For my money, Carrie is one of William Wyler’s greatest films – and one of Laurence Olivier’s finest performances. Yet it often seems to get overlooked. Maybe it would have more recognition as a classic adaptation if the title of Theodore Dreiser’s original novel, Sister Carrie, had been kept, which would also have avoided confusion with the horror film of the same name. In any case, I’d definitely urge any admirer of Olivier to see this period melodrama – and, if you are one of the doubters who think he was always too stagy on screen, this movingly understated role should help to change your mind.
Not everyone was sure about the choice of the very English Olivier for the great American role of George Hurstwood, a restaurant manager driven into a downward spiral by his passion for Carrie (Jennifer Jones). But Wyler was convinced the actor’s elegance would work well, and he was right. From the first glimpse of him, about half an hour into the film (wow, Olivier is playing a waiter?) there is a poignant feeling of this character slipping downwards, falling through the net. This adaptation of Sister Carrie focuses on the central love story, contrasting his decline with Carrie’s rise to fame, which gives it the same kind of dynamic as A Star Is Born. Just as in the various versions of that story, it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the character heading for the bottom.
Both the leads for this film could have been Brits. Wyler originally wanted Elizabeth Taylor for the role of Carrie, but she wasn’t available and David O Selznick fought hard for his wife, Jennifer Jones, to get the part. Jones was pregnant during filming, so there are frequent close-ups to avoid showing her figure – but I must say I hadn’t noticed this until reading up on the making of the film, and I don’t think it damages the finished picture. There are still a few great tracking shots from Victor Milner, like the early scene where Olivier and Jones move in parallel lines through the restaurant. The screen couple apparently didn’t get on, but their different styles as actors only add to the power of the film, underlining just what a mismatch this love affair is.
The film, scripted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who also worked with Wyler on The Heiress, does slightly soften the portrait of Carrie from the character in Dreiser’s book. Although he doesn’t judge her, he presents a woman with an inner toughness, who is prepared to cast others aside. In the film, she is less ambitious and more loving, and even prepared to sacrifice herself for Hurstwood. Yet, oddly, the trailer seems to be talking about the character in the novel rather than the one in the film, proclaiming “Men were the stepping stones in Carrie’s rise to fame and fortune!”
At the start of the film, Carrie Meeber needs a stepping stone, as a poor young girl heading for the big city, Chicago, from a rural backwater. She lives with a grudging sister and her husband, and ekes out a living working long hours in a sewing factory – but is fired when she is injured in an industrial accident. Jones was over 30, but she makes a convincing teenager here.
Penniless and despairing, Carrie is easily tempted to move in with generous, smooth-talking salesman Charles Drouet (Eddie Albert). Although this isn’t spelt out in so many words (the Production Code was still in place), it’s clear enough that they are living together as man and wife. But Drouet never wants to make the relationship official. He always plans to get married when he has enough time, maybe after his next business trip. The choice of Albert for this character is great casting, since he is warm and charming enough to make it understandable that Carrie falls for him in the first place – but he also gives the character a comic shallowness which explains why she becomes dissatisfied.
The isolated Carrie is drawn increasingly close to Hurstwood, who is equally lonely – living with a society wife who spends the money he earns, but has taught their grown-up children to look down on him. Miriam Hopkins is excellent as the snobbish Julie, and she and Olivier have one short scene together at home which shows just how destructive their marriage is – one of the few moments in this deceptively quiet film where voices are raised in anger. In the face of his wife’s icy contempt, Hurstwood enjoys the fact that he is the one on a higher level in his relationship with Carrie, and can treat her to visits to the theatre. They see Camille, a hint of the tragic future for the older lover in this story too.
In a rash moment of disaster, Hurstwood steals money from the till at the restaurant, and initially tricks Carrie into running away with him – though, when he confesses that he has lied to her, she still goes along with him. The couple have a brief, glorious unmarried honeymoon in a hotel, but it comes to an abrupt end when detectives follow Hurstwood and take back the money. From this point on, he and Carrie plummet ever further into poverty, as he can’t get a job because of his past, and they slip through the cracks of society. All this is if anything bleaker in the film than in the book, when Carrie falls pregnant – the couple have been through a form of marriage – and loses the baby. Another painful moment comes when Hurstwood burns his only good suit while ironing, and Carrie tells him she will patch it. “How can I wear patched trousers?,” he asks. Eventually she is the one to find work as an actress, while he sits at home.
In the novel, it’s clear enough that the couple’s relationship soon fades, and it’s questionable whether they ever really loved each other in the first place. In the film, however, there’s a greater element of romance, and even their parting is dressed up as self-sacrifice, with Carrie nobly fading into the background because she thinks George is going back to his family. (In the book she leaves because she is fed up of paying the rent for him and wants to buy herself nice clothes.)
The greatest part of the film, and the section which drew the wrath of the censors in the McCarthy era because of its portrayal of failure, is the last part. A forsaken Hurstwood plunges ever deeper into poverty, living on the streets, while Carrie enjoys the fruits of success. At last he is driven to beg from her. Olivier uses a very slight American accent all through the film, but it becomes a bit more noticeable in these scenes at the end, with a sudden heartbreaking return to his upper-crust tones when Carrie offers him bank notes instead of the expected small change. “This is most generous… it might be difficult to change, though.” One of the most powerful moments in the book comes when Carrie hands Hurstwood some coins to buy himself a peach for supper, feeling a pang because she is about to leave him. The film brings the same poignancy to the image of him holding a coin here – in the end he walks away with only one, a stark contrast to the thousands of dollars he stole earlier.
There is one disturbing scene in a flophouse which was cut from the original film because it was felt to be too strong, but has now been restored on the DVD. Although Olivier is always thought of as the absolute opposite to a Method actor, he visited flophouses to achieve added realism, and he also deliberately starved himself for Hurstwood’s hungry scenes. He wrote to Vivien Leigh: “I don’t feel at all hungry – just as if I’m dying.”
I’m sorry that I haven’t managed to keep to my planned schedule, since I’ve had little time for blogging lately, but I do hope to write about more Olivier films in the future.