Friday, June 28, 2013

Jane Likes Asparagus

As promised, this week we viewed the1953 So Big, with Jane Wyman as Selina Peake DeJong.  It's fun and interesting to view these films back-to-back.  This version is considerably longer than the 1932 film.  A lot of information that we lacked in the earlier film in filled in here.  For example, the love between Selina and Pervus (Sterling Hayden)  is very clearly delineated in this version.  Certainly, Pervus is not an educated man; as with the first film, their love grows as she teaches him enough arithmetic to survive in the Haymarket.  But this Pervus is a loving man, who calls his wife "Little Lina" and brings her wildflowers, because their land will not support a flower garden. 

But Jane Wyman's Selina is not as self-reliant as Barbara Stanwyck's Selina. This Selina is not able to vend her produce in the Haymarket, and the growth of her farm is largely due to the intervention of August Hempel (Jaques Aubuchon), the father of her old friend Julie (Elizabeth Fraser).  There is a narrative voice (not any of the characters; assumedly, it is the voice of the author) who makes it clear that August was the prime mover in Selina's success.  However, a quick review of the book plot reveals that the the 1932 version of the film is actually closer to the book in this regard.  Selina makes a success of the farm on her own, not because of old friends.

Another change here is Selina's father, who is remarkably cleaned up. In the book (and in the Stanwyck film), Mr. Peake is a gambler, and the victim of a murder.  Here, he is a stockbroker, and dies of a heart attack, as he unsuccessfully attempts to preserve his fortune for his daughter.  We do gain a lovely piece of dialogue, however, that was lost in the last film and preserves for us the theme of Ferber's novel.  Mr. Peake tells his daughter that: "there are only two kinds of people in the world that really count. One kind's wheat and the other kind's emeralds." The wheat are the people who feed us; the emeralds are those that create the beauty in the world. Of course, Selina becomes wheat, while the life she desires for Dirk is that of emeralds.  (In the prior film, this line was given to Roelf, towards the end of the film).  In this version, we never see Mr. Peake, only his portrait, which becomes integral to the development in the story.
There are some other interesting changes from the earlier movie.  Young Roelf Poole, played by here Richard Beymer, is a musician (rather than a painter), which allows Selina to be his tutor both in reading and in music (the film opens with Selina playing the piano). Dirk in this version is considerably older in this when his father dies, which makes  his contributions to their work in the Haymarket much more convincing. And finally, there is the introduction of Selina's friend, Julie and her daughter Paula (played by Martha Hyer) Julie is portrayed as a good woman who, unlike her daughter, is not a snob; she cares for Selina despite the fact that Selina is now poor. Paula, on the other hand, values only money, and becomes the temptress who lures Dirk away from the "emerald" life his mother desires for him.

The film contains some lovely performances - Jane Wyman is excellent as Selina, and Steve Forrest (who died this past May) is quite good as the grown Dirk.  It was a pleasant surprise to see Tommy Rettig as the young Dirk DeJong.  Nancy Olsen, however, as Dallas O'Mara was unimpressive, especially since we had just seen Bette Davis conquer the character in the previous version.  The pluck and humor of Dallas was lost here; Olsen seems to spout platitudes, making it hard to see why Dirk is so taken with her.  The performance that really stands out, however, was that of Sterling Hayden.  He imbues Pervus with humanity.  His good looks, combined with his strength and his gentleness finally revealed what attracts Selina.  He is a gentle man, a man of the land, and a man whose love for his wife, his son, and his farm run deep. 

In conclusion, we thought the 1953 version contained the better script (though we were a tad annoyed that the character of Selina was weakened by the interventions of August Hempel.)  And while Jane Wyman was exceptional, the performances of Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis really sold us on the 1932 film.  Here are some early scenes from the Jane Wyman film, to introduce you to the major characters: 

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