A year or two back I was staying with some friends in Denmark. The conversation turned, as of course it will turn, to Westerns. Hans opined that he was not a great fan of the genre (poor soul, I did pity him) but the best Western he knew was Gary Cooper as a Quaker, racing a neighbor in a buggy to Sunday meeting. He thought it was wonderful. I was ho-hum about this. How to be polite to my host, yet, well, suggest that firstly, Friendly Persuasion is hardly a Western at all, and secondly, it is a cheesy movie?
There is a genre of American film that may be set in nineteenth century rural America but is still not a Western. I am thinking of the likes of The Missouri Traveler or Stars in My Crown, maybe Judge Priest. These are nostalgic visions of a bucolic West, Americana if you will. You may say that defines the Western tout court but I would say that Westerns, real Westerns, have a true grit about them that defies sentimental feel-good pastorales.
There are some movies that hover on the fringes of the Western. They may have guns and Stetsons and horses but they really belong to other genres: the noir psycho-thriller, for example, like The Night of the Hunter. The family-at-war saga, for another, like Shenandoah (a film which has soapy qualities in common with Friendly Persuasion). Comedies and musicals like the grim Many Rivers to Cross or the (to me) unwatchably bad Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Or the war film-cum-cheap romance, like the trashy Gone With the Wind. These may be called ‘Westerns’ in TV guides, or by Danes, but they ain’t.
Still, I thought I ought to comment in this blog on Friendly Persuasion. It does, after all, star Gary Cooper, and it does become vaguely Western in the last reel. Plus, we’re on a bit of a Willy Wyler jag at the mo.
The first thing to say about it is that Coop is splendid. When was he anything else, of course? But he had a real gift for comedy, and without him this film would be a complete disaster.
Coop did quite a few weak Westerns in the 1950s, his wonderful performance in High Noon, one of the greatest ever made, notwithstanding. Dallas and Distant Drums were real clunkers and what a disappointment Springfield Rifle was after High Noon. There were some good ones – Garden of Evil, Man of the West and The Hanging Tree in particular – but Vera Cruz was not (Coop himself said “I stank” in that), and nor was Friendly Persuasion. Coop was an actor who lifted bad pictures but he was in a lot of bad pictures.
Wyler had to exercise some friendly persuasion of his own on Coop to do it at all. At first the actor said, “I ain’t ever played a pappy yet and I ain’t aiming to start now” and he also had reservations about playing a pacifist. But he was interested in doing something different and finally signed up.
It is grandly announced on the title screen as “William Wyler’s production of…” and Wyler directed it too, naturally. The winner of three Best Director Oscars, second only to John Ford’s four, and nominated oft-times more, Wyler was indeed a great director. What’s more, he had started in Westerns – two-reeler programmers when he was in his twenties – and had made a superb one as his first sound film, Hell’s Heroes in 1929. In 1940 he directed The Westerner, with Coop and a fine Walter Brennan, and that was also extremely good. Gary Cooper’s biographer Jeffrey Meyer calls him “a laborious plodder with an inflated reputation”, but to me this is quite wrong; he was a true talent.
It is, however, the case that he had worked on quite a few (let’s call them) semi-Westerns, pictures such as The Storm, Barbary Coast and The Cowboy and the Lady, for example, (the last two unhappy projects that Wyler began but soon departed from). These might be defined as Westerns – or more probably might not. Really, only Hell’s Heroes, then The Westerner and his last, The Big Country (1958) can be called ‘important’ and proper Westerns. So from a purely Western point of view Wyler can’t really be compared with some of the other great directors.
Ever since he left Universal, Wyler had been seeking more autonomy and artistic control, and been promised it by a series of producers and studios, notably Samuel Goldwyn, Liberty Films (which Wyler set up with Frank Capra and George Stevens) and, when Liberty folded into Paramount, by that studio too. The latest to offer him ‘freedom’ were the Mirisch brothers, Harold and Walter, who had dreams of bringing lowly Monogram into the big time as Allied Artists.
Michael Wilson had written a screenplay based on novelist Jessamyn West’s 1945 collection of stories, a series of fourteen free-standing tales about the Birdwell family of Quakers. This was back in 1946 and it bore the title Mr. Birdwell Goes to Battle, which of course reflected Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and was destined for Frank Capra. But that picture was never made. Wyler loved it, though, as did his assistant Stuart Millar (later to become a producer and director himself). But they both thought the script needed a rewrite. Wilson was by then blacklisted and they turned to West herself. West and Wyler’s brother Robert made significant changes to the Wilson script and produced a screenplay that Wyler and Cooper liked. Actually, there was controversy later because Wilson demanded credit and there was a hoo-hah, eventually settled out of court. When the screenplay was Oscar-nominated, it had to be without authors.
A weakness of the script is the complete lack of mastery of the second person singular thee and thou. Either nineteenth-century Quakers were remarkably uneducated and unskilled in its use, which seems improbable, or author Ms West was, which also seems unlikely (she was a Quaker too), yet they get it wrong the whole time. The subjective thou and objective thee are straightforward. Where art thou going? It does not concern thee. In this movie the characters only say thee. They even use it for the plural – “Off to bed, all of thee”. I mean, really. Ironically, the only person who seems to have mastered the usage is the non-Quaker organ salesman, who remarks on “all this theeing and thouing” and asks “Hast thou an organ?” when we as yet haven’t heard a single thou from the Quakers. You end up shouting like some deranged pedant at the screen.
Casting the role of Eliza, Jess Birdwell’s beautiful, bossy and pious wife, a key character (indeed, she was the central character in the Wilson version), was problematic.
Jeffrey Meyer says this:
Wyler … had great difficulty casting the leading lady. He desperately wanted Katharine Hepburn – ‘no one else would do’ – and also considered Jane Russell (nor exactly Quaker material); Margaret Sullavan, his former wife; Ingrid Bergman, still risky because of scandal; Maureen O’Hara, too fiery; Mary Martin, too hard to photograph; Vivien Leigh, too English; and Eve Marie Saint, too young, before settling on Dorothy McGuire, a compromise candidate he never really liked.
Wyler didn’t find it easy directing McGuire. Coop wasn’t keen on her either. Millar recalled that “Every woman between the ages of thirty and fifty-five was considered”. Jane Wyman, Teresa Wright, Eleanor Parker, and more. Wyler took West aside and asked her, possibly tongue-in-cheek, “What do you think of Jane Russell? She’s a very pious girl, I understand, goes to church, teaches Sunday school, sings hymns.” Probably, though, Ms West was able to distinguish between person and persona – Russell’s screen image was as a sex-bomb, and Western lovers would immediately think of her in the sleazy The Outlaw or as the bosomy gang leader in Son of Paleface, rather invalidating her Quaker wife credentials.
The next big part was that of Josh, the Birdwells’ teenage son anxious to test his manhood. Wyler first approached James Dean, who impressed him, but Dean’s agent said he wouldn’t accept a supporting role. In the end they went for Anthony Perkins, then 23, who had shone on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy. Perkins said, “I was just a brash kid who really didn’t know much about anything. The names Willy Wyler and Billy Wilder were interchangeable to me.” But Wyler and Perkins soon learned mutual respect. Perkins was fascinated by Coop and tried to imitate his rangy walk. He got short shrift, though, when on the set he tactlessly asked, “Coop, tell us about when you were a young actor.”
The rest of the cast benefited from young Richard Eyer, 11, going for a Tom Sawyer approach as the youngest child, famously at war with the family goose Samantha. The boy was terrifically good.
My favorite, though (after Coop, obviously) was Robert Middleton as Sam Jordan, Jess Birdwell’s friend, a portly and cheerful Methodist – a character not in the book but invented for the film. He was the buggy-racing neighbor going to meeting on Sundays – the bit my Danish friend remembered. Middleton had been the dumb brute Kobish in Wyler’s The Desperate Hours (which the lad Eyer had also been in) so this was quite a change but he was a versatile actor. Wyler first wanted Burl Ives (who would have been splendid) but he was engaged elsewhere.
Running Middleton a close second was Russell Simpson, who was, as John Ford knew, the ideal religious elder. He is perfectly splendid as the Quaker elder statesman raising his eyebrows at the lifestyle at the Birdwell farm. Amazingly, he was uncredited – one of the best actors on the set.
Friendly Persuasion was Wyler’s first picture in color (not counting wartime documentaries) and the Mirisches, out for a big picture, OK’d the Color De Luxe. They allotted the film a $1.5m budget. Wyler wanted to shoot in Indiana, the setting of the book, but they opted for California locations (the Rowland V Lee ranch in the San Fernando Valley) for reasons of economy. It wasn’t that much cheaper because Wyler went to all sorts of lengths to make it look like Indiana, having corn planted and sycamore trees brought in. In the end the expenditure exceeded $3m, according to Variety. In his 2008 book producer Walter Mirisch said that Allied had to sell the foreign distribution rights of the picture to MGM to make up the losses – according to studio records, the film earned Metro a profit of $582,000.
Art director Ted Haworth clearly aimed for a “Dutch old master” vibe and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks wrote that “the stylized lighting employed permitted the fine woodwork of the interiors to take on a rich, warm coloring”. The result, though, was chocolate-box-lid kitsch. The farm was squeaky clean, the color over-bright and the look was picture-postcard in excelsis. Visually, the movie is sickly. OK, they went for a look and an atmosphere, but they overdid it by miles.
The Dimitri Tiomkin music is also yuckily schmaltzy, appropriately so. There is a sickly ballad crooned by Pat Boone.
That’s not the main gripe, however. The content is as sickly-sweet as the look of the picture. Corny characters, a thin plot and a lack of action until the last reel do not help. The film is full of bonnets and shawls, and the dreaded ‘family values’ are much in evidence, with a wholesome teen romance (actually, young daughter Mattie was played by the appropriately-named Phyllis Love, who was in fact in her thirties, though in the story she has a mental age of twelve). The nearest the film comes to transgression is a quarrel about a new organ.
Though the movie is sanctimonious, it is hardly flattering of Friends. As Robert Hatch wrote in the Nation, a tad sententiously, the Birdwells “race horses on Sunday, admire themselves in mirrors, secrete a parlor organ in the attic, dance at county fairs, kiss soldiers in corners, and take up arms to repel the invaders.”
The film, like this review of it, is also tediously long, at 2 hours 17 minutes. The whole Hudspeth interlude is very low humor – Variety called it “an extremely broad comedy episode” – and could satisfactorily have remained on the cutting-room floor, thus lowering the ‘How much longer?’ quotient.
Producer Walter Mirisch said it was impossible to control Wyler, who shot all sorts of extraneous footage. Editor Robert Swink said that despite the inordinate final length of the picture he cut at least an hour of footage from it. You could shoot miles of film in black & white at little extra cost, and Wyler often did, but color in the 1950s was quite another – and more expensive – matter.
The picture was eventually released in October 1956 with a première in Chicago. It garnered favorable reviews – and indeed is still loved by many people today, though your Jeff is not among them. Variety said that “While it is the simple story … of a Quaker family in Indiana back in the 1860s, the footage contains just about everything in the way of comedy and drama, suspense and action.” The review added, “After many warm, beguiling vignettes of family life, story works into its key dramatic point tying onto the Quaker feeling against bearing arms against a fellow man.” Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, also getting his thees and thous wrong, said, “Thee should be pleasured by this film.” Crowther called it “a winning motion picture in which a spurt of stirring drama and suspense would top off a natural abundance of comedy, quaintness and charm”, though do we detect a faint touch of cynical urbanity when he added that the film was “loaded with sweetness and warmth and as much cracker-barrel Americana as has been spread on the screen in some time”? “Mr. Wyler has got so much warm rusticity, which is richly enhanced by color, that it makes you feel mellow and good.”
The film did respectable business on release but was far from a mega-hit. Stuart Miller blamed Allied Artists for lukewarm promotion (Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon for Allied was also not wowing the box office). However, the picture was a late developer. Once it opened around the country, word of mouth spread its charms, and the Pat Boone song climbing the charts helped. By 1960, Friendly Persuasion had earned $8m, so there was a slow return but a good one. And in what Meyer calls “a moment of temporary insanity” the Palme d’Or judges at Cannes rewarded it over Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
In 1988 President Ronald Reagan took a VHS of the picture to Moscow and presented it to Mikhail Gorbachev, presumably as an example of what wholesome all-American life was all about. Or maybe he hoped the pacifist message would strike a chord. I hope Gorby wasn’t sick.
Personally, I think they should have cast Jane Russell as the Quaker minister. It might have made the film watchable.
But it was hard to explain all this to my friend in Copenhagen.