Friday, February 20, 2009

Quaker Bad Boys: Friendly Persuasion

Is there any movie that Gary Cooper can't save? I've wondered that for a while now, and I think after seeing Friendly Persuasion, we have a definitive "no." This could have been a earnest, insufferable "message picture", with its Pat Boone soundtrack and teenage angst but somehow the presence of Coop elevates it to light, comic gold. It is also helped by a thoughtful script which poses the topic of pacifism in a more intelligent and in-depth way that the more famous Oscar-winning Sargent York. To be fair Sargent York could not have been made during the Second World War and given us any other answer to the question than it did.

Jess (Gary Cooper) and Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) Birdwell are Quakers struggling to keep their religious views in the midst of the civil war. They manage this by compromising a lot with their kids, their church and their neighbors. That is to say they stay Quakers by being lousy Quakers. Their eldest son Josh (pre-Psycho teen hearthrob Tony Perkins) wants to enlist to fight against slavery which the Quakers oppose. Their daughter Mattie (Phyllis Love) is in love with the nice neighbor boy who happens to be in the Union Army and a Methodist. Their youngest seems to be perpetually scrapping and even their pet goose is a badass. The Birdwells' response to this tension is to try to reason with and convince their children to follow the right path. They use persuasion. Get it, "friendly" persuasion as in "Quaker friends." Ha.

I loved this movie because it has such a sane response to teenagers. What other movie from the fifties can you think of where the parents aren't the enemy? Rather than forbid and punish they allow them to make their own mistakes, trusting that they've given them enough in the way of example and discipline that they will find their way back. Jess seems to be dealing with his own issues with his religion. His wife is a minister but he's a bit of Quaker bad boy. He buys a fancy organ even though music is forbidden, he gets in the occasional "altercation," he drops his "thees" and "thous" at will and he trades for a fast horse so he can show up his neighbor. In one scene his daughter and her suitor are up in the attic playing the forbidden organ when the church elders drop by for an unannounced visit. He covers up the noise with especially voiciferous praying that is really only a gorgeous Gary Cooper eyelash away from blasphemy.

Friendly Persuasion has a liberal slant that I would expect more from the seventies than the fifties. Mattie is full of faith and pride but a little male attention sends her running down the road barefoot in a wantonly display of hatless unQuakerly behavior. Her parents let it slide. If the Birdwells aren't letter of the law Quakers they're not very good Victorians either. Jess has an interesting way of dealing with marital discord that is pure Gary Cooper. He uses sex. The disagreement over the organ has Eliza sleeping in the barn out of protest. So Jess puts the kids to bed early and goes out there himself. The next we see of the couple it's morning and they are cheerful, disheveled and Jess has hay all over his shirt. It's refreshing to see a movie from any era where married people have sex and its a normal healthy thing.

When the war comes to their peaceful, idyllic community Josh decides to enlist in the home guard. Neighbors who were letter of law Quakers loose everything and join the fight out of bitterness. Fearing for Josh's life, Jess goes after him leaving Eliza to guard the homestead. She manages to preserve the place by offering the Rebels absurd quantities of home-cooked food and beating one of them with a broom when he gets wrong ideas about her pet goose. When Jess catches up with Josh he finds the boy popping Rebel Raiders at a rate of proficiency that would make Alvin York proud. It helps that Josh feels really crappy about it. Jess manages to turn the other cheek in a near fatal altercation. Compromises are made but the family remains. The kids are alright after all.


kda0121 said...

Friendly Persuasion is one of my favorite Gary Cooper movies. This movie has an interesting history. The project was originally owned by Frank Capra, who wanted Bing Crosby in the Jess Birdwell role. Capra ended up selling the project to William Wyler, who wisely cast Cooper.

Jessamyn West was a Quaker woman who wrote the book on which Friendly Persuasion is based. Story has it that Gary Cooper initially was hesitant to play Jess as the part was written. I'm paraphrasing here, but basically he was having a discussion with Jessamyn West that his character should take up arms and fight off the rebels. Essentially, he was saying that's what Gary Cooper would do. Jessamyn stuck to her guns and let Cooper know that that was not what a Quaker would do. Thankfully, Wyler backed West and Coop stayed a peace loving, if not perfect Quaker.

In reference to the "night in the barn" scene, I loved Coop's line as they were walking back to the house in the morning. "Can we come here again?"

Jennythenipper said...

Thanks for the background, KDA. I hadn't realized that Coop had tried to change the role, but I'm glad they left it as they did. I think he comes off as a much stronger character in the way he plays it, letting the Confederate soldier walk away at the end. I also admired that the script didn't give us a tidy answer in the end. It was all a bit messy and compromised which is unusual in the movies where the temptation is to give you a straight forward "message."

I only saw this movie for the first time on Friday, I watched it again yesterday. It has quickly leapt into my Gary Cooper top ten.

I really like the supporting actors as well. It was driving me nuts where I'd seen "Gaurd" before, then I remembered, he played Chrissy's father on Three's Company!

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