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Friendly Persuasion

by Glenn Erickson May 25, 2024

Jessamyn West’s bright vision of America’s agrarian dream has plenty to say about anxious times: a family of Quakers try to maintain their values against secular temptation, and the threat of Civil War. Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire star, with Anthony Perkins, Phyllis Love and Richard Eyer. Sentimental, insightful and very funny, it earns its ‘family values’ honors, blowing away similar efforts by Disney and Spielberg. The colorful HD remaster reverses a credits revision performed years ago.


Friendly Persuasion
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1956 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 137 min. / Available at MovieZyng / Street Date May 14, 2024 / 21.99
Starring: Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins, Richard Eyer, Robert Middleton, Phyllis Love, Mark Richman, Walter Catlett, Marjorie Main, Joel Fluellen, Richard Garland, Samantha the Goose, James Anderson, Mary Carr, Billy Curtis, John Dierkes, Robert Fuller, Everett Glass, Charles Halton, Nelson Leigh, Doug McClure, Gene Roth, William Schallert, James Seay, Joe Turkel, Sailor Vincent.
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Additional Cinematography second unit: Ray Rennahan
Art Director: Ted Haworth
Costume Design: Dorothy Jeakins
Film Editors: Robert Swink, Robert Belcher, Edward Biery
Assistant Editor: Hal Ashby
Special Effects: Augie Lohman
Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Original Songs: music by Dimitri Tiomkin lyrics by Paul Francis Webster
Friendly Persuasion sung by Pat Boone
From the book The Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West
Uncredited screenwriter: Michael Wilson
small>Unofficial uncredited screenwriters:
Jessamyn West, Robert Wyler, Harry Kleiner
Executive Producer: Walter Mirisch
Associate Producer: Robert Wyler
Produced and Directed by William Wyler

The much-honored William Wyler was a top-rank director for powerful dramas with wrenching emotions, often very dark but never inhumane: Jezebel,  The Little Foxes,  The Heiress. He was one of several prominent directors to reflect their war experience in their movies. His  The Best Years of Our Lives expresses a yearning for a productive peace. It instigated a movement of socially conscious filmmaking that highlighted the country’s growing political divide. Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion could be the 1863 edition of ‘The Best Years of Our Lives.’

Jessamyn West’s 1945 novel The Friendly Persuasion is a beautiful idyll, a vision of an Utopia Americana as lived by a splinter religous community, the Religious Society of Friends. In the 1950s we knew about them only from photos in The National Geographic, showing their horse ‘n’ buggys on modern Pennsylvania roads. The movie gives West’s anecdotal stories more of a dramatic shape by examining the Quakers’ values, especially their commitment to pacifism.

 

In its own way, it’s Radical.

Ms. West’s book records the ‘gentle ways’ of a traditional Quaker family. The movie adaptation places the family in conflict with mainstream society’s secular values, mostly for comic effect. When the Quaker community is challenged by the threat of a war, their status as moral pacifists becomes quite serious. Thoughtful and sincere, Friendly Persuasion does its best to find an ideological middle ground, a rarity in any decade.

Southern Indiana, 1863. Jess and Eliza Birdwell (Gary Cooper & Dorothy McGuire) are prosperous farmers of the Quaker faith. Eliza is herself an ordained Quaker minister. Prim, devout, and a bit blind to the worldly yearnings of her family, she defends her family against outside temptations, as represented by the music, dancing, gambling and fisticuff contests at the county fair. Her resistance is mostly in vain. Husband Jess has a passion for unseemly buggy-racing with his non-Quaker neighbor Sam Jordan (Robert Middleton). Daughter Mattie (Phyllis Love) is enraptured by Sam’s son Gard (Mark Richman), a Yankee soldier. Little Jess (Richard Eyer) has sadistic ideas about strangling Eliza’s house pet, a Goose named Samantha. When Jess brings a forbidden musical instrument, an organ, into the house, Eliza concludes that worldly temptations are getting way out of control.

 

The outside world then interrupts in a way that cannot be ignored. The possibility of war destroying the entire valley puts Eliza’s principles to the test. When Morgan’s Confederate Raiders invade Southern Indiana, the Birdwells’ older son Josh (Anthony Perkins) defies his mother’s pleading and takes up arms with the local home guard. Jess sticks to his faith’s pacifist creed, but allows Josh to make up his own mind about going to war.

William Wyler is one of the most consistently brilliant directors of old-school Hollywood, and his work here maintains his high standard. The direction expresses the wholesome values of the Birdwells’ country life — and some of its inconsistencies — with a directness that feels fresh and honest. Wyler has all the variables under control. Gary Cooper strikes a good balance between his ‘cute’ and serious personae. Dorothy McGuire’s farm mother is just dotty enough to be blind to some of her family’s very un-Quakerish qualities. In only his second film, Anthony Perkins is remarkably adept in his portrayal of the conscience-stricken Josh. Richard Eyer’s Little Jess is a stubborn, imaginative little ankle-biter, an antidote for all those cutesy moppets that plague American movies.

Unheralded but equally impressive is the delightful Phyllis Love, in what seems to be her only notable film. Robert Middleton specialized in stock villains, but is given a rare opportunity to play against type. Marjorie Main has the only predictable character, a rough-hewn widow seeking husbands for her three rambunctious daughters.

First-time viewers may be overpowered by Dimitri Tiomkin’s lush, busy music score, one of his very best. His melodic title tune (crooned by Pat Boone) fits the Birdwell philosophy perfectly, making this corner of Indiana seem like an outgrowth of the Garden of Eden. Having seen some of rural Indiana, we agree.

 

The first part of the movie introduces the separateness of the Quaker way of life, starting with their use of Bibilical pronouns. An amusing tension exists between what Eliza Birdwell believes, and the outside world that interests her children. In the book, father Jess is somewhat unassertive, and possesses the heart of a poet. He’s humbled by the sheer beauty of the world. The more realistic and pragmatic Eliza is the family leader, sweetly but firmly laying down the law. The sinful secular world is to be shunned; the children are not supposed to concern themselves with things beyond the farm and the faith meeting hall. At the county fair, Eliza finds herself running interference between her family and sins no more virulent than chaste 2-step dancing. She tries to interest Josh in the fair’s educational displays (“Rocks!?”), when the sideshow has dancing girls, and bullies that goad the Quaker boys into fighting. What’s a mother to do?

Jess is fascinated by the music of an organ hawked by a friendly salesman (Walter Catlett). He buys one without first getting Eliza’s permission. Delivery day leads to the ultimatum that either the organ goes, or she goes. Wondering where her authority went, Eliza prepares to sleep in the barn.

The Birdwells’ lifestyle is played partly quaint, and lightly comic. Their situation is in many ways enviable — they live in a cultural bubble of relative prosperity and apparent social tolerance. Eliza’s children are rarely out of her sight. She doesn’t have to deal with drug addiction, juvenile delinquency, religious hatred or a million modern psychological problems. The joyously virginal Mattie is not likely to announce that she’s inadvertently pregnant.

But we’re surprised that Eliza accepts that Mattie is being courted by Gard, and will be allowed to marry outside the faith. For that matter, we also wonder if Jess and Eliza would let him go to school and seek a profession?  They say he that Josh is free to make his own choices.

We like that the script does not impose modern values on the past. The women of this earlier age don’t question the rigid roles of marriage and motherhood. Eliza doesn’t feel restricted by her church, which has given her authority as a minister. The church elders are a bunch of old goats, yet they’re treated as relatively harmless.

Unlike many so-called Family Films, the world of Friendly Persuasion doesn’t exist in a sexual vacuum. The tone is playful but never vulgar. Selling seeds out on the road, Jess and Josh shrink from the too-forward antics of the man-crazy Hudspeth girls. Each is given the name of a gem, Opal, Pearl and Ruby. Back in her loft bedroom, Mattie swans and swoons and play-acts being demure, dreaming of her boyfriend Gard. She may be married at the ripe age of 14 or 15. The sight of her bare feet atop Gard’s boots is plenty suggestive, in the romantic scene where she chases him down to declare her love. Teenagers didn’t exist in the 1860s — Mattie is slipping from little girlhood almost directly to an adult role.

 

The persuasion of the title refers to the Quaker tenet of meeting hostility with optimistic reason. In the film’s romantic context it points to Jess and Eliza’s night in the barn, where the dispute over the forbidden new musical instrument is resolved in a bed of hay. Yep, Eliza is softened with sex, a development ideologues may judge as sexist. Yet she has not simply capitulated to the man of the house. The barn honeymoon is a wistful vision of marital compromise.

Jessamyn West reportedly helped to adapt her own book, which has been described as a loose collection of mostly unrelated anecdotes. Its episodes extend the story of the Birdwell family until Jess is in his eighties. The movie chooses to focus on one or two years during the Civil War. It develops the book’s humorous episodes into comedy material. The ‘peaceful’ Jess becomes a speed demon when he foolishly indulges in buggy racing during Sunday morning rides to the Meeting Hall. That Eliza remains unaware of her husband’s sinful subterfuge is a major source of amusement.

Everybody remembers the ripe comedy provided by Richard Eyer’s Little Jess, who harbors a desire to throttle that Goose Samantha. Eyer was fresh from Wyler’s  The Desperate Hours, stealing scenes from both Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March. He’s now probably best known as the Genie who wants to be a sailor, in Harryhausen’s  The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

 

The biggest difference in the adaptation is that the threat of Morgan’s Raiders has been expanded into a main theme. The book’s Josh joins the local volunteers, but the only action he sees is a mistake in the dark. The Raiders choose somewhere else to attack and the war bypasses the valley completely. In the book, Mattie’s sweetheart Gard is not a soldier, but a student training to become a teacher.

The movie makes Gard a Union Officer in charge of recruiting. He doesn’t apply pressure on Josh to enlist. Josh is no  Sergeant York — he wants to fight even if it means betraying his parents’ values. Thus the movie avoids potential criticism from hawkish pundits, the vocal kind that detected anti-American propaganda even in Capra’s  It’s a Wonderful Life.

With few exceptions, Hollywood films of the 1950s promoted the U.S. military and movie openly encouraged young people to join the armed forces. Mention ‘conscientious objector’ and people would most likely have thought of actor Lew Ayres, who still carried a stigma of disloyalty despite having volunteered and served as a medic in combat zones. Religious pacifism wasn’t an easy sell to the American mainstream. Even in ‘liberal’ Hollywood movies it was something to be debunked as unrealistic, usually with an extreme life-and-death situation: Grace Kelly’s young Quaker bride in  High Noon, and Ernest Borgnine’s Amish farmer in  Violent Saturday. Pacifism wasn’t given a fair trial.

 

“Someone should hold out for a better way of settling things” — why, that’s Defeatist Talk!

Friendly Persuasion doesn’t abandon pacifism, at least not in spirit. Some of the Birdwells’ fellow Quaker congregants become enraged and ride to the fight, but Jess’s non-Quaker friend Sam Jordan observes that he’s all in favor of Jess Birdwell’s refusal to use offense as a defense against the Raiders. Jess is compelled at the last minute to follow his son to the fight, carrying his rifle. But that leaves the Birdwell farm wide open. Wyler expresses the terror of a raid with the image of Confederate riders suddenly appearing on a rise, like Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Eliza is of course lucky that the insurgents aren’t on a burning rampage of blood and destruction. Morgan’s Rebs apparently weren’t a murderous mob like some of Quantrill’s Kansas raiders, as depicted in Ang Lee’s neglected Ride with the Devil. That the Birdwell farm is left fairly intact is not unrealistic. Eliza instinctually offers food and hospitality. The impression given is that her open larder and kitchen turn the Raiders back into good farm boys. One Raider doesn’t even mind being attacked with a broom when he goes after Eliza’s pet goose. Danger — humor — irony. Eliza is horrified to know that she can lose control and act contrary to her own values, even in this slight way.

We know that the Raiders have been burning other farms: if Jess had been home, would he have resisted and come to harm?  We’re pleased that Friendly Persuasion doesn’t insist that the hand of God intervened to spare the Birdwells.

 

“Go. I’ll not harm thee.”

Dimitri Tiomkin’s ‘heavenly’ music makes its strongest comment when Jess, riding to join Josh at the front line, comes across the aftermath of an ambush on the road, a neighbor shot by a Rebel straggler. The bushwacker tries to kill Jess too, which leads to a confrontation that earns the movie its pacifist halo. The music carries the emotions of a what feels like a lesson from the Bible. What might be a spiritual conversion is conveyed without a single word of dialogue. It is not Cormac McCarthy’s vision of life, but it has conviction and truth nonetheless.

We’re told that Gary Cooper was leery about starring in a movie with a war episode in which he takes no active part. The bushwacker scene is a beautiful fix for both Coop’s he-man image and the film’s politics. It has also been said that Cooper offered Anthony Perkins romantic guidance and encouragement, not knowing the young actor’s sexual orientation. Perkins spent a few movies doing variations on atypical unassertive males, until Alfred Hitchcock realized what a good Norman Bates he would make. Perkins then spent half of the 1960s paired with some of the biggest actresses in movies — Melina Mercouri, Ingrid Bergman, Sophia Loren — in between prestigious art film appearances.

 

William Wyler’s reputation as a class-A director never wavered. Typed as the director of strong performances by Bette Davis, Greer Garson and Olivia de Havilland, he excelled at everything from film noir to westerns. His mega-production Ben-Hur is still the biggest epic this side of Cecil B. De Mille, and his understanding of celebrity egos found a way to work productively with Barbra Streisand. His next movie The Big Country is a western with a more obvious message of Peaceful Co-Existence. Jessamyn West was credited only with its adaptation, with three other writers locking down the screenplay. The film’s insistent pacifist streak is present in Donald Hamilton’s novel, yet its presence is often assigned to Ms. West. William Wyler’s light touch and excellent judgment can’t quite overcome the message-making.

In high school around 1970, we took a field trip to a college in Redlands (or was it Riverside?) where author-in-residence Jessamyn West held some kind of guest faculty position. Ten of us got to meet her. Ms. West was bright, energetic and eager for a discussion, but there was nothing to discuss. Only I had even heard of Friendly Persuasion and then only as an entry in the TV Guide. Ten years later I would have had a million questions for her. She instead gave us a bright speech about creative writing.

 


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Friendly Persuasion is one of four titles this month we’ve long wanted on HD disc — the others are Fred Zinnemann’s  The Nun’s Story and Francis Ford Coppola’s  You’re a Big Boy Now and  The Rain People.

Allied Artists’ backing of Wyler for Friendly Persuasion was executive producer Walter Mirisch’s attempt to steer the company into prestige filmmaking, in which he recruited filmmakers William Wyler and Billy Wilder with the promise of more creative independence. Twenty years later, when the UCLA Film Archives’ Charles Hopkins wanted to show the film, all that could be found were flat 16mm TV prints and some uneven 35mm revival prints cobbled from surviving reels. The 2001 DVD brought back some color, and this new remaster brings out a lot more, thanks to new digital tools available to colorists. It looks very good, much richer, with better skin tones. Don’t judge by the review’s images taken from the Internet — the disc looks much better.

The widescreen framing shows Wyler’s complete mastery of composition for dramatic effect. Two scenes emphasizing danger — the arrival of the Raiders, and the tense approach of the Bushwacker — are framed in depth, for maximum dynamism.

The bright audio mix is so rich that it sounds like stereo, but no remix is mentioned on the film’s packaging. Tiomkin’s music is a constant wonderment — a winning accompaniment perfectly pitched to the film’s emotional pulse. Tiomkin is said to have promoted pop tunes for his scores whenever possible, and this title song is one of his big winners.

The disc offers an original trailer, plus a fuzzy kinescope excerpt of a November 27, 1955 broadcast of a TV show called Wide Wide World, an episode called America’s Heritage. Host David Garroway, was the founding host of NBC’s first Today show. He visits the movie’s set (probably in Canoga Park), where the cast pretends to offer a live rehearsal. Cooper plays cute and warbles an awful song, credited in the voiceover to Tiomkin. When asked where he learned to sing, Coop answers, “Opera. Horse opera.”

Foreign poster art tended to improve on Allied Artists’ disorganized domestic advertising. We also like some of the alternate foreign titles: Italy  La legge del signore  “The Law of the Lord ” and  L’Uomo senza fucile  “The Man without a Rifle”.  Spain:  La gran prueba  “The Great Test” or  La gran tentación  “The Great Temptation”.  Germany:  Lockende Versuchung  “Tempting Temptation” (?).  Denmark  Folket i den lykkedilge dal  “The People of the Happy Valley.” The film’s working title was reportedly  “Mr. Birdwell Goes to Battle.”

 


Left, the 2001 revision; Right, the 2024 reversion to the 1956 original.
 

A desired correction or unwanted revisionism?

Screenwriter Michael Wilson wrote two screenplay drafts for Friendly Persuasion back in 1946-1947 when it was a project for Frank Capra. When Wilson was blacklisted, he was denied his writing credit on a number of films, including David Lean’s  The Bridge on the River Kwai and  Lawrence of Arabia. Allied Artists decided not to credit him, so the movie was released with no screenwriting credit, only a card acknowledging Jessamyn West as the source author. Ms. West had written a screenplay draft as well, which wasn’t taken into account when the film was submitted for Academy consideration.

The poison of the blacklist continued into the Oscars race. The movie was nominated for sound recording, for the song “Thee I Love,” for actor Anthony Perkins, for director Wyler (14 career noms, 3 wins) and for Best Picture — and also for the uncredited screenwriter Michael Wilson. He got the nomination votes, but the Academy’s Blacklist-related bylaws declared him ineligible. Wilson wasn’t included on the final voting ballot.

In the 1990s the Writers Guild corrected some of their official records for screen credits denied due to the blacklist. The 2001 DVD digitally added Wilson’s name to the main credits, to reflect the WGA’s announcement. This new remastered Friendly Persuasion sources original elements, and presents the title sequence as it was in 1956.

Of course Michael Wilson deserves credit for his work. Just the same, this reviewer has always been against revising historical credits, especially in relation to the Blacklist issue. Blacklist Denial is still going on, and tampering with the main evidence of its effects is a slippery slope. If they want to append a film, a card should be tacked on up front, like the text appended to a movie when a distributor wants to announce a major film festival win.

Whether by accident or intent, we think Warners has done the right thing. Thanks to correspondent ‘B’ for research corrections.  *

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Friendly Persuasion
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Original trailer
Excerpt from 1955 NBC TV show Wide Wide World.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 22, 2024
(7126pers)

*   The Friendly Persuasion (1956) Screenplay Controversy: Michael Wilson, Jessamyn West, and the Hollywood blacklist, author Joseph Dmohowski. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol.22, No. 4, 2002

CINESAVANT

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.

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Text © Copyright 2024 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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