Coop’s a Quaker and Hayley Buries Dead Animals

FRIENDLY PERSUASION2Friendly Persuasion (1956) – This pleasant, heartfelt tale of Quaker life in southern Indiana during the Civil War lacks the drama that went into bringing the film to the screen. Jessamyn West’s 1945 novel was comprised of short stories published in various magazines beginning in 1940. William Wyler acquired the rights in 1948, but the project languished for several years. It didn’t help that the House Committee on Un-American Activities proclaimed screenwriter Michael Wilson to be an “unfriendly witness.” Despite winning an Oscar for co-writing A Place in the Sun in 1952, Wilson was blacklisted in Hollywood. When Wyler finally produced Wilson’s adaptation of Friendly Persuasion, the credits did not list a screenwriter (in 1996, the opening credits were updated to include his name). As for Wyler, he intended to shoot the film on location in Indiana, but the budget spiraled out of control, forcing him to finish it in California (some outdoor scenes were clearly filmed in a studio).

Gary Cooper stars as the patriarch of the Birdwell family, although the film focuses on his oldest son Josh (Anthony Perkins) and daughter Mattie (Phyllis Love). Mattie has fallen in love with a Union officer and Josh can’t decide whether to fight alongside his friends in the war or remain faithful to his Quaker beliefs. It’s a leisurely, episodic movie that doesn’t build to a strong climax, but there are effective scenes along the way (e.g., when Mrs. Birdwell, played by Dorothy Maguire, deals with the Confederate soldiers). Cooper, then in his mid-50s, had doubts about playing a father–and a pacifist one at that. Just five years earlier, he starred as a strong-willed sheriff with a 23-year-old Grace Kelly as his bride in High Noon. Still, Cooper anchors Friendly Persuasion and provides the film with some much-needed humor, some of it centered around the elder Birdwell’s desire to beat a neighbor in a weekly “unofficial” buggy race.

Friendly Persuasion won an Oscar for Best Sound and earned other nominations for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Perkins), Song, and–incredibly–Screenplay (though the nomination was for the script and not the writer, because Wilson was blacklisted). Pat Boone crooned the title song, written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster, which went to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

SKY WEST AND CROOKEDSky West and Crooked (aka Gypsy Girl) (1965) – At the age of 19, Hayley Mills had pretty much wrapped up her highly-successful career as Walt Disney’s biggest child star. She could still play teenagers, but adult roles were just around the corner. During this period in the mid-’60s, she made several “transition” films such as The Chalk Garden and The Truth About Spring–both personal favorites. She also starred in the unusual Sky West and Crooked, a Mills family project directed by Hayley’s father, acclaimed actor John Mills, and co-written by her mother, Mary Hayley Bell.

Set in rural England, Sky West and Crooked casts Hayley as Brydie White, a 17-year-old girl who has mentally blocked out a childhood tragedy. Her widowed, alcoholic mother possesses no parenting skills–leaving Brydie to fend for herself. The townsfolk think the girl is a bit daft (I surmised that was the meaning of the film’s title). The local vicar and a coffin-maker’s family treat her kindly and she has become the unofficial leader of the village children. Indeed, when Brydie buries her two dead hamsters in the church cemetery (she forgot to provide them with water), the other children follow suit. Soon, the children are scouring the countryside for dead animals to bury in the cemetery–much to the dismay of their parents. Brydie’s life is further complicated by the arrival of a handsome gypsy lad (Ian McShane).

Sky West and Crooked is an obvious attempt to duplicate the success of the superior Whistle Down the Wind, a 1961 classic starring Hayley and based on a novel by her mother. Both films feature rural settings, uninvolved parents, and a group of children led by Hayley. They also explore religious themes: in Whistle Down the Wind, the children believe an escaped convict is Jesus; in Sky West, the coffin-maker’s children launch into an unexpected discussion about souls during afternoon tea with their parents.

The entire cast is convincing, with acting honors going to Hayley, Geoffrey Bayldon as the vicar, and Ian McShane as Hayley’s love interest. While Sky West and Crooked certainly doesn’t rank with Hayley’s best films, it’s still an interesting–if slowly-paced–tale about the need for love and the challenges of becoming an adult.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!