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The Member of the Wedding

The Member of the Wedding(1953)


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teaser The Member of the Wedding (1953)

* Reprinted by permission of Donald Bogle from his film reference work, Blacks in American Films & Television: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Simon & Schuster)

Southern writers like Lillian Hellman and Carson McCullers have sometimes focused on the complex relationship between southern white women and the black women around them. At times while reading such writers, we sometimes feel almost as if we've caught sight of protected white women just as the precise moment when they've suddenly stopped dead in their tracks and taken notice of the world around them. Near the center of this world is a strong black woman who has cooked or cleaned, nurtured or reprimanded, soothed or berated the white females she has had to work for. Such is the case in The Member of the Wedding (1953), the screen adaptation of McCuller's famous novel and play in which the great Ethel Waters had her finest screen role, repeating the part she had originated on Broadway as the one-eyed cook Berenice.

Her hair white, her weight well over 200 pounds, and with a black eye patch in some scenes, Waters looks like a magnificent monument that moves us, whether we like it or not, simply because of its durability and presence. Today some viewers may be put off by the fact that her character Berenice expends most of her energies and wisdom on two white children - the teenage girl Frankie (Julie Harris) and her little cousin John Henry (Brandon de Wilde) - stoically helping the girl on the rough road to maturity. At one point, she tells Frankie, "Child. Child. Berenice knows. Berenice understands. And now Berenice wants you to sit on her lap so she can quiet you down." No matter how much it might grate us that Waters is not permitted to deliver lines to a troubled black child, the actress herself speaks with a conviction that we know is genuine.

But the Waters characterization - and McCuller's script - go futher. For here is a rare attempt to provide some glimpse of a black woman's life independent of the white world for which she works. In what is very nearly a soliloqy, Water's Berenice speaks of her experiences and the man she loved more than any other, Ludi, who has died. In closeup, the camera stays on her lustrous face as she gives a perfect reading. It is moving and effective, a great performance by a great actress in one of cinema's true mythic moments. Yet it's a sequence that acting teachers and film historians seem to have forgotten altogether. In another scene when Berenice tells the young Frankie, "We go around trying first one thing, then another. Yet we're still caught. Just the same," she brings in something outside the script, no doubt her own troubled personal experiences, deepening the lines with her knowing stoic readings. She gets far closer to the truth of her black character's experiences than do all the actresses in The Color Purple, save perhaps young Desreta Jackson.

Then, too, there are Water's brief scenes with the young actor James Edwards, as her foster brother, Honey, a troubled young man happiest when away from the white world's dictates and simply playing his horn. Edwards understands jazz musicians and how their art saved their lives. He understands restraints and repressions. "Times like this," he says in a moment of torment, "I feel I gotta bust loose or die." Sometimes stern or impatient with Edwards, Water turns and faces him at crucial peak moments, and the screen lights up with two splendid black performers, the old guard one-time vaudevillian with the new guard intense method-style actor, each bringing the best out of one another and distinguishing dialogue that in other hands might seem rigged. Of course, one wishes that the movie had been more about these two. Because it isn't is a reason why some black audiences might reject this picture altogether. But there is more here of black lives in disarray and in control than in most films of the period: it's hard to think of any other movie of that time in which black actors had a chance to relate so tenderly and sensitively with one another. Clearly worth seeing for Water's big performance and Edwards's brief one as well as those of Harris and de Wilde. Well worth seeing also for what it suggests rather than flat out states.

Later versions of McCuller's play were done for television, with Claudia McNeil playing Berenice in 1958, then Pearl Bailey performing the part in 1982.

Producer: Stanley Kramer
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Edna & Edward Anhalt, based on the play and novel by Carson McCullers
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Editing: William A. Lyon
Music: Alex North
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Production Design: Rudolph Sternad
Cast: Ethel Waters (Bernice Sadie Brown), Julie Harris (Frankie Addams), Brandon De Wilde (John Henry), Honey Camden Brown (James Edwards), Arthur Franz (Jarvis), Nancy Gates (Janice), William Hansen (Mr. Addams), Dickie Moore (soldier), Hugh Beaumont (minister).

by Donald Bogle

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teaser The Member of the Wedding (1953)

Southern writer Carson McCullers's stories of loneliness and alienation are difficult to translate to theater and film because they are about character and emotion rather than plot or action. The Member of the Wedding (1952), based on McCullers's third novel of the same name, was the first to make a successful transition into other mediums. McCullers herself adapted her 1946 novel for a 1950 Broadway production, and a film based on the play was made two years later.

The story is set in a small Southern town. Frankie Addams is an awkward, moody twelve year old girl whose only friends are her young cousin John Henry and her black housekeeper Berenice. When her older brother Jarvis arrives for his wedding, Frankie decides that the answer to her loneliness is to become a "member of the wedding," and decides to leave town to live with the newlyweds. In spite of Berenice's gentle efforts to dissuade her, Frankie is devastated when her plans are thwarted. The play ran for more than 500 performances and earned the Drama Critics Circle award for best play.

Producer Stanley Kramer won a bidding war by offering McCullers $75,000 plus ten percent of the profits for the screen rights to The Member of the Wedding. Kramer had been an independent producer since the late 1940s, making provocative, well-respected films about social issues such as racism in the armed forces (Home of the Brave, 1949) and disabled veterans (The Men, 1950), and critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful film versions of plays such as Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) and Death of a Salesman (1951). In 1951, Kramer accepted an offer from Columbia chief Harry Cohn to make his own films at Columbia without studio interference, as long as he did not exceed a budget of $980,000 per film. Kramer, whose last independent film before moving to Columbia was the enormously successful High Noon (1952), made six films for Columbia in 1952, including The Member of the Wedding.

The leading actors from the stage production recreated their roles for the film version. Top-billed Ethel Waters, who played Berenice, was a Broadway musical legend, and had also appeared in several films. For 26-year old Julie Harris, who played the 12-year old Frankie, it would be her first major film role. Ten-year-old Brandon De Wilde, who played John Henry, had made his acting debut in the play. Because the actors had been together so long, and knew their characters so well, director Fred Zinnemann recalled in his autobiography that "Working with the actors was pure joy and not too much of a creative job was, in a sense, to transfer to the screen a work that was already powerfully alive." His major task was getting the actors to tone down their large stage performances for the camera. Harris and De Wilde adapted easily, but Waters "was so wedded to her mechanics that she needed enormous persuasion to make a change...Sometimes when I insisted, she would look heavenward and say, 'God is my director.'" Screenwriter Edward Anhalt later recalled that Waters and Zinnemann clashed often. She said the director "stood too straight," and when they disagreed she refused to come out of her dressing room, ignoring Zinnemann's pleas. Zinnemann had nothing but praise for Harris's performance, but in an interview the actress remembered that it was difficult for her to tone down her stage performance, and she was frustrated by the pace of filmmaking, finding it difficult to stay focused while performing "in bits and pieces."

Critics applauded the effort, but found some problems with the film version of The Member of the Wedding. Most had praise for the performances, especially Waters's. Time called it "richly compassionate," and Bosley Crowther of the New York Times said that Waters "glows with a warmth of personality and understanding." He also liked De Wilde, calling him "delightfully mettlesome and humorous." But some felt the camera's relentless eye did Harris no favors. "Her passionate and volatile technically as graphic as anyone could ask, and even, under present circumstances, it gives off a lot of fervid heat. It is just that the camera unmasks it as a skillful professional exercise," Crowther wrote. Time agreed: "But for all her lightning range, the ruthless close-up camera reveals the fact that this is a 26-year old actress play-acting at being a twelve-year old girl."

Another problem the film revealed was the staginess of the single set, in spite of Zinnemann's best efforts. "All that Director Fred Zinnemann has been able to contrive in the way of camera angles, lighting and cutting has not been sufficient to disguise the paucity of dramatic action and the weight of repetition in the film," according to Crowther. The insertion of a scene from the book that had not been in the play, when Frankie goes roaming through a sketchy section of town, was praised as the most cinematic. In spite of the problems, most critics found much to like in The Member of the Wedding. Time's final verdict: "The total effect is nonetheless a film poem. In Fred Zinnemann's direction, it often reaches successfully for that most elusive of movie qualities--the catch in the throat."

Julie Harris was nominated for an Academy Award® for her performance, but lost to Shirley Booth, who won for Come Back, Little Sheba (1952). But the film did not do well at the box office, and there were no profits for McCullers to collect her ten-percent. In his autobiography, Kramer ruefully noted that "The Member of the Wedding was the fourth Broadway play in a row that I had converted into a flop." But he added, "I still believe that pictures like The Member of the Wedding...had importance." For Zinnemann, "It has always been my favorite picture...perhaps because of the quality of pure love that seems to radiate from it so strongly."

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Producer: Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: Edna Anhalt, Edward Anhalt; based on the novel by Carson McCullers
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Editor: William A. Lyon
Production Design: Rudolph Sternad
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Music: Alex North
Principal Cast: Ethel Waters (Berenice Sadie Brown), Julie Harris (Frances "Frankie" Addams), Brandon De Wilde (John Henry), Arthur Franz (Jarvis Addams), Nancy Gates (Janice), William Hansen (Mr. Addams), James Edwards (Honey Camden Brown), Harry Bolden (T.T. Williams), Dick Moore (Soldier).
BW- 93m.

by Margarita Landazuri

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