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.
Bridget Jones's Dairy (2001)
7 years ago