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Friendly Persuasion

Friendly Persuasion (1956)

Producer-director William Wyler had Jessamyn West's novel Friendly Persuasion in mind for eight years before he brought the project to Allied Artists. He had just completed a five-picture deal with Paramount when he was offered a plum from Allied, a company looking to achieve major studio status by signing top directors like Wyler, Billy Wilder, and John Huston. They gave him a $1.5 million budget for his first color film, and shooting was to take place in the story's original southern Indiana locale. By the time it was completed, on a San Fernando Valley estate and at the old Republic studios, the cost had swelled to $3 million. But it turned out to be a popular success, despite its two-hour-seventeen-minute running time and its focus on the unlikely cinematic subject of Quaker values. It brought in $8 million in box-office receipts by 1960 alone.

Friendly Persuasion (1956) focuses on a peaceful family of Quakers who are thrust into the Civil War when a band of Confederates known as Morgan's Raiders threatens their town. The eldest Birdwell son, Josh, hears a plea for young men to help fight off the marauders and begins to question the anti-war, anti-violence values of his religion. His mother is against him going to battle, but his father, a man of moral courage and understanding, recognizes his son's need to work out his conflict and side with a just cause. When Josh is wounded in battle, his father goes into the war zone to save him. What he encounters there tests his faith and a way of life that will never be quite the same.

A large part of the picture's success can be attributed to Gary Cooper, due not only to his considerable box office appeal but his performance in a role that marked something of a transition for the actor. Cooper most often played a man of action, the American Hero, ready to take up arms when necessary (although the part of the Quaker father echoed his Oscar-winning role as the reluctant World War I soldier in Sergeant York, 1941). This was one of the first roles in which he began to expand his range and question his past image. But he had to be convinced. During the scripting process, he expressed reservations to West about the character, saying because "action seems to come natural to me," the father should be shown joining the fight. "There comes a time in a picture of mine when the people watching expect me to do something," he said. West responded he would do something: "Refrain. You will furnish your public with the refreshing picture of a strong man refraining." That's what he did, and he received critical praise for it.

Also scoring strongly in the picture was Anthony Perkins as the son. The young actor had one previous film to his credit, George Cukor's The Actress (1953), when he returned to the New York stage and got great notices for Tea and Sympathy. He was signed to do another play when Wyler approached him about Friendly Persuasion. Torn over the decision, Perkins decided to give Hollywood another try, and the gamble paid off handsomely. The picture made him one of the most sought-after new stars and earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

Friendly Persuasion was nominated for five other Academy Awards as well, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Song ("Friendly Persuasion, Thee I Love," which became a hit for Pat Boone), Best Sound Recording, and Best Adapted Screenplay which created something of a controversy. Because writer Michael Wilson had been blacklisted for pleading the Fifth Amendment before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, his name was not listed with the nomination. A week before the nominations for 1956 movies were released, the Academy's Board of Governors passed a rule denying an Oscar to anyone who refused to talk to a Congressional committee. But the new rule was not announced until the nominations came out, displeasing a lot of people, especially members of the Writers Guild, which issued a protest. When the Academy wouldn't budge, the Guild gave Wilson its award for Best Written American Drama. Speaking at the Guild's 1957 awards ceremony, Groucho Marx quipped, "Take, for example, The Ten Commandments [1956]. Original story by Moses. The producers were forced to keep Moses' name off the writing credits because they found out he had once crossed the Red Sea." Wilson won his first Oscar for the adapted screenplay of A Place in the Sun (1951) and another for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). He was awarded that Oscar posthumously, as well as his writing credits for Wyler's film and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Although Friendly Persuasion did not win in any of its categories, its principals racked up more than 40 nominations in their distinguished careers and brought home 12 statuettes. Director William Wyler already possessed two Oscars by the time of this film's release, for the war-themed dramas Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). He later won a third Best Director award for Ben-Hur (1959) and received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1966. Wyler was also nominated for shepherding Bette Davis in two of her best roles - The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941) - and for movies as diverse as the Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy Roman Holiday (1953) and the period drama The Heiress (1949), both of which also earned him Best Picture nominations as producer. Gary Cooper was not recognized for his work as the Quaker dad, but he was no stranger to Oscar, having been nominated five times and winning for Sergeant York and High Noon (1952). He also received an honorary award for his long body of work shortly before his death in 1961.

The Oscar champ on the production team, however, was unquestionably Dmitri Tiomkin. In his 40-year career, the Russian-born composer was nominated for his work on 18 motion pictures and won four times - for scoring The Old Man and the Sea (1958), The High and the Mighty (1954), and High Noon, for which he also won a Best Song Oscar ("Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling") shared with lyricist Ned Washington.

Producer/Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Michael Wilson (uncredited until 1996), based on the novel by Jessamyn West
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Editing: Robert Swink, Edward A. Biery, Robert Belcher
Art Direction: Ted Haworth
Original Music: Dmitri Tiomkin
Cast: Gary Cooper (Jess Birdwell), Dorothy McGuire (Eliza Birdwell), Anthony Perkins (Josh Birdwell), Richard Eyer (Little Jess), Phyllis Love (Mattie True Birdwell), Marjorie Main (Widow Hudspeth), Robert Middleton (Sam Jordan).
C-138m. Letterboxed.

by Rob Nixon

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