Sunday, May 14, 2017

Underseen and Underrated: Carrie (1952): Laurence Olivier's Last Chance at Love

William Wyler directs Laurence Olivier, in possibly his greatest film performance, in a tale of obsessive passion. No, it’s not “Wuthering Heights.” I’m talking about 1952’s “Carrie,” based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel, “Sister Carrie.” What – you haven’t seen it? Don’t feel badly, most people haven’t.

Olivier’s 1939 Heathcliff was a powerful depiction of obsession fueled by passion. His George Hurstwood in “Carrie,” also has a passionate obsession, but this time it is shaded by the melancholy of autumnal love. Hurstwood’s single-minded pursuit of Carrie at all costs (big costs) leads him to ruin and us to heartbreak.

Carrie was not meant for drudge work
Innocent Carrie Meeber (Jennifer Jones) leaves her poverty and small town behind for a chance at a better, more exciting life in the big city of Chicago. While on the train to the city, Carrie meets fast-talking traveling salesman, Charles Drouet (Eddie Albert). He sweet talks her in an effort to pick her up, but Carrie resists. Still, Drouet knows an easy mark when he sees one. He hands her his card and tells her to look him up when she gets settled. In Chicago Carrie bunks with her hard-working and poor sister and brother-in-law. They live in the slums and, clearly, this is not the glamorous big city life Carrie envisioned for herself (Jennifer Jones looks as though she is smelling something slightly disgusting). Because Carrie is expected to pay her own way, her sister gets her a job at a garment factory. It is soon apparent that Carrie is not made for such work. She injures herself on day one, is fired, and never looks back.

The fly traps the spider
Desperate not to let her family know she is unemployed, Carrie looks up Charlie, who is only too happy to see her. In only a Chicago minute, Carrie is living the life of middle class luxury as the kept woman of the traveling salesman. Charlie may not want to marry her, but he is good to her. On their first evening together they dine at Fitzgerald’s, an upscale restaurant managed by the elegant George Hurstwood (Olivier). Hurstwood is immediately taken by the fresh young Carrie. Charlie is too busy to notice.

Charlie can't see what's going on here
As Carrie pressures for marriage, Charlie continues to string her along. One night he invites his friend Hurstwood to dinner. Carrie is immediately attracted to her older, more polished, and richer guest who does not judge her morally questionable living conditions. She and Hurstwood chat about their mutual love of the theater and, before you know it, the unsuspecting Charlie suggests Hurstwood escort Carrie to a show while he is out of town. What a dummy.

While the cat's away.....

Before long, Carrie and Hurstwood are spending time together and falling in love. For Carrie, Hurstwood is a step up; for him she is a last chance. Finally Charlie catches on and tells her that she is a fool because Hurstwood is married. It seems Hurstwood did neglect to tell Carrie that important tidbit of information. She breaks it off, but is led back into contact with the sly old dog when he tells her that Charlie has been injured and he must take her to him. Naturally, it’s a lie, but Carrie has it bad for him and Hurstwood promises to leave his wife.

The imperious Mrs. Hurstwood will not be denied

He does try to keep his promise to Carrie, but his shrew of a wife (Miriam Hopkins) will not agree to a divorce. Evidently, she is the one with the money and she chafes at being married to a mere restaurant manager. She hangs on, it seems, for appearance and spite. Hurstwood is determined not to lose his last chance at happiness, storms out of his grand house and back to Fitzgerald’s to lock up. In what is portrayed as an accident (but there are no accidents, right?) the timed safe where the daily proceeds are to be deposited locks before Hurstwood can store the restaurants $10,000. In that moment, he decides his fate, leaves an I.O.U. for the boss, and heads over to Carrie’s. He tells her he has left his wife and together they set out of New York to begin a new life.

Life starts out on a high note in New York City
Hurstwood leaves his comfortable life, as well as his wife and children, and sets of with the stolen $10,000 to begin a new life with Carrie. Although still married, he marries Carrie and the two have a happy start. 

But, we know crime doesn't pay, and within days there is a knock on Hurstwood's door from a detective looking for the stolen money. Hurstwood gives him the balance and soon finds out that word of his bad deed has spread to New York, making it impossible for him to find work in his chosen field. 

Before too long, Carrie and Hurstwood are living in poverty. Carrie tries to stand by her man, but Hurstwood is finally broken when an agent of his wife appears and demands that he sign over his rights to all property in exchange for a divorce. Carrie, pregnant, is shattered. Once she loses the baby, her passion for Hurstwood goes from cool to cold. His lies offer a good reason to bail on him, but her superior survival skills instinctively lead her and Hurstwood down different paths.

No longer living the good life

While Hurstwood leaves town and tries to see if he can make peace with his children when he reads about his son's upcoming wedding (he can't bring himself to try), Carrie makes her exit. From then on, the trajectory of their story speeds to its inevitable conclusion. Carrie, not surprisingly, finds her true place on the stage where success and fortune beckon. Hurstwood, devastated by her desertion, ends up living on the street.

After an evening's theatrical performance, old friend Drouet comes by to visit Carrie. He tells her that Hurstwood had stolen the money before he left and that he was forced to pay it back. Carrie now sees to what lengths her man went to be with her and she does feel some pangs of guilt. Maybe she can use that feeling in her next performance.

Carrie flaunts her success to old friend Charlie

Meanwhile, out on the street, Hurstwood is begging. Carrie finds him and tries to give him money, as if that could make thing better. He agrees to take only .25, the cost of a bed at the flophouse. We see him turn on the gas and assume that he will at least find some peace. SOB!!!!!
No longer the most dapper man in town

 So, that’s the story, but the real treat is the performances. I’m not a big fan of Jennifer Jones here, but her passiveness does neatly disguise an amoral personality who can easily justify her needs, no matter what the effect on those she leaves behind. She disappoints her parents (who do not want her to leave home), her sister (who grieves over her life of sin), Drouet (who got out-sharped, but still was a straight shooter with her) and, of course, Hurstwood, who she could not bear to live with once his life fell apart.

Eddie Albert as Charlie Drouet is pretty delightful. Always cheerful and full of good advice, he deserves a gal who appreciates a good time and a good heart.
Miriam Hopkins, as the miserable Mrs. Hurstwood, does not have much screen time, but Wyler makes sure we despise her. Must have been payback for all those Hopkins/Davis spats he got caught up in.

And, of course, there is Olivier. His passion for Carrie is painful because he is the one who loves more. He knows this is the last chance at romance and he grabs it (and the money). Sadly, his relentless pursuit of Carrie leads to his ruin. She cannot help him, and he cannot not help himself. His shabby descent and his loss of self-respect is painful to watch. Yet, there is the aura of romance about him as he shuffles off to his flop house to die. All for love.

No fool like an old fool

In Dreiser’s story, money is the brass ring and poverty is a slow death. In the survival of the fittest, Carrie, whose  understanding of the law of the jungle is in her DNA, is the winner and Hurstwood the loser. In “Carrie,” Olivier gives us an unforgettable lover, no longer young, but as foolish as any young man who, mistakenly, believes that love conquers all. It is a shattering performance that should be seen. While wife Vivien Leigh was in Hollywood filming "A Streetcar Named Desire," Olivier was in town, too, giving an equally moving and heart-breaking performance. 

This is my entry in the Underseen and Unrerrated Classic Movie Blog Association Blogathon. Click here for more soon to be more memorable films.


Caftan Woman said...

Olivier is glorious in this film, and completely heartbreaking.

A few years ago at a favourite and now closed video store, I was browsing and picked up the DVD of Carrie. A clerk at the store was passing, stopped and nodded. "If you're only buying one today, make it that one". Well, I never buy just one, but I made sure to get Carrie.

I hope many who have to see this searing drama will read your article and take it to heart.

FlickChick said...

Thanks for stopping by, CW. This is kind of a downbeat film, but I hope those who haven't seen it give it a try. Wyler and Olivier surpass their work in Wuthering Heights.

John/24Frames said...

I read the book years ago back in my 20's. At the time, I had already read Dreiser's An American Tragedy and The Genius and then went on to Sister Carrie. I have not seen Wyler's film version, but will have to keep an eye out for it. Thanks or highlighting this film.

Silver Screenings said...

I'd never even heard of this film, and it sounds incredible. Haunting and moving, I'll bet – probably not one you're likely to forget soon. Thanks for the introduction! :)

Unknown said...

This sounds heartbreaking, but beautifully performed! Wyler, Olivier...I will definitely have to see this one. Thanks!

FlickChick said...

JOhn - please do - you won't be sorry.

FlickChick said...

Ruth -if you see it you will be blown away by Sir Larry.

FlickChick said...

Thanks for stopping by, Christina. I do hop you get a chance to see a good copy of this film. Not only beautifully performed, but beautifully filmed. said...

I enjoyed the book, and it sounds like I've missed out by not watching the film. I wonder if the film is less sympathetic toward Carrie. If I'm remembering correctly, Hurstwood is much less likeable in the book, and he pretends he's just doing everything for her when actually trying to evade the law. As I remember, there was a lot of grey area, but I found his deception of her slimy, and his general refusal to be honest to her took away from my sadness at his decline. She comes across as pretty dedicated given what he's done to her. And so I felt pity for them both. I loved your review--that line about Hopkins is hilarious.

Jocelyn said...

I've not seen this one but am a big fan of Wyler so I must add it to my list! Even more so because I've not warmed to Olivier in the roles I've seen him in; this may change my view of him.

Rupert said...

Oh, it has been YEARS since I saw this film! (Watched it as a Miriam Hopkins fan) But I remember enjoying it thoroughly and your post proved my memory to be correct. Great choice to spotlight.


misospecial said...

Carrie is definitely underseen by me, not sure how it slipped past, but your piece got me interested—I'll make sure to catch it next time (whenever that is—TCM doesn't show it often, do they?). Thank you for spotlighting it, I'm a huge Wyler and Olivier fan. I'm with you re Jones, who mostly does nothing for me except for Portrait of Jennie. This blogathon is definitely adding to my already endless list of things to see....

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

But, we know crime doesn't pay

I remember reading that somewhere.

Nice little write-up on a movie I regretfully have not seen (I feel the same way about Jennifer Jones than you, I'm guessing). I will have to be on the lookout for this one.

The Lady Eve said...

What a great piece, Marsha! I haven't seen "Carrie." I think I've had it mixed up with another film for a long time and somehow missed it altogether. Got to see it now.

I'm not a fan of Jennifer Jones, don't see much range or depth in her work. As far as playing Carrie is concerned, the role may not have been a great stretch for Jones who left her husband, young actor Robert Walker, for successful producer David O. Selznick and after Selznick died, she married zillionaire Norton Simon.

But more to the point, your eloquence and insight are always a delight.