Posted by Moira Finnie on November 5, 2008
A friend once pointed out to me that in 2002, the name of Dorothy McGuire was not mentioned once during the Academy Awards show that followed her death by six months. It would have been a graceful coda to the public life of this former Academy Award nominee, but, given the memorable, soft-spoken manner in which she made her presence felt in American films over six decades, it is hardly surprising that this inadvertent oversight occurred on that glittering March night.
Dorothy McGuire, while blessed with a lovely face and natural beauty, never really seemed to fit in with the glamour of Hollywood, least of all amidst the jockeying for attention and recognition by the audacious and hardworking denizens of the movie business on Oscar night. More surprising was the realization that McGuire had only been nominated once, as Best Leading Actress for her work in Elia Kazan‘s adaptation of Laura Z. Hobson‘s then innovative look at anti-Semitism in America, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947).
The legendary trailblazing actress Loretta Young may have hit the nail on the head when she was asked “Why did Dorothy McGuire never become a big box-office star as you did?” Young, perhaps thinking of her own shrewd business sense and the often astute choices made during her long career, replied, “That’s easy, Dorothy wanted to be an actress, I wanted to be a star.”
I have always been drawn to something indefinable in Dorothy McGuire, and thought that I’d try to devote some time to an appreciation of her gentle presence in this blog by looking at a few of her memorable films. Fortunately, TCM plans on helping viewers to discover the overlooked actress in the coming months. On Saturday, November 8th, 2008 an evening devoted to her films will begin at 8pm with The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Enchanted Cottage (1945), Invitation (1952), I Want You (1951), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). In addition to these films, in December among the other McGuire titles to be broadcast on the network will be the Disney family classics featuring the actress’ intelligent interpretations of understanding wives and mothers in Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and Old Yeller (1957), scheduled for December 7th, 2008. Director Delmer Daves’ deliciously soapy Susan Slade (1961) will pop up on January 4th, 2009, followed by two of the actress’ best loved movies, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) on February 8th, 2009 and Friendly Persuasion (1956) on February 20th.
Dorothy McGuire’s Early Films
Next Week: The Quiet Talent of Dorothy McGuire Part II
The Enchanted Cottage (1945), which teamed Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young again, was directed by actor-director John Cromwell with great care, (and is also being broadcast on TCM on 11/08/08 at 9:30PM ET). As two people who, despite the way that the world sees them, McGuire and Young are transformed, at least in their eyes, by the love they feel for one another. Adapting a highly sentimental post WWI play by Arthur Wing Pinero, which was written in response to the presence of the mutilated among the general population following the close of the disastrous Great War, Herman Mankiewicz and DeWitt Bodeen, along with other writers, managed to make the story commercially viable for the Second World War. They were helped enormously by the crew and cast, which included a pianist character played by Herbert Marshall. The cultivated Marshall played a WWI veteran whose had lost his sight in a plane crash, but whose zen-like understanding gave him an ability to understand others, as well as to give life and reality to lines such as “Sometimes I feel that it was before the Argonne that I was blind and that it’s only now that I see.” (Perhaps Marshall‘s real life loss of a leg during the First World War probably helped him to play a person with a disability so well). The Enchanted Cottage was also helped by an exquisite performance by Mildred Natwick, in only her second movie, who, along with the other professionals managed to bottle old wine in a new bottle for wartime audiences. Young, who was exceptionally good as a bitter young man who had been scarred in a plane fire, has his counterpoint in McGuire’s homely servant, who works in a honeymoon cottage that Young had hoped to rent until his accident caused a break with his superficial fiancee (Hillary Brooke). After spending time with one another, the two embark on a marriage of convenience to provide each of them with companionship. Oliver Bradford (Robert Young) and Laura Pennington (Dorothy McGuire) are surprised to find that their growing feeling for each other affects their perception of one another. Seen through Laura’s eyes, his disfigurement and the alleged plainness (more of a unibrow look sported by Dorothy) of Laura is transformed into an ethereal beauty.The sophisticated critics from The New York Times to The New Yorker pretty roundly rejected the story as too unrealistic and sentimental in an age of plastic surgery and cosmetics when it was released. Given the long term damage done to surviving war veterans’ bodies and spirits in every war, as well as the plight of those whom the world designates as somehow unworthy, the search for love continues to be a valid subject. Despite the possibility of going over the top with sentimentality, the relatively restrained artistry of the leads and the care of the entire production supports the emotional reality that this film illustrates. The deeper allegorical theme of our longing for acceptance and that feeling that arises between two people in love, creating a world of their own, were experiences that many audience members, to this day, can recognize and respond to in this movie. The suspenseful impact of the story becomes increasingly poignant, especially as the lovers realize that their “illusion” of one another’s beauty is not shared by the wider world. McGuire‘s performance was among those that, as commentator David Shipman once pointed out, marked the actress as belonging “to that coterie of players—it included Margaret Sullavan, Betty Field, Martha Scott and Barbara Bel Geddes—whose charm is uncommon, elusive. It is the charm of frank, unpretty features that can for some, at times, take on an amazing beauty.”Despite the fact that this film is held in such affection as a “favorite romantic movie” by so many, unfathomably, it has not been issued on a commercial dvd.One other Dorothy McGuire film of 1945 that demonstrated a marked change for the budding actress was Elia Kazan‘s first directorial effort for the screen. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), which airs on TCM on Feb. 8th, 2009 at 8PM ET, was based on Betty Smith‘s moving autobiographical novel about a poverty stricken girlhood in a New York tenement in the early years of the 20th century.The film, cast with some of the best actors in Hollywood, including the phenomenal young actress Peggy Ann Garner as Francie Nolan, the scholastically ambitious, dreamy daughter of the lovable James Dunn, a fine actor whose own painful life mirrored the alcoholism of his character, Johnny Nolan, “The Brooklyn Thrush” who was a charming ne’er-do-well, who eked out a living as a singing waiter. Playing the role of a doomed man, unable to support his family, his hardbitten wife was played by Dorothy McGuire. Desperate and finding herself pregnant a third time, McGuire‘s character scrubs floors in their tenement to help pay their rent. Katie Nolan (Dorothy McGuire) understands her daughter’s abiding love for her father despite all his failings, but as the only steady economic partner in the family, she must be pragmatic and even materialistic. Her character was seen, as Kazan said he intended, as “the person who’s obsessively puritanical.” In addition to his dislike of the what the director described as her primness, Kazan said that he disliked hearing the paternalistic producer of this movie, Louis D. Lighton repeatedly describe McGuire as “Angel”, since he believed that term effectively robbed the actress and the character of her sexuality.
The film, which shows this drawn and disapproving woman from the daughter’s viewpoint for much of the story, erupts when the mother’s desperate isolation and loneliness finally tumbles out in a powerful scene when Peggy Ann Garner must attend her mother while she is in labor. Begging her neglected daughter to read her school compositions to her to distract her from her pain, McGuire explains that, despite the fact that she had to ask Francie to leave school to work, she was proud of her writing, and loved her ability to translate everyday life into something special on paper. At this moment, Garner realizes that her mother had loved her father, and her, and that her “made up stories” might have some intrinsic value. The viewer is also aware more forcefully than in the painful scenes between husband and wife that had occurred earlier, of the sensual, emotional bond that had existed out of sight of the daughter between husband and wife; one that is glimpsed in McGuire‘s anguished confession to the girl that she misses him James Dunn too.
The plight of McGuire‘s character, which is largely overshadowed throughout this movie by the depth of feeling between Garner and Dunn, (as well as the beautifully realized performance given by Joan Blondell, as McGuire‘s warmhearted, much-married sister), At one point in the film, the mother cries out that she’s never done a mean thing to anyone in her life, but “if she were to die tomorrow, who would miss her?” When I first saw this film, I was overwhelmed by what I felt were the indelibly real situations and the emotions of Peggy Ann Garner as she came to terms with her crumbling family life. As I’ve matured, I think I’ve identified with each character in this story of a family, from James Dunn‘s desperate mixture of regret and hope to the tawdry gaiety of Joan Blondell to the loneliness of Lloyd Nolan‘s cop on a beat. More recently, I’ve begun to cherish and appreciate the determination of Dorothy McGuire‘s courageous, flawed mother.
Perhaps in a fit of artistic perfectionism, Kazan later seemed to regard the movie with only grudging respect. In his autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life (1997), he compared the lyrical yet truthful look at lower working class poverty among the Irish and Austrian immigrants, bizarrely and unfavorably, to French author, Emile Zola’s 19th century screed against inhuman conditions in the mines in the novel Germinal. Kazan said that he felt that the bitterness in the original story of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had been softened, and that “there was a patina of conventionalism–the costumes were all too clean, and the people were all too goddamn nice.” Still, it may also be possible that his disdain for the character embodied so well by Dorothy McGuire in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn provided the actress with the impetus to find something steely and wounded within her for her vivid creation of this struggling woman. Perhaps the film was not as realistic as the director may have wished, and all the casting choices may not have been entirely his own, since he was new to the studio, and had limited influence on the production and was constrained by the Production Code.
As with many artists, one wonders if he understood what a beautiful, still powerful work he had made despite the flaws that he saw in it. At least the Academy Awards acknowledged the heartfelt brilliance of James Dunn‘s performance with a Best Actor award and a nomination to screenwriters Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger for their emotional yet forceful script. There was not a mention of Dorothy McGuire for her work in this film at award time. She was only 27.
Behlmer, Rudy, editor, Memo From David O. Selznick, The Modern Library, 2000.
Hirsch, Foster, Otto Preminger: The Man who Would be King, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
Kazan, Elia, Elia Kazan: A Life, Da Capo Press, 1997.
Kennedy, Matthew, Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory, University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
Verswijver, Leo, “Movies Were Always Magical”: Interviews with 19 Actors, Directors, and Producers from the Hollywood of the 1930s Through the 1950s, McFarland, 2003.
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