Monday, June 23, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Friendly Persuasian" (1956)

When Ronald Reagan was trying to woo Mikhail Gorbachev to put an end to the Cold War, he gave him a copy of the 1956 movie, "Friendly Persuasion," to show how people of varied ilks can put aside their differences without resorting to violence. This was ironic for a couple of reasons:
  1. Reagan, who was not exactly slow to dispatch the military into various global conflicts, pursued a massive arms race in hopes of ruining the Soviet economy.
  2. The movie is about Quakers who preach pacifism in the face of the Civil War, but in the end most of the family members do not retain the courage of their convictions.
Whatever its failings as a standard for non-violence, it's a beautiful-looking film that essentially serves as a travelogue for the Quaker lifestyle. It depicts them as wholesome, thoughtful people who embrace an old-fashioned interpretation of the Bible that leads to some choices that may have seemed funny or even dangerous to American audiences of 1956.

Indeed, the film was based on a 1945 novel by Jessamyn West and was originally slated for production years early. But the Red Scare and McCarthy hearings convinced the producers and studio honchos to back-burner it for awhile. 

A healthy 137 minutes, "Friendly Persuasion" is essentially a very lightweight film, just this side of a pure comedy in fact, that suddenly decides to get serious in the last act. Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire play Jess and Eliza Birdwell, upstanding Quakers in southern Indiana circa 1862. They have three kids, ranging from almost-grown Josh (Anthony Perkins) and Mattie (Phyllis Love) to scrappy young scamp Little Jess (Richard Eyer)

Watching the movie, at first it seems like it's not really about anything in particular, other than spending time with the Birdwells and getting to know the rhythms of their lifestyle and faith. The most obvious is using "thee" and "thine" instead of "you" and "yours," and a few other anachronistic language tweaks. Eliza is a preacher at the local Quaker meeting house (what they call churches), and is very concerned with their family appearing proper.

We get the sense that Jess is a late convert to the Quaker life, since he enjoys racing the family horse carriage against his friend and neighbor, Sam (Robert Middleton), and has a fondness for music. (Quakers actually like music, just not the prerecorded kind.)

Later, Jess buys an organ from a traveling salesman, bringing disharmony to their marriage when Eliza refuses to let it in her house. She decamps to the barn to sleep, where Jess comes to comfort her, resulting in the rumpled couple returning to the house the next morning, in one of the more deliberate implications of sex you'll find in a Golden Age film.

Mattie is full of girlish romantic notions, mostly directed at a handsome neighbor, Gard (Peter Mark Richman), who has enlisted as a Union soldier. Josh is a good quiet boy who's still full of beans, and eventually joins the local home guard when Johnny Reb raiders try to cross the river and raid into their territory. Young Jess Jr. more or less acts as the eyes and ears of the audience, observing the goings-on in between battles with his mother's nippy pet goose.

The depiction of Quaker religion and convictions is rather open-minded for its era. I particularly liked the scenes inside the meeting house, where services are non-formal and contemplative. People are invited to say whatever's on their mind, from declarations to semi-confessionals. Their peace is invaded by a Union soldier who tries to shame the men into volunteering to fight.

Later, Josh will have similar conversations with his parents about taking up arms. They never try to browbeat him, declaring him free to make  his own choices, even if they're the wrong ones. Cooper projects a strong paternal presence as the father who loves his children, but recognizes they need room to grow and discover themselves. Perkins received an Oscar nomination for his supporting performance, the only one of his long career.

The big set-piece in the movie is a visit to the fair, which is shown as a pit of temptation -- but also fun. Little Jess proves a natural at parlor games, and Mattie is invited to dance -- imagine! -- with Gard. A strapping Quaker boy challenges the strongman to a wrestling match and seems to be winning, until he fears hurting the man and gives up. The ensuing fight over betting is reminiscent of the scene in "Witness" where Harrison Ford steps up for the Amish.

"Friendly Persuasion" was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, William Wyler. Screenwriter Michael Wilson also received a nod, but he was blacklisted at the time. So due to the odd notions of the time, the movie received a screenwriting nomination without acknowledging the screenwriter. (This oversight, like many during the Blacklist era, was eventually set right.)

I enjoyed the movie well enough, though it's one of those mid-century films that suffers from an inflated reputation. Pastoral and pleasant, it's about some big ideas but frames them in the smallest way possible. My guess is Gorby was mystified by Ronnie's gift.

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