mainly with Samantha the Goose, who could have had a lot less screen time. I'd also have excised that icky Pat Boone song from the beginning of the movie!

 *Mild Possible Spoiler Below**Mild Possible Spoiler Below*

According to Jessamyn West's memories of the film quoted from Jan Herman's William Wyler: A Talent for Trouble, the aging Cooper was reluctant to take the role of the conflicted Quaker patriarch, feeling that he wasn't well suited to play what he initially believed was a passive role. West, whose ambivalence about all of filmmaking comes through in her memories of this project, which was first developed by Frank Capra, recalled that at her first meeting with Gary Cooper, he explained to the author that "There comes a time when the people who see me in a picture expect me to do something."

"You mean pull a trigger?", West asked. Cooper reportedly replied, "Deliver a blow. First or bullet. Or sword. They expect it. They feel let down without it."

Wanting to know what his character would do in a way of action, Cooper asked Jessamyn West what "something" the writer might have him do as a Quaker.The occasionally impatient author replied: "Refrain. You will furnish your public with the refreshing picture of a strong man refraining." In the end, Coop picked up a gun as the conflict of the Civil War spilled onto his land and threatened to tear his family's world apart...but he did not fire.

Wyler allows the audience to get to know the family members and others in the community, using a nice blend of humor and pointed conversation. Anthony Perkins is quite touching as he communicates his torn response to the recruiting call of a Union soldier at a fair, even as he mother, Eliza Birdwell (McGuire) prays for pacifism and expects her children to adhere to her beliefs as well. The inherent conflict between a recognition of the existence of evil and a belief in pacifism has rarely been so eloquently expressed in a mainstream American movie.

The conflict between conscience and survival once the Birdwell family find themselves drawn into war presents the viewer with an emotional stake in the story. This is only strengthened by the humorous aspects of the tale,  which help make the characters more human and easily identifiable for an audience, despite the remoteness of the story's time and the spiritual beliefs of the characters.

One of the story elements, dealing with the tug of violence on the oldest son (Anthony Perkins), and his father's own mixed feelings about the consequences of taking up arms reflects a thread that runs through the later films of Gary Cooper, several of which, including High Noon (1952), Man of the West (1957), They Came to Cordura (1959),  and The Hanging Tree (1959), look at the corrosive nature of violence on the men who follow that path, and the nature of our perceptions of heroism. While Gary Cooper made many excellent films, I am quite fond of his work in this last decade of his life: Return to Paradise (1953), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Ten North Frederick (1958), and The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) each seems to have a rueful air about the squandered opportunities in the past, redolent with an elegiac air whenever the star is on camera. There is a haunted quality to Cooper's increasingly worn face that adds a depth of reality and feeling to each of his roles, even and especially in these sometimes less than ideal films.
Gary Cooper greeting Peter Mark Richman in Friendly Persuasion (1956) as Antony Perkins, Dorothy McGuire and Phyllis Love look on.
Having read a couple of Cooper's biographies recently, including Jeffrey Meyer's Gary Cooper: An American Hero (Cooper Square Press, 2001) and his daughter Maria Cooper Janis' loving pictorial memoir,Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers (Harry N. Abrams, 1999), I suspect that there was a spiritual restlessness in the actor during this decade, evident in his choice of film material. In some of his films, there is an openness and vulnerability in his acting (particularly in Ten North Frederick (1958), when he played a small town patrician who fell in love with his daughter's friend, played by Suzy Parker). I don't know if he found the answers he was looking for, but, his conversion to Roman Catholicism close to his death, (which was his wife and daughter's faith) might indicate a deeper longing during his glittering, sometimes profligate life.
Perhaps the issues of conscience, peace, war and family bonds that the movie touches on so lightly still have resonance with audiences. Jessamyn West's The Friendly Persuasion (Harvest Books) is a lovely and very entertaining introduction to this group's beliefs and West's writing. I don't think that it has ever gone out of print since the '50s. Quakerism, in particular, with all its variants and the ripple effect of the lives of its small number of adherents, remains a fascinating aspect of American and World history for me. Just last night, I was deeply impressed with a program that offers a brief survey of major spiritual beliefs in the world called I Believe on PBS. Host Dennis Wholey interviewing Deborra Sinnes Pancoe, a member of the Religious Society of Friends who, in her religion's tradition is a powerful "plain speaker" can be seen here.

Below is the trailer for Friendly Persuasion :

The Cast of Friendly Persuasion:

    Gary Cooper...Jess Birdwell
    Dorothy McGuire...Eliza Birdwell
    Anthony Perkins...Josh Birdwell
    Richard Eyer...Little Jess
    Robert Middleton...Sam Jordan
    Phyllis Love...Martha 'Mattie' True Birdwell
    Peter Mark Richman...Gardner 'Gard' Jordan (as Mark Richman)
    Walter Catlett...Prof. Waldo Quigley
    Richard Hale...Purdy (violent Quaker)
    Joel Fluellen...Enoch (black hired hand)
    Theodore Newton...Maj. Harvey (recruiter in meetinig)
    John Smith...Caleb Cope (wrestling Quaker)
    Edna Skinner...Opal Hudspeth
    Marjorie Durant...Pearl Hudspeth (pipe-smoking woodcutter in braids)
    Frances Farwell...Ruby Hudspeth
    Samantha the Goose...Herself
    Marjorie Main...The Widow Hudspeth

For complete cast and crew, please visit here.

Herman, Jan, A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler, Da Capo Press, 1997.
Janis, Maria Cooper, Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers, Harry N. Abrams, 1999.
Mirisch, Walter, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2008.
Meyers, Jeffrey, Gary Cooper: American Hero, Cooper Square Press, 2001.
"Twenty-Four Year Old Copy of Cooper,"  Life Magazine, July 16, 1956. 
Thomson, David, Gary Cooper, Macmillan, 2010.
West, Jessamyn, Except for Me and Thee: A Companion to The Friendly Persuasion, Univ. of California Press, 2008.

Recommended Online Resources:

Jacqueline at Another Old Movie Blog has written an excellent review of this film :

Gary Cooper at The Mave:

The Gary Cooper Scrapbook:
Jessamyn West: Quaker Author (1903-1984):

William Wyler at Senses of Cinema:


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thee has given us a lovely write up. I recorded the movie yesterday, but have seen only bits of it so far. I'll sit down with it when I have more time. I never mind spoilers when reading a review of a film. In a way, I rather like knowing as much as possible about a film before I see it. And, since I tend to re-watch films I like many times, the element of surprise in a plot become irrelevant very quickly.

From what little I did see, it seemed to me that Samantha was a good actress. You can see her Method training.

Moira Finnie said...

Hmm, Jacqueline,
Your depth of insight into the hidden motivations for Samantha the Goose reveals your generous nature. However, having a keen "sense memory" of geese I've been personally acquainted with, (with the scars to show for it), I can attest to the true, bellicose nature of these most territorial of creatures, (honest, they make an aggressive male silver back gorilla in the highlands of Uganda look really mellow).

This bird, described by Eliza Birdwell (Dorothy McGuire) as a "pure pet", apparently made the on set life of young Richard Eyer a bit of a living hell! It seems that Samanthacould not get out of character when the cameras stopped rolling. That damn method!!

Btw, Richard Ayer, a natural child actor whose rambunctious character in The Desperate Hours found a lighter expression in this second film for Wyler in his role as Little Jess, is one of those unsung child actors who did not get into public trouble, retiring from the screen at age 15, and when last heard from, was a beloved fifth grade teacher.

Thanks so much for letting me know that you enjoyed this piece.

Laura said...

Thanks very much for an excellent previews. I have read the book and saw the '70s TV version with Richard Kiley and Shirley Knight, but the recording I made the other day will be my first chance to see this film.

(Like Jacqueline, I never mind spoilers! In fact, when I read books I always read the last page first...)

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Sweet Betsy from Pike! I always read the last page, too. There's got to be a support group out there somewhere for people like us.

By the way, Moira, I've now had a chance to see the film over the weekend, and I am more firmly convinced that Samantha should have been nominated for an Oscar. We'll just have to agree to disagree on that one.

Groggy Dundee said...

Excellent article Moira. I just saw this film yesterday and despite some corny moments I enjoyed most of it. Wyler was a true genius - you only need to see Shenandoah or The Patriot to see how easily this kind of story could have gone wrong.

Moira Finnie said...

It's interesting that you compared Friendly Persuasion to more recent films dealing with American families set in times of war. I think that Wyler succeeded in tightening up the well-written Jessamyn West stories for the purposes of a roughly two hour film--though the episode with Marjorie Main and her man-hungry daughters seems to be in an entirely different movie. There are parts of Shenandoah that did touch me, though the imitation of John Ford's films (talking to the grave of the wife, the patriarchal atmosphere in the home and more) seemed false, especially since I could not take my eyes off dear Jimmy Stewart's toupee and the too pristine cinematography had a flat, television quality.

I have tried to watch The Patriot several times, since I am fascinated by the Revolutionary War period. Unfortunately I find it has a hollow beauty and am bothered by the historical inaccuracy of the great looking film's depiction of the British (who were not given to slaughtering children) and the Americans (slaves, what slaves?).

Ultimately--despite the commercial touches of Friendly Persuasion, (the need for a teen storyline and that ghastly theme song), I think that it may be an enduring classic.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Grogster. I appreciate it.


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