There are times when I’m surprised that a given film has a history of coming from the stage. Then there are films like The Member of the Wedding that display their stage background like a badge. Part of that in this case is the way it is staged and filmed. The lion’s share, though is the way that it’s acted, particularly in the case of Julie Harris.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of this, I have a rant I need to get off my chest first. I realize that Julie Harris played this role on the Broadway stage but it doesn’t change the fact that she was 27 years old playing the role of a 12-year-old girl. Now, Julie Harris does look quite a bit younger than her 27 years here, but 12? Brandon De Wilde was 10 and playing 7, but that’s quite a bit different. Now, it’s possible that someone could argue that the role of Frankie Addams required someone of more emotional depth than a typical child could play, but I still don’t buy it.
Anyway, the entire film revolves around the character of Frankie Addams (Harris), a young girl in a small town in the Deep South. Frankie doesn’t belong anywhere in her mind, and she especially doesn’t belong in this town. She’s antagonistic to all of the other girls, in part because of her own oddness and in part because she is something of a tomboy with a boy’s haircut. Her best friends are the neighbor boy John Henry (De Wilde) and the family maid/servant Berenice Sadie Brown (Ethel Waters). As the film opens, we learn that Frankie’s older brother Jarvis (Arthur Franz) is getting married to his girlfriend Janice (Nancy Gates).
Frankie is enamored of this and also extremely jealous of it because it’s evidence that Jarvis and Janice have found a place where they belong. Really, the bulk of the film is Frankie, who starts calling herself “F. Jasmine” so that she can also have a name that starts with the same two letters as Jarvis and Janice, becoming obsessed with the idea of the wedding. Even more, she convinces herself that she is going to leave the town and go off with Jarvis and Janice and be a part of their life, even going on their honeymoon with them. It’s no shock to anyone watching that this is not going to happen, which means Frankie/Jasmine is going to be terribly disappointed come the wedding.
What this also means is that this is a coming of age story. I’ve seen a lot of coming of age stories just within the context of this blog. On the surface, they tend to be about the destruction of dreams. Just below the surface, they’re all sex and death. In fact, the general trend is that coming of age stories for girls tend to be about coming to terms with their abilities to create life; most feminine coming of age tales are specifically about a first sexual encounter. For boys, it’s all about mortality, and when they come of age, it’s through the realization that things die and that eventually they will, too. Since Frankie is put forward to us as a tomboy, crew cut style hair and all, we’re going to get both here. That means that we’ll have a scene where a 12-year-old girl survives an attempted rape and at least one of our characters isn’t going to survive to the end credits.
For me, the first, best, and only reason to sit through The Member of the Wedding is the delightful presence of Ethel Waters as Berenice. Berenice has a particular wisdom of life experience. More importantly, she has a genuine humor about her. She really does understand what Frankie is going through even if Frankie can’t fathom that anyone understands. Berenice goes through her days and nights with humor and understanding and a realization that everything Frankie thinks she thinks is little more than the fanciful notions of a fanciful child on the brink of adulthood.
But really, that’s it. I still haven’t found a film where I enjoy watching Brandon De Wilde. He’s easily the most annoying part of Shane and he’s just as whiny here. I find it interesting that John Henry, his character, is played as so effeminate. He runs around in a dress at one point and demands one of Frankie’s dolls for his own. Julie Harris plays this role as if she is still on stage and trying to reach the back row of the balcony. It feels so deliberately manufactured. It’s an instant turn-off for me.
I can’t say I liked this film, although it did re-introduce me to just how awesome Ethel Waters could be. Other than that, I don’t think I’ll take much out of this movie.
Why to watch The Member of the Wedding: Ethel Waters is the only reason to watch this.
Why not to watch: It’s incredibly annoying.