Thursday, June 6, 2013

Coop's a Quaker and Hayley Buries Dead Animals

Gary Cooper and Dorothy Maguire.
Friendly Persuasion (1956). This pleasant, heartfelt tale of Quaker life in southern Indiana during the Civil War lacks the drama that went into bringing the film to the screen. Jessamyn West's 1945 novel was comprised of short stories published in various magazines beginning in 1940. William Wyler acquired the rights in 1948, but the project languished for several years. It didn't help that the House Committee on Un-American Activities proclaimed screenwriter Michael Wilson to be an "unfriendly witness." Despite winning an Oscar for co-writing A Place in the Sun in 1952, Wilson was blacklisted in Hollywood. When Wyler finally produced Wilson's adaptation of Friendly Persuasion, the credits did not list a screenwriter (in 1996, the opening credits were updated to include Wilson). As for Wyler, he intended to shoot the film on location in Indiana, but the budget spiraled out of control, forcing him to finish it in California (some outdoor scenes were clearly filmed in a studio).

Anthony Perkins.
Gary Cooper stars as the patriarch of the Birdwell family, although the film focuses on his oldest son Josh (Anthony Perkins) and daughter Mattie (Phyllis Love). Mattie has fallen in love with a Union officer and Josh can't decide whether to fight alongside his friends in the war or whether to remain faithful to his Quaker beliefs. It's a leisurely, episodic movie that doesn't build to a strong climax, but there are effective scenes along the way (e.g., when Mrs. Birdwell, played by Dorothy Maguire, deals with the Confederate soldiers). Cooper, then in his mid-50s, had doubts about playing a father--and a pacifist one at that. Just five years earlier, he starred as a strong-willed sheriff with a 23-year-old Grace Kelly as his bride in High Noon. Still, Cooper anchors Friendly Persuasion and provides the film with some much-needed humor, some of it centered around the elder Birdwell's desire to beat a neighbor in a weekly "unofficial" buggy race.

The surprisingly plush Birdwell home.
Friendly Persuasion won an Oscar for Best Sound and earned other nominations for Best Picture, director, supporting actor (Perkins), song, and--incredibly--screenplay (though the nomination was for the script and not the writer because Wilson was blacklisted). Pat Boone crooned the title song, written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster, which went to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Sky West and Crooked (aka Gypsy Girl) (1965).  At the age of 19, Hayley Mills had pretty much wrapped up her highly-successful career as Walt Disney's biggest child star. She could still play teenagers, but adult roles were just around the corner. During this period in the mid-60s, she made several "transition" films such asThe Chalk Garden and The Truth About Spring--both personal favorites. She also starred in the unusual Sky West and Crooked, a Mills family project directed by Hayley's father, acclaimed actor John Mills, and co-written by her mother, Mary Hayley Bell.
Ian McShane as Roibin, the gypsy.
Set in rural England, Sky West and Crooked casts Hayley as Brydie White, a seventeen-year-old girl who has mentally blocked out a childhood tragedy. Her widowed, alcoholic mother possesses no parenting skills--leaving Brydie to fend for herself. The townsfolk think the girl is a bit daft (I surmised that was the meaning of the film's title). The local vicar and a coffin-maker's family treat her kindly and she has become the unofficial leader of the village children. Indeed, when Brydie buries her two dead hamsters in the church cemetery (she forgot to provide them with water), the other children follow suit. Soon, the children are scouring the countryside for dead animals to bury in the cemetery--much to the dismay of their parents. Brydie's life is further complicated by the arrival of a handsome gypsy lad (Ian McShane).

An animal's grave.
Sky West and Crooked is an obvious attempt to duplicate the success of the superior Whistle Down the Wind, a 1961 classic starring Hayley and based on a novel by her mother. Both films feature rural settings, uninvolved parents, and a group of children led by Hayley. They also explore religious themes: in Whistle Down the Wind, the children believe an escaped convict is Jesus; in Sky West, the coffin-maker's children launch into an unexpected discussion about souls during afternoon tea with their parents.

The entire cast is convincing, with acting honors going to Hayley, Geoffrey Bayldon as the vicar, and Ian McShane as Hayley's love interest. While Sky West and Crooked certainly doesn't rank with Hayley's best films, it's still an interesting--if slowly-paced--tale about the need for love and the challenges of becoming an adult.


  1. My 20-ish daughter has little tolerance for my love affair with Gary Cooper. (She "gets" some of my loves, but Coop is not one of them.) She won't watch any Coop movies with me---except for "Friendly Persuasion," which she quite enjoys. All that to say, I guess you don't have to be a Gary Cooper fan to enjoy this sweet film.

    I think it's an adorable movie. Especially fun is the scene where the church elders come calling on the possibly-wayward Birdwells. Jess prays loudly to cover the sound of the organ, and then the church elder offers up his own prayer. That scene is a hoot! As is the one with Marjorie's Main's very marriage-minded daughters!

  2. Rick,
    Thanks for writing about this film and giving us such interesting backstory on the making of it.

    With such an amazing cast and Wyler at the helm, it was a bit disappointing for me. I read the novel in high school and I was in my late 20s when I finally saw the screen adaptation of it. (Dang you Congress, for mucking up the works!)

    What I do recall about it though that's a positive is I enjoyed Mills in it and I've never been one of her fans.

    You've managed to cover the highlights and lowlights of it with your insightful review, Rick.

    See ya soon!

  3. I really like Gary Cooper in "Friendly Persuasion". He really does, as you've said, anchor the film. Anthony Perkins is enjoyable too.

    I haven't seen "Sky West and Crooked" - sounds quite interesting. I wouldn't have heard of it if you hadn't reviewed it. Will watch for it!

  4. Rick, this is such an interesting pairing. "Friendly Persuasion" is a sweet movie that is well cast. The family is very loving and devout in their principles. I especially enjoyed Anthony Perkins in his role. I do find it ironic that he is a Birdwell, given the frequency of bird references in "Psycho."

    I have only seen "Sky West and Crooked" once. It indeed does owe a lot to the superior "Whistle Down the Wind," especially in its use of children. Brydie has such an unfit mother caring for her that it is sweet to see others feed her. The pastor is an interesting character as is his sister or wife, whomever the other woman is who shares his home. It is worth watching though it isn't an excellent work.

  5. Now I'm going to have to look for "Sky West and Crooked", that's one of the few Hayley Mills films that I have missed seeing. Although, The Chalk Garden will always remain my favorite. Look how young Ian McShane is in that photo!

  6. I live in the Cottage that was Brydie's home in the film, back then it was a empty thatched cottage with part of the roof collapsed, in 1971/2 it was renovated this time using stone for the roof.
    The children in Sky West were local kids including Lady Anne Somerset.