Monday, May 12, 2008

cinema obscura: Two with Jennifer Jones

The achingly beautiful Jennifer Jones was an enticing combination of the enigmatic and the sensual.

Typically, Hollywood really didn't know what to do with someone whose appeal was starkly natural - who didn't seem manufactured along the lines of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford (and I say that as someone with an unbound admiration for all three actresses, particuarly the much-maligned Crawford).

And so it is no surprise that during her all-too-brief, 30-year screen career, Jones performed in the shadows of Davis, Hepburn and Crawford - both as an actress and a media darling. She made three films as Phylis Isley before breaking through as Jennifer Jones in the title role in her beloved Henry King's 1943 "The Song of Bernadette."

Jones retired in 1974, after appearing in John Guillermin's swanky disaster epic, "The Towering Inferno." She's the exact kind of neglected icon to which this site is dedicated. Frankly, I've grown weary of the decades of buzz (sustained over the years by critics and historians who should know better) about David, Hepburn and Crawford.

Correcting this oversight is ever-resourceful Film Society of Lincoln Center which, beginning May 16th and continuing through May 24th, will screen a program at the Walter Reade Theater (65th Street at Amsterdam) titled "Saints and Sinner: The Tempestuous Career of Jennifer Jones," featuring twelve of her films, both the hits and the criminally neglected.

It's the latter that interests me, two titles in particular, both from Fox - neither of which is available on home entertainment.

There will be two screenings of Henry Koster's "Good Morning, Miss Dove" (1955), a sentimental, inspirational fable, a la "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," that was an audience favorite in the '50s. Like "Chips," Koster's film is about a dedicated teacher (Jones in the title role) whose precision and perfectionism are mistaken for rigidity and coldness.

Jones takes the character from youth to old age and few scenes are as memorable as the ones detailing Miss Dove's retirement or the emblematic, heart-stopping moment when two of her former students, now adults, gallantly carry Miss Dove in a way that pays tribute to her regal bearing. Most touching. "Good Morning, Miss Dove," being screened May 18th at 4:30 p.m. and again on May 23rd at 6 p.m., softly delineates how emotional attachments aren't always played out in the same way.

Henry King, as stated, oversaw Jones in her first major film role in "The Song of Bernadette," directed her in one of phenomenally popular films, "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," with William Holden, and in a movie that was to be his last - the 1962 adapation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night," filmed with much fidelity to the book.

Jones, with her penchant for conveying uncontrolled, tempestuous passion, was born to play Nicole Diver, who meets her better half, Dick (Jason Robards, Jr., in one of his first screen roles), in a sanitarium.

This role and this story, which spans decades, cannot be played small, and Jones doesn't even try, using her actorly mannerisms to perfection. The supporting cast - and what a cast - includes Tom Ewell, Joan Fontaine and Jill St. John, and Bernard Hermann contributed another one of his great scores.

"Tender Is the Night," which runs 146 minutes, screens on May 22nd only, at 8 p.m.

The Film Society's Jones program will overlap with one dedicated to the singular Charles Boyer, the rare Frenchman who made an effortless and successful transition into American films. Ernst Lubitsch's divine "Cluny Brown" (1946), which of course co-stars Jones and Boyer, will be screened at 6:15 p.m. on May 16th and at 4:40 p.m. on May 24th.

Critics Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris will introduce the film at the May 16th screening. The Boyer program runs from May 2rd to May 27th, also at the Walter Reade.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Jennifer Jones in one of her more popular roles - with William Holden in Henry King's "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" - in CinemaScope; teaching students in Henry Koster's "Good Morning, Miss Dove" and sharing a scene, a memorable one, with Robert Stack and Biff Elliot in the same film; Jones with Jason Robards in King's "Tender Is the Night," and Robards with Jill St.John in the same film)


Daryl Chin said...

One thing i'll always remember is that Andrew Sarris (this was in the early 1970s) was asked if there was anyone who was more beautiful in person (than on the screen), and his answer was an immediate "Jennifer Jones".

Geoffrey C. said...

I agree that Jennifer Jones, despite some really good roles, lived in the shadows of other actresses. I always thought she was simply too beautiful to be taken seriously. Davis, Hepburn ande Crawford were all attractive, but not in a pretty way. I would call them handsome women. Jennifer Jones, however, was a knockout.

joe baltake said...

Jennifer Jones, I'm afraid, was born too soon. Nowadays, it is no longer a stigma for an actress to be beautiful. She can still be perceived as having talent, as evidence by the success of Oscar-winners Charlize Theron and Halle Berry.

jbryant said...

For some odd reason, I've never thought of Jennifer Jones as a great beauty, just really attractive. But she did some great stuff, a lot of which seems to have become obscure, thus diminishing her name recognition with the younger generations.

She's great in an offbeat role in Beat the Devil, and I absolutely love Portrait of Jennie, the kind of supernatural romance that doesn't normally work for me.

Towering Inferno SPOILER:

Does anyone else find her character's fate in this film to be almost comically tragic? She's put through the wringer, narrowly rescued from certain death a number of times, only to be summarily dispatched at the end when the elevator bringing her to safety comes crashing down (while poor Fred Astaire waits for her below).

Daryl Chin said...

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Though Jennifer Jones's rather precarious perch on critical and popular attention was balanced by two very polarizing factors (1 - her divorce from Robert Walker, which supposedly precipitated his decline into alcoholism; 2 - her affair and subsequent marriage to David O. Selznick, and her evolution into the ultimate Selznick star, in that the only films he would produce would be those starring Jones), it should be stated that this left the other female stars under contract to Selznick in a very difficult situation. You will notice that in every case, problems start to arise in the period from 1943 through 1948 (the period when Jones is first signed, and then the time when Selznick actually marries her). Joan Fontaine began to balk at all the projects to which she was being loaned out (there are legendary reports about fights on the set of FRENCHMAN'S CREEK, for example); Vivien Leigh kept trying to do movies with her husband Laurence Olivier, only to be overruled by Selznick (she did plays instead, where Selznick's contract could not interfere); Selznick had even signed Shirley Temple, thinking that he could help her make the transition from child star to adult, but his interest dimmed.

But Fontaine, Leigh, Ingrid Bergman could fend for themselves (though, once their contracts were up, their attempts at freedom were often notorious: Fontaine tried to be her own producer, she set up a production company Ramparts, and produced several movies herself, including LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN - to be as blunt about it as possible, her movies were set up to fail, because so many people in the industry were horrified by her hubris in thinking she was competent enough to produce and star in her own movies, but since her first was LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, the defense rests; Ingrid Bergman went to Italy to work with Roberto Rossellini, and we know what happened with that). The one person who really was adversely affected by Selznick's shift in attention was Dorothy McGuire.

McGuire was signed at the same time as Jones. McGuire had been a protege of Dodie Brando at the Omaha Neighborhood Playhouse (the other famous Omaha Neighborhood Playhouse alum was Henry Fonda, at least until Dodie's son Bud Jr. otherwise known as Marlon eclipsed everyone in fame), when she moved to New York one of her first jobs was as understudy to Martha Scott in the original production of OUR TOWN, and then she hit paydirt with the starring role of CLAUDIA.

Selznick signed her on the basis of a screentest taken during the run of CLAUDIA, and Selznick bought the rights to the play. He was going to produce the film himself. He also screentested other actresses for CLAUDIA (this is where Jones comes in). But in 1943, his attention was consumed by SINCE YOU WENT AWAY, so he sold the package (McGuire as star and the rights to the play) to 20th Century Fox, which is where CLAUDIA wound up.

McGuire assumed that, once SINCE YOU WENT AWAY was finished, Selznick would turn some of his attention to her career (to ward off Selznick's nonprofessional attentions, when McGuire arrived in Hollywood, her friend Henry Fonda set her up on dates with a number of his friends - McGuire hit it off with John Swope, the heir to GE who was an editor for Life Magazine - they were married in 1943 just before production started on CLAUDIA and stayed married until his death), but it never happened. After the success of CLAUDIA... nothing. Darryl F. Zanuck decided that CLAUDIA should have a sequel, so in 1945, CLAUDIA AND DAVID was filmed; because McGuire had proven so amenable, when Gene Tierney was pregnant, McGuire replaced her in Elia Kazan's first movie A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. Then Dore Schary asked for her for his RKO production THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (Schary had begn his career in Hollywood as an assistant to David O. Selznick). These Selznick agreed to, but he had no plans for McGuire, and simply let her career drift.

In 1947, McGuire's career hit a turning point: by the end of the year, she was pregnant, and she was nominated for an Academy Award for GENTLEMEN'S AGREEMENT. The publicity has always been that she took time off to devote herself to motherhood; in actuality, Selznick was so consumed with PORTRAIT OF JENNIE that he had no time for anything else, and McGuire wasn't forceful enough to look for her own work (that's why she signed with Selznick). So she waited until 1950 (when her contract was up) and then Zanuck and Schary (then at MGM) came up with offers.

But the momentum had died, and she was never in the position to become a star again (and she knew it).

Decades later (in the 1980s) McGuire would star in the Circle-in-the-Square revival of Tennessee Williams's THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (costarring with Richard Chamberlain and Sylvia Miles). Friends who worked on the play said that she was a real professional, perfectly pleasant... until one evening, during a break in the rehearsal, someone asked her about David O. Selznick, and she burst out crying, and all the bitterness that she felt about how Selznick had simply thrown her career away came bursting out. She didn't blame Jennifer Jones (they had been friends in NYC before they both went to Hollywood), but she did blame David O. Selznick.

joe baltake said...

Wow! Daryl, thanks for much for the background information regarding Jones/Selznick/Maguire. It's eye-opening - and more than a little humbling. I feel a tad foolish whining about how Jones never had a chance in Hollywood.

jbryant said...

That's great info about McGuire; explains a lot about her odd career trajectory.

With all due props to Gene Tierney, I can't imagine her being nearly as effective as McGuire was in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.