Saturday, February 18, 2006


The surprises you can find

By Edward Copeland
As I have mentioned before, it's been nearly a lifelong obsession of mine to try to catch up with as many of the major Oscar nominees as I can. As a result, I often tape things off TCM and they'll lie around for ages before I get around to them. This is what happened recently when I mentioned Merrily We Live. Today, on the same tape, I caught up with 1949's Edward, My Son and I have to say it was a revelation.

All I knew about Edward, My Son going in was that it brought Deborah Kerr her first Oscar nomination as best actress. (She's good — but this is a supporting role, no question). Kerr was the only nomination the film received and that is a shame. The real star of the film is Spencer Tracy, who plays Kerr's husband, a Canadian transplant to England who has risen in both title and the business world, by sometimes unscrupulous means.

The thrust of the film is all the things both parents do for their son Edward — but here is the interesting part: Edward NEVER appears in the film. He ages and we know what is going on with him but no actor ever plays him and we never get a glimpse of him. I had no clue about this going in, so in the earlygoing, I figured they were just waiting until he grew up enough to have an actor take over his role, but eventually I realized what the conceit was — and it works brilliantly.

The script by Donald Ogden Stewart, adapted from the play by Robert Morley and Noel Langley, definitely shows its stage origins, but the subtle, snappy dialogue, solid acting and George Cukor's direction make it all worthwhile. There are so many lines I could toss out, but I'm only going to mention one, in case you see the film yourself. Tracy and his mistress discover that someone is stalking outside her flat, presumably a detective. The mistress asks him if he's committed any crimes lately to which Tracy replies, "No more than usual."

Tracy is the reason the film works as well as it does. Of course, he was great in lots of films, but this scoundrel Arnold Boult leaps near the top of my list of favorite Tracy performances. He's slimy, but you always like him, and Tracy adds some neat touches. I'm particularly fond of a scene he plays with a thermometer in his mouth.

Edward, My Son is by no means perfect and it wouldn't quite crack my top 5 for 1949, but for me it's quite a find. When you stumble upon a movie that's more than 50 years old that you've heard next to nothing about and find it to be a near gem, it reinvigorates your love for movies.

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With the proviso that it's been a long time since I've seen Edward, My Son, I'm a little surprised by your enthusiasm for it. You've obviously seen a lot of contemporary films of late, and next to those, something from the 1940s must come as a welcome relief. But I think Edward is a pretty clunky old thing that seems more dated than other melodramas of this kind.

It seemed to me that the business of never showing the pivotal character around whom most of the story takes shape wore thin rather quickly - rather like Suddenly, Last Summer without the element of high camp. It's an interesting approach, to be sure, but I think it works much more effectively in something like The Women, where the men never appear onscreen but are the objects of all the rivalries; at least there we get enough of a sense of who these guys are to understand what it is these deranged women are going to mats for. After a while, Edward begins to seem less like an actual flesh-and-blood character than a simple thematic device to illustrate how easilly children can be ruined by bad parenting, specifically the father's villainy and the mother's total innefectuality. It also seemed to me that the scenes and dialogue were of the stagy variety, a bit too cultured to be entirely credible.

My recollections of Tracy in this film are fuzzy, although I have no doubt he gave a typically professional and well-measured performance. I felt at the time that the character had been conceived in such a one-dimensionally evil vein that it defeated the actor's efforts; we're never really sure quite why he's such an awful shit, nor exactly what motivates his actions. Also, the device of having him directly address the audience at various intervals seemed very awkward to me - and for the actor.

My impressions of Deborah Kerr are not as hazy, mainly because of the extent to which her character is made to seem so utterly pathetic by the film's end. She does better than expected with the material, but seems unusally affected in some of her scenes; she's probably right to play it as screaming high melodrama, with bulging eyes and tremulous vocal fluctuations, but opposite the naturalism of Spencer Tracy it looks more ostentatious than it normally would. As for the Best Actress nomination she received for her performance, I think it's one of those instances where the Academy was impressed by a radical physical transformation that occurs before the audience's very eyes - over the course of the film, Kerr morphs from a enchanting, bloom-cheeked ingenue to a pale, moth-eathen dowager with broozy breath and slurred speech. It's not a stunt performance, exactly, but physical transformation has always held a certain lurid appeal for the Academy - partciularly when pretty young things can play convincingly haggard. Certainly Kerr would give better performances over the course of her career in Hollywood -and many critics had cried foul two years earlier when she was inexplicably passed over for her brilliant turns in Black Narcissus and The Adaventuress (a.k.a. I See a Dark Stranger), which had collectively earned her the first of her two New York Film Critics Circle Awards as Best Actress. With Greer Garson's box office muscle on the wane and MGM agressively grooming its new British aqusition as her successor ("Deborah Kerr - It rhymes with star"), I'm sure publicity and studio ward-healing had something to do with the nomination as well.

The performance that actually impressed me the most was a small one - that given by a bewitching thing called Leueen MacGrath, as an ill-fated career girl who makes the mistake of falling in love with Tracy's self-centered tyrant. She provides a welcome injection of sensuality to the proceedings, and is also the only one who manages to strike a note of genuine pathos.
I think what struck me about the device is Edward is in the title whereas in the other films you cited, the off-screen characters seem more as catalyst(as in Summer) or plot devices (It's not The Women and Their Husbands). I just really got into it, especially Tracy and the sly humor.
Offscreen characters can be interesting but also problematic. For example, I know I am in the minority in being unmoved by Wong Kar-Wait's IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, but the main problem I had with it was the decision to keep the lovers' significant others offscreen. I felt the movie was allowing the characters and the audience to evade the consequences of what was happening onscreen. That's the director's right, of course, but in my opinion it diminishes the movie. It's a form of cheating.
That's Wong Kar-Wai, obviously.
I'm with you in the minority on In the Mood for Love -- it did nothing for me either.
I'm with the two of you. In the Mood for Love didn't put me in the mood for much of anything - other than a nap. I wasn't much more impressed with 2046, which I felt had little to recommend it beyond a very accomplished performance by Ziyi Zhang. Perhaps Mr. Seitz can shed some light on the appeal Wong's work has for his critical brethren - are they really crazy in love with these baffling, lethargically paced exercises in post-modern esoterica, or is it simply a case of The Emperor's New Clothes (if you can't make heads or tails of it, it must be brilliant)?
I do differ with Josh on 2046 a bit -- while it's not one of my very top foreign offerings for 2005, it did hold my interest and the performances did make me like it overall.
I saw this on TCM recently for the first time since WBBM-TV was running all the MGM titles in the late 1950. I was indeed impressed by the startling Deb Kerr performance, notwithstanding the augmentations of the make up people. But her performance is not unique in this respect. Robert Donat, Dustin Hoffman, not to mention Tracy as Jekyl and Hyde have all benefitted from striking physical transformations while still delivering the goods. But I agree with Josh that the most memorable, attractive, and commanding presence (aside from Tracy) was offered by Leueen MacGrath. Yet her performance was also supported by a fairly radical physical alteration, from stoggy office fixture to the adult and witty sensuality of the mistress. She seemed to go from Sarah Haden to Veronica Lake in a blink. At 35 when whe did the roll, she conveyed a wordliness and maturity far more interesting and intriguing than a simple ingenue. According to imdb, she left far fewer performances than her talent warranted.
John McDonough
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