Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Yearling (1946)

As part of the Nitrate Screenings season at the BFI I recently watched "The Yearling". From the season's point of view, it was great. It was a beautiful print (the person who introduced it said it was one of the best in the archives). From the quality of the film itself... well... how much sugar can you hold? Shamelessly stealing from the friend I went to see it with, this is not recommended for diabetics.

"The Yearling" is one of MGM's key titles of the 1940s, when Mayer was sole master of the studio, between Thalberg (and others like Selznick and Mankiewicz) and his own downfall. It's a coming of age story of a boy living with his parents in an isolated farm in post-Civil War Florida. It stars Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman as his parents, Claude Jarman Jr as the boy, and in a very small supporting role, Margaret Wycherly, who a few years later had the part of a lifetime as James Cagney's mother in the masterpiece which is "White Heat".

Jane Wyman is not an actress for whom I have warm feelings. She's amazing in "All That Heaven Allows" but usually I'm pretty indifferent to her performances. They're not bad, but don't click with me. Yet, here she is pretty good, and I enjoyed her turn as woman who has learned how to repress love for a son she's only too afraid to loose, as she lost all the others. Her happy fury at a piece of black alpaca her husband brings her is extremely well played.

On the other hand, Peck was not particularly interesting, being too understanding and too sweet for a farmer in such conditions. I suspect the book had be a subjective, idealised view of the character which wasn't properly translated into the objective medium which is film. And for those who may wonder if that can ever be properly done, Peck's performance in "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a perfect example. The leading boy was even worst - irritatingly pretty as only film kids are, looking like no thought has ever entered his head. He was also a bit too old to make the character believable in his naivety. I own up to the fact that the character irritated beyond reason and my judgement may be a bit cloudy, but I was left wondering what someone like Mickey Rooney would have done with it just a few years before.

Finally, the script deserves serious criticisms. It's too long for a start. 45min could easily chopped without losing any integrity. But more importantly it takes over an hour to start the real story, the unhealthy obsession the lonely boy develops with the fawn. Why does it take so long is beyond me. As I said the film is pure sugar, and perhaps that's my main criticism. And while I like to eat sweet things (the blog's name is a give away), I rather prefer my films more savoury.

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