It's 1862 in southern Indiana. The Birdwell family, Jess (Gary Cooper), Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), Joshua (Anthony Perkins), Martha (Phyllis Love), and Little Jess (Richard Eyer) are getting ready for First Day. Of course, it is not without issues - Little Jess is being plagued by his mother's pet goose, Samantha. Mattie is fantasizing about her love, Gardner Jordan (Mark Richman). Jess is planning his attack for his weekly horse race with neighbor Sam Jordan (Robert Middleton), Eliza is thinking over her sermon for First Day. And Joshua is pondering his potential role in the ongoing Civil War, for the Birdwells are Quaker, and reject violence of any kind. Welcome to Friendly Persuasion (1956)
AFI Silver had a special screening of this excellent film, along with a question and answer session featuring Catherine Wyler (daughter of director William Wyler) and Maria Cooper Janis (daughter of star Gary Cooper). Both women discussed their respective parents' affection for the film - for Mr. Cooper, it was his favorite film - and their belief that their fathers' statements about war are very much present in the film's tenets.
The film is a deliberation on the ability of mankind to avoid violence. The Birdwells are peaceful people. It is apparent that Jess is a convert to the Quaker way of life, whereas Eliza was born to it. Jess has, by and large, accepts the precepts of his religion, though on occasion, he finds the life a challenge. For example, he likes music and dancing. He also can be pushed to violence - when his son is attacked by some bullies, it takes all his will-power to not simply flatten them. Jess is contrasted to Mr. Purdy (Richard Hale), a man who's belief in a peaceable life is valid only til it affects him. With his low-key strength, Mr. Cooper is perfect in the role; it's hard to imagine anyone else being able to do it. We discovered that Bing Crosby was considered for the part when Frank Capra owned the rights to the story (AFI catalog); writer Jessamyn West wanted Mr. Cooper.
Dorothy McGuire provides a quiet dignity that is essential to the character of Eliza. She is the anchor of the family, and of their faith. She's by no means perfect - she too likes music, and is drawn to dancing. She can be moved to anger. But Ms. McGuire shows Eliza's faith, as well as her deep love for her husband and children. Ms. Cooper Janis commented in the q&a how doubly impressive the performance is on a big screen, and it is very true. Ms. McGuire shines in any environment, but in a theatre, she is magical.
I'm especially fond of Robert Middleton's portrayal of neighbor Sam Jordan. With his hearty laugh, and good-humored teasing of Jess, he is an engaging character. But more than that, he shows the depth of his goodness when we see him going off to fight at the river. After lambasting the mercurial Purdy (who now espouses a violent confrontation against the enemy), Sam encourages Jess to stay behind, in hope that someone can be true a vision of peace. (It's interesting that the German poster below shows an angry Jess with a gun, totally contrary to the vision of the film.
The interplay between Phyllis Love and Mark Richman is delightful. Phyllis Love's career was primarily spent in television and in theatre (She appeared in 8 Broadway plays). She became a high school drama and English teacher in California. Married twice, she died in 2011, age 85. Mark Richman (he would eventually change his professional name to Peter Mark Richman) still occasionally performs. He was 91 this year, and his last film credit was in 2016. He too did theatre (he appeared in two Broadway plays), and like his co-star, really made his mark in television, appearing in a huge number of shows in the 1960-1990s. He is a painter as well as an actor, and currently is a member of the board of the Motion Picture and Television Fund.
Though the part of Enoch is a small one, Joel Fluellen makes his screen time count. An escaped slave, who has lost his whole family, Enoch opts to fight rather than give in to his potential captors. Jess's support of Enoch, as well as Josh's regard for him speak volumes about their views of the rights of men. We'd seen Mr. Fluellen in Lucy Gallant, and liked him there. In this role, he's really given a chance to demonstrate his talent.
Jessamyn West would write a follow-up to Friendly Persuasion, Except for Me and Thee. That would be made into a 1975 television movie (titled Friendly Persuasion), starring Richard Kiley and Shirley Knight (TCM article).
Though Mr. Wyler always wanted Gary Cooper for Jess, other actresses were considered for the part of Eliza - Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Ingrid Bergman (who was still in exile with Roberto Rossellini), Margaret Sullavan, Mary Martin, Teresa Wright, Martha Scott, Jane Russell, Eva Marie Saint, Maureen O'Hara and Eleanor Parker (the latter two actually screen tested). John Kerr and Susan Strasberg were considered for the roles of Josh and Mattie.
If you've never seen this wonderful film, please consider giving it a try. And if you have seen it before, I recommend a revisit. It is a film that always brings something new to each viewing. I'll leave you with a trailer from the film.