Title: The Member of the Wedding
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenwriters: Edna Anhalt, Edward Anhalt
based on the novel and play by Carson McCullers
Music: Alex North
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Editor: William A. Lyon
Brandon De Wilde
Truly a curate’s egg when it comes to hire the original Broadway cast to reprise their roles in the play’s cinematic adaptation, best exemplified in year 1952 when Shirley Booth wins an Oscar in Daniel Mann’s COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA, whomping Julie Harris in Fred Zinnemann’s THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, both parlay their theatrical success into the Oscar game, but with hindsight, the miscast of Ms. Harris looms large and serves a detrimental effect on the power of Carson McCullers’s Southern Bildungsroman.
At the age of 26, it is somewhat unconscionable for Harris to play a 12-year-old tomboy Frankie Addams, whereas in theater, the physical distance between thespians and audience can effectively mitigate the age difference, here in the celluloid, albeit the endeavor of apparel team and sporting a high-pitch voice, with the camera breathing and gazing directly in Harris’s freckled face, she is a full-fledged grownup alright, especially standing side by side with her 9-year-old co-star Brandon De Wilde who plays Frankie’s younger cousin John Henry with an angelic innocence.
A mutable prepubescent who is ruffled by the forthcoming wedding of her elder brother Jarvis (Franz) and Janice (a comely if bland Nancy Gates), Frankie is beset by an inchoate existential crisis because of her “otherness” and the resultant ostracism in the small town, bent on an egress to skip the sticks, she desperately clings to the nearest possibility, to escape with Jarvis and Janice after the ceremony, which in no right mind that will happen, only after a night in the hard-knocks school, during which she escapes a rape attempt, does she finally come to term with the reality, rounded off with an unexpected bereavement.
Tantrums are only cute (or in this reviewer’s case, tolerable) when their instigator is an innocuous child, therefore, that’s why John Henry is a much less annoying pesterer, and no matter how emotive Harris is as an actress, her moody outbursts unfortunately edges towards vexing and callous, especially the occasional venom she shoots toward Berenice (Waters), the one-eyed family housekeeper who benignantly, patiently and sagaciously consoles, counsels, coddles her, trying to smooth her over the rough passage, not to mention she has her own troubles to worry, and in fact, Ethel Waters takes an upper hand in her equally hefty screen-time and counterpoints a child’s whims with her cracker-barrel savvy and indiscriminate affection, although hobbled by the stereotyped treatment of a kindhearted, God-bothering mammy, Waters becomes a dynamo of emotion and compassion when her button is pushed, whether narrating the final night with her beloved, now deceased husband or belting out in invocation, someone up there is impelled to answer her prayers.
Preciously hinged on an underrepresented interracial correlation, THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING is a doughty dissection of “queerness” right out of a preteen mindset and has every right to be seen by posterity (with massive retrofitting much in need), only Zinnemann’s version is already marred before even leaving the casting room.