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.
I’ll be writing about a few Frank Sinatra films between now and the end of the year – I can’t promise to update very frequently, but hope to cover a few movies. After having seen little-known biopic The Joker Is Wild on TV recently, I just can’t understand why it isn’t available on DVD. For my money, this is a great movie of its kind, and Sinatra gives a compelling performance which is up there with his roles in The Man with the Golden Arm and From Here to Eternity. The difference here is that he has a chance to sing – and he expresses the character’s suffering through his voice. Sadly, I get the impression that biopics are somewhat out of fashion at the moment. This one is even more overlooked because it is the story of a largely forgotten comedian, Joe E. Lewis – who was actually a friend of Sinatra.
The film was directed by Charles Vidor, who also made a better-remembered biopic, Love Me or Leave Me, starring Doris Day and James Cagney, a couple of years earlier. This one has the same bitter-sweet quality, and similarly showcases musical numbers within a dramatic context. However, unlike the Doris Day film, The Joker Is Wild is in black and white, and it has a rather more downbeat feel to it. The early scenes are set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and it feels very like a Warner film from that era, with the same kind of gritty atmosphere. (Cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp was a camera operator on many such films in the pre-Code era.)