“Carrie” Review

Carrie [1952] – ★★★★

Scene: 1889; a charismatic and rich restauranteur catches sight of one shy and poorly dressed young woman who has just arrived to his upscale restaurant for a date she no longer wants. Another scene: a train is about to start its journey, a man is seen on the train, a girl is still on the platform; this man promises his beloved that that they would soon marry, saying to her that if she believes him, she should step onto the train, and if she does not, she should let it pass. The scenes come from William Wyler’s adaptation of the novel by Theodore Dreiser titled Sister Carrie (1900). The story concerns titular character Carrie (Jennifer Jones), a young pretty woman, who arrives to Chicago to stay with her sister and work at a shoe-factory. After being fired from her job, she finds herself the centre of attention on the part of cheeky travelling salesman Charles Drouet (Eddie Albert), and soon has no choice but to accept his financial help, leading to their romantic involvement. However, when on the scene comes handsome and prosperous restauranteur George Hurstwood (Laurence Olivier), Carrie now knows she has been too hasty in choosing her suitor, but, as it turns out, George still has far bigger sacrifices to make. “A man in a liquor business can’t be too careful”, he is told, but it is already too late for any warnings.

For those who have not read the book, it may be tricky to place the main drama in the film. Will Carrie be about the hardship of rising above one’s class in grim and seemingly unwelcoming and mercantile Chicago, perhaps recalling some A Star is Born (1937) situation? Will it be about a forbidden affair between two passionately in love with each other people who can neither halt nor maintain their relationship, in line with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (and there are more than a number of train scenes that suggest this)? Or will it be something even subtler, in line with the depicted injustice in another Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy or something that Wyler previously also filmed – The Heiress (1949), based on the novel by Henry James? Carrie’s extraordinary length means that there are plenty of scenes to suggest all of the above and more.

As in Dreiser’s story An American Tragedy, marriage in Carrie is viewed and contemplated from a number of perspectives, and it becomes: (i) a bargaining chip; (ii) a burden; (iii) a weapon, and, finally (iv) an ardent desire. The question is often asked: to what extent people will be willing to go to first rid themselves of the confines of a marriage they do not want and then jump into one they now want? Carrie scriptwriters Ruth and Augustus Goetz, as well as director Wyler (Roman Holiday (1953), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)) are determined to bleed this drama dry, and though the film shifts its sympathies throughout this fairly predictable and not always believable story, the sheer vividness of certain scenes and the charm of its leading stars still mould it into one convincing, albeit painful, dramatisation.

Pushed to be cast on the recommendation from her then husband David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones may still be the perfect Dreiser’s Carrie, but it is still hard to shake off certain associations that she makes in the film, especially since her co-star is none other than Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh’s then husband. The problem is that as Jones cosies up to her co-star in the scene where Laurence’s character brings his lover a new fancy hat, a scene that has strong parallels with that in Gone with the Wind (1939), where Rhett (Clark Gable) also gets Scarlett (Leigh) her new fancy hat, it is impossible not to draw comparisons between Jones and Leigh, especially since Jones also once unsuccessfully auditioned for the Gone with the Wind lead role. The two women are not dissimilar-looking, and there are a number of striking episodes that bring to mind Olivier’s wife. Even if this does no disservice to the picture overall, it does not exactly help the image of Jennifer Jones either.

As for her co-star, if Laurence Olivier’s sole presence ever “made a film” then it must be his dignified appearance in William Wyler’s Carrie. Here, he is no stereotypical romantic widower as in Rebecca (1940), nor is he coldly distant, but still romantically-involved Mr Darcy as in Pride & Prejudice (1940), but, finally, a cinematic character with increasing complexity and nuance who, paradoxically, even subverts expectations. Once one graceful and true gentleman who has fallen on hard times. Olivier’s portrayal turns from suspicious and uncomfortable to tragic and sympathetic, and in such an impossibly convincing way that perhaps only an actor of his stature could have brought something like this about successfully. Overall, Carrie, with all its often unfocused drama, but memorable set design and black-and-white cinematography, can still be considered a historical drama of a very high order, even if largely carried on the shoulders of its two leading stars.


One Comment Add yours

  1. John Charet says:

    Great review 🙂 It has been a while since I have seen this film, but I shall watch it again 🙂 Just out of curiosity, have you ever checked out any of the films of that great British filmmaking team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger? 🙂 They are phenomenal 🙂


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