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Twenty-four years before Sissy Spacek turned prom night into hell on Earth, Jennifer Jones starred as a very different Carrie in William Wyler's 1952 adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's controversial novel Sister Carrie. It was a role she and husband David O. Selznick fought fiercely to win, though in the end it would come at great personal cost.
Dreiser's tale of an ambitious small-town girl who decides that living in sin is an easier way to the top than working in a sweatshop created an uproar on initial publication because of the writer's refusal to judge his characters. Publisher Frank Doubleday declined to even distribute the first edition after his wife complained the book was too sordid. Only the efforts of fellow novelist Frank Norris, who was then working as a reader at Doubleday, got it to reviewers, though even then it was met with mixed notices. The subject matter was still shocking in 1935, when Paramount first submitted the book for approval by the Production Code Administration. Joe Breen turned it down, stating that its story of a kept woman who drives a man to suicide had no "compensating moral value," meaning there was no effort to condemn the characters' immorality. The property passed to Warner Bros., Columbia and RKO, but none of them could get the story past Breen.
Looking for materials with which to set up his own production company, Wyler picked up the rights from RKO in 1947. Initially he asked Lillian Hellman to adapt the novel; Wyler had previously brought her plays The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes to the screen successfully. She agreed but then proved too busy. He asked her to approach Arthur Miller about the job, but he, too, was too busy. She suggested Norman Mailer, but Wyler thought him too young and inexperienced to capture George Hurstwood's descent into destitution. By that point, he had been working happily with Ruth and Augustus Goetz on The Heiress (1949), the screen version of their stage adaptation of Henry James' Washington Square. He gave them the writing assignment, then worked with them for months getting the treatment and screenplay just right. To appease the Production Code, he added a character, Hurstwood's business partner, to act as a spokesman for traditional morality. When the studio and Breen asked that he cut Hurstwood's suicide, however, he refused, determined that if he filmed it tastefully he could overcome the censors' objections.
As he worked on the screenplay, Wyler sent a draft to independent producer Selznick for advice (Selznick was considered one of the best script and movie doctors in Hollywood). Realizing the power of the title role, Selznick began a campaign to win it for his wife, Jones. Hoping to use the film to build up her career, Selznick bombarded Wyler with memos suggesting alternative endings, a more marketable title (The Loved and the Unloved) and leading men he would consider appropriate to work opposite his wife. At the top of the list was Laurence Olivier.
Wyler may have been on the fence about Jones, but he needed no encouragement about working with Olivier. The two had been friends since working together on Wuthering Heights (1939), and the director sent a script to him. When Olivier informed him that he was tied up with a stage production, Wyler offered to postpone filming until he could make the film and even offered to find another property if Olivier didn't want to make Carrie. This was more than friendship. Although some in Hollywood had cautioned the director that the British actor was far from suitable for the role of the Midwestern Hurstwood, Wyler felt that Olivier's elegance was perfectly suited for the role of a man who seduces Carrie with his sophistication. The only actor in Hollywood he thought could pull off the role was Cary Grant, who had already turned it down. Fortunately, Olivier was so intrigued by the project that he agreed to make the film as soon as he could close his current stage production. Part of his motivation was the desire to remain close to his wife, Vivien Leigh, who would be in Hollywood at the same time filming A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).
At that point, Wyler decided that Elizabeth Taylor - who had just scored a hit in another Dreiser adaptation, A Place in the Sun (1951) - was perfect for the title role in Carrie and asked Olivier to speak with her while she was in London. Unfortunately, MGM refused to approve the loan. Paramount's executives then pushed to cast Ava Gardner, while Wyler also considered Jeanne Crain. When Selznick got wind of this, he exploded, sending Wyler a lengthy telegram complaining that he had been led to believe Jones had won the role and had turned down an offer of $250,000 for a Warner Bros. film so she would be available for Carrie. He also stated that she was no longer interested in the film anyway. When Wyler apologized for not telling him he was looking at other actresses, he calmed down. Crain wasn't available either, so Paramount finally offered the role to Jones, though for far less than the $250,000 Selznick claimed to have turned down.
Olivier arrived in New York in August 1951 to meet with the Goetzes and tour the flophouses in the Bowery. He also asked Wyler to get him a dialect coach and asked Milwaukee-born star Spencer Tracy, whom he had coached on a British accent for Edward, My Son (1949), to give him some pointers. When he arrived on the set he not only threw himself into the role, but also proved eager to learn about the latest developments in film technology, hoping to incorporate them into his own work as a movie director.
Shortly after they started filming Carrie, Wyler read an item in Louella Parsons' column indicating that Jones was pregnant. Though the actress denied it publicly, she had to admit to her director that she was indeed expecting. When he asked why she hadn't told him sooner, she said she was afraid it would cost her the part. He assured her that they could shoot around her condition and even told her that she did not have to wear the corsets required for the film's late 19th century fashions while shooting close-ups. Ever the perfectionist, she wore them throughout production. Nonetheless, Wyler abandoned his famous tracking shots in her scenes, using close-ups critics would later complain gave the film a static feeling. After filming was completed, she suffered a miscarriage.
Whether it was the seriousness of the subject matter or a variety of personal problems, the atmosphere on the set was often funereal. Wyler was still recovering from the death of his year-old son. Olivier had an unspecified, painful leg ailment that often left him cranky, and he began insisting on a closed set. He also developed a dislike for Jones, claiming in a letter to Leigh that "she doesn't know anything about anything. No soul, like we always said about them [Jones and Selznick], dumb animals with human brains". For his part, Selznick, who had promised Wyler he would steer clear of the set, sent endless memos complaining about their overworking his wife.
Filming on Carrie was completed in November 1951, at which point Paramount left the film sitting on the shelf. The problem was political. The rising tide of McCarthyism had hit Hollywood so hard the studio was afraid to distribute a film showing American characters as immoral and, eventually, unsuccessful. Finally, they cabled Wyler in Rome, where he was preparing to shoot Roman Holiday (1953), asking his permission to make cuts that would make the film more positive. Although he had final cut in his contract, the studio was not obligated to release the film, so he consented, even though it meant losing Olivier's suicide scene (it would be included among the extras in the DVD version).
Even then, Paramount buried Carrie in minor bookings. The reviews were far from encouraging, with several critics accusing the filmmakers of sentimentalizing the novel, particularly in the treatment of Jones' character. Only Olivier emerged unscathed, winning strong reviews. Initially, Wyler defended Jones' performance (and the Goetzes said outright that they thought she was truer to Dreiser's writing than Olivier; they had actually campaigned to cast Fredric March instead). According to Wyler's widow, however, he privately stated that she had been all wrong for the role. For the most part, however, he blamed himself for making such a depressing film at a time when American audiences wanted escape in the face of the early days of the Cold War. Although later critics would hail Olivier's and Eddie Albert's performances, they would agree with the film's contemporary critics in condemning Jones' work. Nor did the film's box office failure do much to bolster her career.
Producer-Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Ruth & Augustus Goetz
Based on the novel Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Roland Anderson
Music: David Raksin
Cast: Laurence Olivier (George Hurstwood), Jennifer Jones (Carrie Meeber), Miriam Hopkins (Julie Hurstwood), Eddie Albert (Charles Drouet), Basil Ruysdael (Mr. Fitzgerald), Ray Teal (Allen), Mary Murphy (Jessica Hurstwood), Don Beddoe (Goodman), Royal Dano (Captain), Snub Pollard (Man).
by Frank Miller
Olivier by Terry Coleman