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Member of the Wedding, The (Blu-ray Review)

11 Jul, 2016 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Ethel Waters, Julie Harris, Brandon de Wilde, James Edwards.

Fred Zinnemann’s ever-resonant 1952 film of Carson McCullers’ book-to-play was the ultimate in outsiders’ cinema for its day — and is, of course, far more in keeping with today’s indie-pic times than it ever was. Tightly sandwiched in the director’s career between landmarks High Noon and From Here to Eternity, it was, predictably, a notable box office failure for producer Stanley Kramer, proving again that there’s nothing more irrelevant than yesterday’s commercial flop-dom unless you invested your child’s college fund in Heaven’s Gate. In the lovely combo coffee-table book and autobiography devoted to his career (A Life in the Movies), Zinnemann called The Member of the Wedding the favorite of his pictures — and this is from someone who additionally directed The Search, The Men, Oklahoma!, The Nun’s Story, The Sundowners, A Man for All Seasons, The Day of the Jackal (the far superior 1972 version that Universal has never issued on Blu-ray, thank you) and Julia.

Set in author McCullers’ original hometown of Columbus, GA, it was, for budgetary reasons, shot in California, but from the opening shot of Julie Harris walking down a tree-lined street, it really looks Southern-bred. When the impressive boxed set devoted to Kramer’s career at Columbia Pictures came out in 2008, I was struck at how crisp and detailed Hal Mohr’s Wedding photography looked even on DVD, and with Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray, the tsunami of sweat beads on the faces of Ethel Waters and Julie Harris have just made a supremely imposing impression on my new 75-inch screen. For a filmed play — and this is an unusually rich one in terms of blocking and staging — Zinnemann must have shot a bounteous amount of coverage to facilitate his stirring use of close-ups. The editing rhythms here remind me a lot of Eternity’s.

By the time eventually Oscar-nominated Harris repeated her stage role on screen, she was 26 playing 12-year-old protagonist Frankie, though this turns out to be not as much of a stretch as it sounds given that this barely pre-adolescent and her 6-year-old cousin (Brandon de Wilde) are full-fledged “eccentrics” even by Deep South standards. A mostly friendless drama queen by any count, Frankie longs for some kind of tandem existence — though she errs badly when she aspires to tag along on her soldier-brother’s honeymoon, which is going to be abbreviated in any event. Fort Benning is in the Columbus area right across the river from onetime vice hub Phenix City, AL — which, in the era, notoriously preyed on army grunts who liked to drink and gamble. What a living room double bill Wedding would make with 1955’s muckraking melodrama The Phenix City Story, though you’d have to think a bit to come up with Hollywood directorial styles more contrastable than those of Zinnemann and Phil Karlson.

Though Wedding occasionally “opens up” McCullers’ original, most of the story takes place in the kitchen of Frankie’s widowed and inattentive jeweler father — a standard meeting place for her and the household’s African-American domestic Berenice (Ethel Waters, quite a dramatic sight in an eye patch) and oddball cuz John Henry (de Wilde in glasses and looking, by 1952 standards, alarmingly comfortable in a tutu). In terms of release chronology, this was de Wilde’s screen debut — but only because in-the-can Shane was amid the usual George Stevens delays due to his proclivity for living a year in the editing room.

To re-enforce the correct notion that nobody knows the trouble much-widowed Berenice has seen, there’s also an occasional appearance by her scrape-prone stepbrother played by James Edwards — an always good actor who might have had a far more significant career had he comes along a decade or two later when blacks were given at least something of a fairer chance to partake in the public arena. What else? Well, I really love the Alex North score (isolated here if you want, per Twilight Time norm), which is moody and emotional without avoiding sentimentality.

This release carries over several backgrounders from the DVD release, including an intro by widow Karen Kramer that oddly ignores The Men when talking of previous Kramer-Zinnemann collaborations (it marked the screen debut — in a lead, no less — of some obscure actor whose first name was Marlon). There’s also a voiceover track by the late Virginia Spencer Carr, a Columbus native whose first-rate biography of McCullers is one I bought in hardback and read immediately when it was published. There’s also a second and more recent commentary by singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega and mostly admiring film historians Derek Botelho and David Del Valle — informative about McCullers but not paying much attention to what’s appearing on screen as they talk.

The group seems to blame the soon to be mortally wounded Breen Office for forcing the filmmakers to water down some of the source material’s racial and sexual undertones, but Kramer and Zinnemann (also adapting screenwriters Edna and Edward Anhalt) probably thought it was enough of a miracle just getting a movie so far off the ’52 track from even getting made. Pauline Kael talked about how Columbia cut the picture substantially and shoved it into the bottom half of double bills (with what — the studio’s Fort Ti?). And in my hometown, which had a large university audience, it couldn’t even get a booking at a downtown theater. Sometimes, nostalgia is all it’s cracked up to be (terrorists didn’t assault-rifle public places), but sometimes it isn’t.

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