Carrie (1950) directed by William Wyler
– Imprint Blu-Ray
Carrie, William Wyler’s 1950 adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie, has been out of full circulation for some years now: hard to see on TV and only available as a cut DVD until Imprint’s restored Blu-Ray release. That’s a pity, for although a flawed production, its 19th century tragic romance doesn’t quite synchronise with a gritty social realism, the film still impresses. Wyler would have probably got more of Dreiser’s harsh naturalism onto the screen if he’d made it years later, round the time of his sharp 1970 picture of racism The Liberation of L.B.Jones. Fifties America, with Senator McCarthy’s loathing of communism contaminating the American Dream, wasn’t the best time for Paramount studios to film a book that was still regarded by some as immoral and sordid.
Carrie, our inexperienced heroine, travels from the country to Chicago and gets a job as a sewing machine operative in a sweat shop. After losing her job, travelling salesman Charles Drouet (the excellent Eddie Albert) befriends Carrie and lets her share his rooms. She keeps demanding that he marry her so as to keep up the appearance of respectability. Charles is kind but shallow and evasive, always managing to bounce back from disappointments but never into the orbit of Carrie’s real needs. He introduces Carrie to restaurant manager George Hurstwood (Laurence Olivier).
Carrie falls in love with the much older George and marries him. But he’s a weak, self-centred man and a bigamist. The now pregnant Carrie is shattered to meet George’s wife. Her baby dies in childbirth and she leaves George who’s penniless having had to return ten thousand dollars he stole from his employer and because his wife Julie (Miriam Hopkins, alas briefly on screen) retains all of their money and property. George is made destitute and forced to live on the street: whilst Carrie becomes a successful actress: her triumph and George’s downfall being reversals of fortune that are sensitively observed by Wyler.
Carrie was a troubled production. William Wyler was still mourning the death of his one year old son; Jennifer Jones wasn’t Wyler’s choice to play Carrie and Olivier didn’t get on at all with Jones – though on screen there was a definite charisma between them. People have criticised Jennifer Jones for being lacklustre. In her defence I would say that in the early scenes of Carrie she’s very effective at conveying Carrie’s innocence and naivety but her acting turns stilted and lacks conviction once she’s horribly let down by George.
Olivier gives one of his finest screen performances. Olivier gets everything succinctly correct. Take the moment when Hurstwood’s son is talking to his father about his impending marriage and whether mother will approve of the arrangements. Olivier says nothing but raises his head slightly upwards towards the staircase: his eyes convey such sadness, disenchantment and bitterness over his relationship with his wife. Olivier wonderfully invokes great pity and you quickly sense his character is fated to fail: trapped inside an unhappy marriage and doomed if he attempts to escape from the family. I’d rank his wonderfully understated acting as on par with his playing of another controlling and troubled man Maxim de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940).
It’s still a bit shocking, though more so in 1950 than today, to see “Sir Larry” accept a part that asked him to portray, at the end of the film, a sick man reduced to seeking shelter in a flop house. That short scene was cut out. Paramount Studios must have recoiled in horror when they watched it. It’s now re-instated and made me think of that raw 1956 documentary On The Bowery about homeless, alcoholic “bums.” Paramount also asked Wyler to make changes, including the proposed suicide of George Hurstwood. That I think was a wiser decision. For the scene where Olivier plays around with the tap of the gas burner, in Carrie’s theatre dressing room, and quietly contemplates killing himself, is subtle, suggestive and powerfully accompanied by David Raskin’s richly textured music. Whether this moment was scripted or thought up by Olivier or Wyler it’s a brilliant piece of concise storytelling.
Carrie isn’t William Wyler at his best. For that seek out The Best Years of Lives (his masterpiece) The Little Foxes, The Letter or The Liberation of L.B.Jones. Yet it’s still a very good film though a failure. The balance between screen romance and hard social realism doesn’t quite come off, even though it has admirable back-up cameos from veterans like Ray Teal playing a cynical policeman, hounding George for the stolen money, and Barry Kelly as the rough bar owner who fires George from his menial waiter job.
Carrie at least attempted to bring greater social realism to the American screen at a time when it was resisted in mainstream entertainment. And Laurence Olivier is just so commanding and heart rendering that he makes Carrie a memorable film.