Thursday 5 January 2017

The Blue Veil (1951)

Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Writer: Norwan Corwin, based on a story by Fran├žois Campaux
Stars: Jane Wyman, Charles Laughton, Joan Blondell, Richard Carlson, Agnes Moorehead, Don Taylor, Audrey Totter, Cyril Cusack, Everett Sloane and Natalie Wood

Index: 2017 Centennials.

I had a blast last year remembering those born in 1916 who contributed much to the cinematic arts by reviewing interesting films from each of their careers on what would have been (or what actually were) their hundredth birthdays. I recently collated these in book form as A Hundred in 2016, now available in print from Amazon. Only a short while into that project, I knew that I’d continue it on in 2017 and this will be the first of many reviews this year, given that even more cinematic notables were born in 1917 than in 1916. It’s 5th January, which would have been the centennial of Jane Wyman, the only U.S. President’s wife to win an Academy Award, even if she’d been divorced from Ronald Reagan for over thirty years when he was elected to the White House. In fact, he was her third husband and she’d marry and divorce Fred Karger twice after that. I mention her five marriages only because she seemed to play a lot of characters who got married a lot (or almost got married a lot) and this film is a great example.

While she won her Oscar for Johnny Belinda in 1948, she landed her third of four nominations for this picture and a number of her obituaries suggest that it was her personal favourite. I wonder if she ever got to see it again, after its initial release in theatres, as it’s one of those major films that has never seen a release on home video: not on DVD, BluRay, LaserDisc, you name it. Only 16mm film copies are out there and nobody has yet ripped one to digital format, so all we have to go on is a copy recorded on video from an apparently illegal television broadcast on KNXT Los Angeles during The Late Show. The only clip most people today have seen of the film is as footage used as a flashback in Falcon Crest, one of Wyman’s big successes later on in life; she’d retired from films after 1969’s How to Commit Marriage. There are reports online of people asking her about The Blue Veil and her replying that she would be very happy to see it again. I hope she managed to watch one of those 16mm prints at some point before she died in 2007.

It’s easy to see why she’d remember it well. It’s clearly a women’s picture and it ends in notably tearjerking fashion. She’s also not only top-billed above a stellar cast, she’s the only name above the title because she’s the only character who’s in it for more than a few scenes. She’s Louise Mason, a war widow, and, after her child dies in hospital soon after birth, she becomes a nurse who takes on the care of the children of other families. The big picture revolves entirely around Louise and the little pictures around each of the families for whom she works. Only Cyril Cusack, as the crotchetty owner of a toy shop, does more than appear and disappear. Wald/Krasna Productions only made four films, all distributed by RKO, but they clearly had access to great actors and the pockets to hire them. Joan Blondell was also Oscar-nominated for her appearance, but the film also features actors of the calibre of Charles Laughton, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Audrey Totter, Vivian Vance, Harry Morgan and even a young Natalie Wood.

We’re on Louise’s side from the outset, because of how she’s treated in hospital. I was shocked at how the babies were handled and wonder, if this is anything to go on, how many babies went home with the wrong mothers. First thing in the morning, all the brats are wheeled into a maternity ward on a shared trolley, bawling in disharmony, and handed out to their respective mothers. Louise is missed out and has to ask why before a doctor arrives (the first man we see in the film) to explain, without even taking her into a private room, that, ‘We do all we can. Sometimes we just don’t know why it happens.’ That’s a twisted way to kick things off and it could easily send a widowed woman into despair, but Louise is made of tougher stuff and she soon seeks employment, accepting a short-term assignment for Fred Begley, Jr. Yes, I wondered if that was deliberate as well, as Ed Begley, Jr. was two years old at the time but I don’t see that Charles Laughton ever acted alongside Ed Begley, so perhaps this is mere coincidence.
Begley is also widowed, as his wife died in childbirth, and Laughton plays him with the class we’d expect. He’s a good soul, but he’s also lonely and very clearly lost when it comes to bringing up baby. We’re surprised that it takes him a year to get round to asking her to marry him. By the time he turns down the fifth permanent applicant for the job, Louise is almost furniture, knitting on the couch while an odious old woman spouts on about all the demands she’d have once hired. When Alicia, his secretary, comes round with a corset for him to inspect (he runs ‘the fourth largest corset house in the east’), he automatically asks Louise for her opinion. Of course, once she declines his hand, he promptly marries Alicia instead, who already dotes on little Freddie and, as soon as they return from their honeymoon, that’s it for Louise’s employment. She is nicer about it than she needed to be, but it’s a tough scene and Wyman does a great job of keeping her composure while showing us how much it hurts to have to leave Freddie.

That segment sets the stage for more to come. Laughton gets his moment to shine, as does Vivian Vance as Alicia; she would begin her long run as her famous role of Ethel Mertz eleven days before The Blue Veil hit theatres, in the first episode of I Love Lucy. But as the Begleys’ story begins, Louise Mason’s moves on. Next stop is the expansive mansion of Mrs. Fleur Palfrey, portrayed by Agnes Moorehead, hardly a lightweight to follow on from Laughton. Unfortunately, she gets less to do because the proposal this time out doesn’t come from the boss. Louise is tasked with taking care of Robbie, who’s perhaps six or seven years old; we join them as his elder brother, Harrison, returns from school in the company of a tutor because he’s not keeping up. I’m not sure how capably he’s home schooled because Gerald Kean seems much more interested in the nanny. Moorehead’s best scene has her warn Kean about rushing into things with Louise, who fortunately figures that out for herself soon enough and lets him move to Beirut alone.
Family number three are the Rawlins. Joan Blondell is Annie Rawlins, who sings and dances on stage where she’s keeping working even as she ages beyond the costumes which she’s given to wear. She looks good here, still slim a decade before Angel Baby. She’d bloat up in her later years, so Annie’s battles against age here are easily believable. While she’s busy with work, Louise handles her daughter, Stephanie, a precocious twelve year old played by the precocious Natalie Wood, who was thirteen at the time but eight years and seventeen films into her screen career. As the kids get older, the inevitable parting gets harder and this one is difficult for a number of reasons. Both Wood and Blondell do fine, though I was expecting more from the latter. She deserved many Oscar nominations but only ever got this one. Then again, Edward G. Robinson, her co-star in 1966’s The Cincinnati Kid, for which she got her next major nomination (for a Golden Globe) wasn’t Oscar-nominated for any film, surely the Academy’s greatest omission.

On we go, working through what Bosley Crowther described in his New York Times review as, ‘a series of parchedly sunlit episodes, contrived to squeeze the heart and present this lady as a quivering-lipped saint’, to the one that really counts. There is purpose to this form of slow torture for Louise Mason, because it escalates the heartbreak to the point where she could be described as mad as hell and not gonna take it any more, if only she wasn’t so polite. Up until that moment when she breaks, in front of Everett Sloane playing a District Attorney, she really was given a major hagiography. After she lost her husband in World War I and her baby in the hospital, she seems rather determined not to live her own life. She moves in with family after family, taking care of children who aren’t her own and, inevitably, leaving those homes and those families. All she has to show for those many years of service, it seems, is a photo album, which she describes lovingly as containing ‘all my children’.
Of course, this is the point, but it’s hammered home a little hard. The script was written by Norman Corwin, an accomplished radio writer and producer, who also wrote a number of screenplays, notably Lust for Life, the Kirk Douglas biopic of Vincent van Gogh. It was an adaptation, of Irving Stone’s novel and this was also an adaptation, what seems like a relatively close one of a French movie from 1942 called Le voile bleu or The Blue Veil, with Gaby Morlay playing Louise Jarraud. The original script was written by Fran├žois Campaux, who later wrote a play called Cherie Noire that was adapted to film no less than three times in a single decade. I can’t say whether the saintly aspect of Louise came more from Campaux or Corwin, but it’s probably a combination of both. Things change over time and Louise was surely more believable in 1951 than today, when audiences are more likely to feel sorry for her than to identify with her. Who can afford live-in nannies any more? The Kardashians?

Surely the intent at the time was to showcase the dedication of a woman who selflessly gives her life and service to others. Today, we wonder why she didn’t marry any of the many men who proposed and settle down with them, find another one, or ignore all the useless men and live her own life. Sure, single mothers were a social stigma back then, so neither pregnancy nor adoption are viable options, but even within the sexist standards of the time, she had the possibility of making something of her life. Why waste it bringing up other people’s children? Well, we can’t really say it was a waste, especially when we see the ending, which is classic tearjerker material, but I personally felt sorry for what she lost more than I felt for what she gave. I can say, at least, that it could have been much, much worse had the role been given to someone less able to gift it with power. Jane Wyman is much better than she had any right to be, given the material. She even ages well, though that’s hard to tell given the quality of this copy.
Perhaps she had more of a connection to the material than would initially be obvious. The theme is clearly defined by a supposed quote at the beginning: ‘Who raises a child of his own flesh lives with nature; who raises a child of another’s lives with God.’ Here, that’s exemplified by a nanny or governess; I’m not sure where one becomes the other. However, it carries different meaning for me, as a stepfather of three and a step-grandfather of five. I’d guess it meant something else again for Wyman, because she was a foster child. Born Sarah Jane Mayfield, her parents, Manning and Gladys, divorced when she was four and her father died a year later. Instead, she was fostered by Richard and Emma Fulk, whose surname she took unofficially. Richard died when she was only eleven and she was brought up by Emma, but when she began a singing career on radio, she did so as Jane Durrell. She became a Wyman by marriage at sixteen and kept that name after divorce at eighteen.

Hard as it is to believe now, it took her a while to really find her place in Hollywood. She was uncredited in twenty movies before gaining a credit as a hatcheck girl in Smart Blonde, the first Torchy Blane movie. Eight years later, she’d play the title character in the ninth and last film in the series, Torchy Blane... Playing with Dynamite. Still, her most notable moment in the thirties was the kiss she shared with Regis Toomey in You’re in the Army Now, which lasted for three minutes and five seconds, the longest kiss in movie history. It was The Lost Weekend in 1945 that really gave her quality material to play with. Her first Oscar nomination came a year later, for The Yearling; two more years and she’d win, for Johnny Belinda, in the process becoming the first person in the sound era to win an Oscar without speaking, as her character was a deaf mute. After that, she had her pick of roles and she took a variety of them, including Stage Fright for Alfred Hitchcock, Here Comes the Groom for Frank Capra and Magnificent Obsession for Douglas Sirk.
I’ve seen her in many films over the years, but mostly those from the late thirties and early forties that didn’t challenge her much at all. I enjoyed her in Larceny, Inc. with Edward G. Robinson, for instance, but it’s hardly her greatest moment. I’ve seen less of her films from the late forties and early fifties, when she did her best and most demanding work. She had a habit of taking roles which our 21st century sense of cynicism would suggest were shoe-ins for Oscar nominations, like a deaf mute rape victim, an alcoholic’s long-suffering girlfriend or a shy crippled sister. They’re heavier pictures, to be sure, but she was able to meet the challenges they brought. And really, it’s that decade of cinema that’s most worthy of being her lasting legacy, rather than a television soap opera or her choice of third husband. I mention him again now because they had three children together, the third of which, Christine, was born premature and died the same day. That was 1947, four years before this film. No wonder it was her favourite.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

Fascinating. Jane Wyman is a favourite of mine for her obvious talent and tenaciousness regarding her career. Fingers crossed more of us will get the chance to see The Blue Veil.