Judge Clark Douglas prefers writing plays with his fists.
That's Young Cassidy—taking on the world with two fists clinched and every male sense soaring!
The first time we see John Cassidy (Rod Taylor, The Time Machine), we might be forgiven for thinking that he's actually John Henry. He's digging a ditch at a frantic pace; flinging dirt over his shoulder with reckless abandon as he plows deeper into the ground. Cassidy's supervisor observes that A) Cassidy doesn't seem to know much about the technique of using a shovel and B) if he keeps digging at that pace, he's going to kill himself. It's a quick snapshot of the film's presentation of the character: this is a bold, reckless man who heedlessly plows forward into anything life hands him.
The film is biopic of the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey (whose real name was either John Casey or John Cassidy), whose dramas about Dublin's poor working class represented bold artistic ventures into new territory. The film does dramatize that framing story in reasonably effective fashion (bolstered by a supporting performance from Michael Redgrave as Cassidy's most high-profile supporter, W.B. Yeats), but for the most part the film feels like some sort of peculiar cross between an exploitation film and a sweeping awards-bait epic. It clearly wants to be a big, ravishing, important drama, but its penchant for overheated silliness prevents us from ever really taking it very seriously.
Indeed, the film's marketing campaign certainly played up the movie's more sensationalistic elements. Consider the movie's tagline: "He's a brawling, sprawling giant—on the make for fame and fortunate and then some!" The alternate tag (listed above) is even more brazen. These phrases are accompanied by images of a brawny, bare-chested Cassidy striking his best movie star pose; the man's political ideals are clearly playing second banana to his pectoral muscles. Everyone feels more invested in the scenes involving Cassidy forcefully romancing the film's assorted actresses than in the scenes where he's making a difference in the world. Still, this fractured, messy movie has its charms.
Part of the film's messy nature undoubtedly comes from the fact that director John Ford was unable to complete the movie. Ford fell ill early in production, and esteemed cinematographer (and not-so-esteemed director) Jack Cardiff was called in to finish the job. The final product is obviously much more of a Cardiff film than a Ford effort (in fact, just a few minutes of Ford's work remain in the finished product), and that's not really a good thing. Ford might have brought some elegance and depth to the film's melodramatic sentimentality, but Cardiff's movie feels like a mess tonally. There's a great deal of energy, but there's also the distinct sense that the film is just throwing everything it has at the wall to see what sticks.
The performances help keep the material reasonably involving. Rod Taylor adopts an Irish accent that is nearly as distractingly phony as Orson Welles' attempt to use the accent in The Lady from Shanghai, but it's a charismatic performance that takes advantage of Taylor's blend of masculine simplicity and warm innocence. It's also a treat to see a young Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey) as a good-natured bookstore owner, and Julie Christie is enjoyable earthy in her turn as an early love interest. The pieces are here for a solid biopic, but Young Cassidy tends to either fall short of its ambitions or forget about them entirely just a little too often.
This is a Warner Archive DVD release, meaning you're not getting anything fancy. At least the widescreen transfer is anamorphic this time around, and the bright cinematography looks a little cleaner and livelier than Warner Archive's release of Cardiff's similarly messy-but-compelling Dark of the Sun. The print has a lot of dirt, grime, flecks and specks, but it's rarely distractingly bad. The Dolby 1.0 Mono track is adequate, even if a few dialogue scenes sound a little canned. The only extra included is a theatrical trailer.
Young Cassidy is a modestly engaging curiosity, but surely there's a richer, better film to be made about this man's life. Perhaps someone will take another crack at it one of these days.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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