Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Mourning Becomes Electra is as about as close as Eugene O'Neill ever got to the commercial
mainstream. The playwright's lengthy and sober works have always been the pet projects of creative
theatrical and film directors, with little attention paid to their commercial possibilities. This
1947 film version of O'Neill's harsh drama of parent-child relationships plays like two grim
Greek tragedies rolled into one. The curse on the rich New England Mannon family lies in their
bloodline and not outside influences; and the fate that befalls them seems to grow from within like
Screenwriter Dudley Nichols took Mourning Becomes Electra as a personal quest, somehow finding
the money for distribution through RKO, with all of that studio's technical expertise behind the
camera. He also assembled a knockout cast that combined great talent from the stage and films. It's a
fairly unique show - two hours and forty minutes of stylized drama.
The Civil War is over and General Ezra Mannon (Raymond Massey) comes home,
bringing with him the son, Orin (Michael Redgrave), that he forced to join in the fighting. Back in
the Mannon mansion trouble is brewing. Wife Christine (Katina Paxinou) has been seeing an adventurous sea
captain, Adam Brant (Leo Genn). Unfortunately, Ezra's adoring daughter Lavinia (Rosalind Russell)
has found out about this and is determined to split the family apart, as she's in love with Brant
as well. The intrigues reach back into the portraits on the Mannon wall, for it turns out that Brant is
the illegitimate son of Ezra's brother; Christine plans to use the sea captain for a revenge of her
Mourning Becomes Electra doesn't unspool like a typical Hollywood film of 1947. The titles play
out over an image of stormy seas, while the film's theme song Shenandoah is sung by a choir. The
contrast between the exterior appearance of the Mannon family and the festering trouble within is
O'Neill's stage play is highly theatrical and the movie makes no attempt to disguise it. The
acting is stylized toward broader mannerisms and there are few subtleties - the actors'
reactions are left right out in the open. Since every one of the characters has their own private
obsession, there are few onlookers to provide a neutral point of view. Peter and Hazel Niles (Kirk
Douglas and Nancy Coleman) are present while a lot of the twisted family trouble take place, but
neither represents an author's point of view. This is indeed the kind of play where people arrive, make
speeches, sit, stand, and exit; nobody eats a meal or reads a book, as they're all caught up in the
tension of the moment.
The focus of the story is on treachery and the semi-incestuous relationships that perpetuate what amounts
to a family curse. Rosalind Russell's Lavinia is inflamed by hatred for her unfaithful mother,
and dotes on her imperfect father as if he were unquestionably pure. Her scheming sets most of the misery in
motion. Michael Redgrave's Orin, the war-wounded "weak" brother, idolizes
his mother and takes her side on everything, while naturally resenting his domineering, overpowering
father. This obviously unhealthy Electra - Oedipus situation is a classical contrivance with a psychological
base. Instead of developing their own personalities, the children absorb the family conflicts
of the previous generation, with Lavinia 'transforming' into her stern and dictatorial father, and
Orin becoming the accusing, resentful and suicidal mother. O'Neill presents the Mannon family as a
war of personalities, always with the females scheming for revenge and urging others
to murder. Costumes are coded light and dark to symbolize malevolence; at one point Orin sits in a tall
chair and seems to become one of his own ancestors, the gallery of unhappy dead that rule the house from
their portraits on the walls.
Poor Adam Brant would simply like to see the good name of his wronged mother restored; his crime is
to encourage the affections of both a mother and daughter, probably wishing to demonstrate his influence
over the womenfolk of the family that robbed him of his birthright. That would be a "normal" family scandal,
but Christine and Lavinia's hatreds are so strong, they sublimate Adam's resentment into a larger scheme
of murder. The Mannon women become bloodthirsty demons while the men question their own virility or condemn
themselves as weaklings unfit for living. Adam realizes he must give up sailing, for the sea shows no
mercy on cowards.
Mourning Becomes Electra becomes an annihilating melodrama as deadly as a film noir; the mother-daughter
pair of femme fatales set loose a chain reaction of killings and remorseful suicides that leave most of
the cast dead. The fire of revenge consumes the avenger as well; after plotting so murderously, Lavinia
clumsily drives away her fiancee Peter with a lie about her earlier sexual transgressions. The story takes place
in an America split and wounded by civil war but makes no political points specific to history except to
suggest that the males destroy themselves in giant conflicts while the women undermine the social structure
from within. Forbidden passion is the root of the evil, as the play makes a heavy contrast between the innocent
sexuality of the Polynesians Adam has known, and the destructive repression of the New Englanders.
Lavinia thinks that by untruthfully confessing to Peter that the family deaths were the result of her having
an affair with a South Seas islander, she'll hide the real cause for all the horror. The
supposedly compassionate Peter surprises her by being equally unforgiving of the lesser charge, and Lavinia
prepares to live out her life behind closed shutters, alone and unloved.
Some reviewers have said that Rosalind Russell was miscast. She's actually quite good, presuming that O'Neill
and Nichols didn't want Lavinia to be likeable. The real honors go to Katrina Paxinou (For Whom the Bell
Tolls) and Michael Redgrave. Paxinou sells Christine's attractiveness entirely through her acting, convincing
us that she could be the love object of an experienced sea captain, and she's genuinely chilling
when her eyes grow steely cold while plotting murder. This is Michael Redgrave's
first American film and he gives unusual shadings to the standard weakling brother role. He doesn't overstate
Orin's resentment of his father and his off-balance personality is cued by nicely timed flashes of wildness
that cross his face. Redgrave's Orin is a less hysterical cousin to his mad ventriloquist in the classic
(Dead of Night) of a couple of years before.
Raymond Massey gives Ezra the proper granite look, and makes a touching spectacle of the old man's belated
effort to find peace with his wife and family. Leo Genn (the great Starbuck of John Huston's
Moby Dick) is suitably dashing and haunted
as the scorned relation to the cursed House of Mannon. In one of his earliest films, Kirk Douglas plays
Peter as sweet and not-too-bright, while Nancy Coleman's Hazel intuits the Mannon sickness more strongly.
As befitting an O'Neill tragedy, neither of these benevolent outsiders is strong enough to have a
positive effect on the story.
The least engaging element in the play is the caretaker played by Henry Hull, a one-man Greek chorus existing
only to provide rushed family exposition in a lengthy opening, and then to stand off to one side to calmly
witness new chapters unfold in the haunted Mannon story. He's not an official 'guide,' like the narrator in
, and he has no other real function except to
fill in for the notable lack of servants in the Mannon house.
Image's DVD of Mourning Becomes Electra is a good presentation of a movie that could have been
lost years ago. An artistic experiment that probably saw only a limited release, it was subjected to a
long history of shorter versions. One release cut over a third out of it. According to the IMDB, this
surviving version is 14 minutes short of the original length. The full cast accounting lists quite a few
characters that don't appear on screen, such as a chemist and a one-legged soldier. So there's presumably
a scene where Christine gets the poison to kill Ezra, and perhaps another episode with Orin in the company
of other wounded soldiers. Lavinia's early trip to New York to find her mother in the arms of Adam Brant
is rushed and interrupted with clumsy flashbacks that couldn't be a part of O'Neill's play, and the rather
highly-billed Sara Allgood is seen in only one shot, climbing a set of stairs.
The picture quality is better than good but is not given a full polish, with a bit of dirt showing up
now and then. The audio is clear; RKO's high technical standards shine through.
There are also no extras. The package text calls this an uncensored version, indicating that it's longer than
what's normally shown but not claiming to be the full-length original, which I think was screened at an exhaustive RKO
retrospective held at the LA County Art Museum in 1977. What's really needed is something like the
excellent essay in the
Joan of Arc disc that detailed that film's
confusing history of releases and edited versions. Mourning Becomes Electra probably has a similar
story in need of telling.
Image has some resourceful digital artists: the compelling cover art is a clever melding of three images seen
in stills on the package back. For all we know, those stills may have been all anyone could locate
for the title.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mourning Becomes Electra rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 16, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson