Don't confuse this classic romantic drama with the Stephen King movie: Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees warns that Laurence Olivier will at no time be doused with pigs' blood.
"When you're poor it gets all mixed up. You like the people who are good to you."—Carrie (Jennifer Jones)
By the time legendary director William Wyler directed and produced Carrie in 1952, he had established himself as a skilled adaptor of literary works with such classic films as These Three (1936; based on the Lillian Hellman play The Children's Hour), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Heiress (1949; based on Henry James's Washington Square). In this adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie, Wyler creates a powerful story of yearning and struggle, anchored by a marvelous performance by Laurence Olivier, who, together with Jennifer Jones as the title character, turns in some of his finest work on film.
Facts of the Case
When young, naïve Carrie (Jennifer Jones, Since You Went Away) leaves her provincial hometown for Chicago, like many another small-town girl before her who seeks a better life in the big city, she is heading for trouble. Although she is prepared to work hard to better herself, she quickly finds that it won't be easy to escape a life of drudgery. After she loses her factory job, she reluctantly accepts the assistance of charming salesman Charlie Drouet (Eddie Albert, Roman Holiday)—but his generosity comes with strings attached, and despite her intentions, Carrie soon finds herself his mistress. Then she meets the distinguished middle-aged gentleman George Hurstwood (Laurence Olivier, Henry V), manager of an elegant restaurant, and gets a glimpse of a different world: a world where she will be treated like a lady, and where she won't have to be ashamed of herself. When she and George fall in love and he asks her to leave Charlie, she thinks that this will be her chance to become decent again, as George's wife.
But George is already married—and his calculating, social-climbing wife (Miriam Hopkins, The Old Maid) not only holds all of his assets in her own name but refuses to give him a divorce. Desperate not to let his last chance at love slip away, George rashly makes off with $10,000 of his employer's money and tricks Carrie into running away with him. When he tells her that his wife has agreed to a divorce, she believes him, and for a time the two find happiness together as—so Carrie believes—man and wife. But the genteel world that George once belonged to is unforgiving of such transgressions, and he and Carrie slip further and further into poverty. It will fall to Carrie to halt their downward slide…if she can.
In less skilled hands than Wyler's, Carrie could easily have become a run-of-the-mill tearjerker. The story itself, with its succession of cruel blows and ever-narrowing options for both Carrie and George, is a harrowing one, yet Wyler keeps it from becoming either sentimental or irredeemably grim. Instead, Wyler finds a balance between his heroine's youthful optimism and resilience and the bleakness of the situations that confine her. Like another and almost simultaneous film adaptation of a Dreiser novel, George Stevens's 1951 A Place in the Sun (based on the novel An American Tragedy), Carrie is a powerful depiction of individuals beating desperately against an implacable class structure: It is not quite impossible to rise from one's economic and social position, and this knowledge keeps hope painfully alive in the characters, but it's terribly, terribly easy to slide lower. As seemingly small a thing as a mud stain on his only good pair of trousers can dislodge a man from lower middle class to the level of working poor. Whereas Stevens updated his source novel to contemporary times, Wyler sets Carrie circa 1900, but the themes of thwarted ambition and dreams betrayed are timeless.
Along with the excellent screenplay by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, the performances Wyler evokes from his cast are the key to the film's success. Jennifer Jones and Laurence Olivier in particular turn in some of their best film performances under Wyler's direction. Both are more natural and subtle in Wyler's hands than in many of their other pictures; the artificiality that sometimes bedeviled Jones, and the theatrical hamminess that sometimes appeared in Olivier's work, are nowhere to be seen. Both actors are inexpressibly moving. Carrie's vulnerability as she strains to do what she knows is right, or finds her trust betrayed yet again, is heartrending; so are the years of loneliness and pain that we see in George Hurstwood's haunted eyes. Time after time, Jones and Olivier create moments so emotionally revealing that we feel almost embarrassed to be watching. George is perhaps even more developed a character than Carrie, and Olivier makes him painfully real. In the final scene, just watch his face when Carrie rests her cheek against his—it will break your heart, if your heart has not already been broken ten times by this point in the film.
The performances by Eddie Albert and Miriam Hopkins also contribute to the effectiveness of the film. It's wonderful to see Albert in a more substantial role than the comic sidekicks he often portrayed in film, and as Carrie's seducer he takes a character who could be just a one-note scoundrel and makes him almost as engaging as the two leads. For one thing, it's impossible not to like Drouet. We know from the first time we see him that, as far as Carrie's concerned, he's up to no good, yet we almost have to admire the smart, even sensitive way he manipulates Carrie into his bed. Although we know he will never marry her, we do believe he cares about her, and that, combined with his irresistible, rascally charm and jovial humor, keeps him from becoming someone we dislike. The casting of Albert in this role was a stroke of brilliance, since the actor is fundamentally likable yet skilled at conveying a sense of irresponsibility. His later performance as Ali Hakim in Oklahoma! is further proof of his excellence in this kind of role. Miriam Hopkins, an experienced actress whose work for Wyler alone reveals her versatility, brings the perfect combination of hauteur and viciousness to the unsympathetic role of Mrs. Hurstwood. She is blood-curdlingly effective as the single truly unsympathetic character in the film, coolly tightening the vise on her hapless husband at every turn, yet looking every inch the respectable society lady in her fabulous Edith Head gowns. Her presence shows that Carrie could have fallen into far worse hands than those of the amiable Drouet.
The skill with which Wyler maintains a sense of impending tragedy and thwarted dreams without becoming maudlin is revealed in the restoration to the film of a heretofore deleted scene. It was dropped from the American release of the film, an explanatory note tells us at the start of the film, due to the "political state of affairs" at the time, although the content is not overtly political: It shows a character at a low point, staying in a flophouse. It's a powerful sequence, but ultimately unnecessary; indeed, its restoration upsets the delicate balance Wyler had created and tips the film just over the edge into tearjerker territory. Perhaps if I hadn't become accustomed to the film without this sequence, I wouldn't find it excessive, but I do think that it weakens the impact of a later scene that reveals the extent of this character's descent. The completist in me is happy to have this rare material restored, but I believe I would have preferred it to be presented as an extra rather than incorporated into the film.
Audiovisual quality for Carrie is reasonably good; the mono sound is clean and serviceable, although it's a pity not to be able to hear the beautiful, emotionally resonant score by David Raskin (Laura) in stereo. Raskin's music for Carrie has some of the same soaring, yearning quality of the Aaron Copeland score for The Heiress and the Hugo Friedhofer score for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); Wyler seems to have had a particular gift for selecting composers, since these scores, taken together, create an evocative soundtrack for American dreams and disillusionment. The visual transfer presents the film in full frame in accordance with its original aspect ratio, and there is a handsome range of greyscale tones in the black-and-white picture. There is a tendency toward haziness in some scenes, and the film shows some age-related damage (most noticeably gentle flicker and the appearance of vertical lines), but it is mostly clean, and darker areas do not lack in detail. It's a pity there are no extras to provide background on the making of the film, especially since the story of Carrie's production must be an intriguing one. The source novel had been condemned as "too immoral" by publishers and must have been difficult to adapt into a form that would get past the censors; as it is, the film is remarkably frank for its era in its depiction of Carrie's relationships with Drouet and Hurstwood.
Viewers who shy away from emotional displays may dismiss Carrie as a weeper, but those who appreciate Wyler's work should definitely add this fine film to their collection. Even those who may have been put off by Olivier's over-the-top performances in other films will be impressed with his fine work as Hurstwood, and romance fans will be greatly moved by the story of Carrie and George. I hope this welcome DVD release means that we'll soon see more Wyler classics come to DVD, like The Heiress and Wuthering Heights.
Carrie and George are guilty only of trying to find happiness in a cruel universe. They are free to go. But Mrs. Hurstwood is sentenced to ten years' public service in the Chicago slums to teach her to be less preoccupied with social position.
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