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Always tackling an interesting variety of film subjects, writer John Alden Robinson's first feature directing venture was this amusing comedy taken from a true WW2 home front newspaper scandal: fifteen year-old Ellsworth "Sonny" Wisecarver ran away with a married woman and was dragged back by the authorities. Not much later nearly the exact same thing happened again. The story became a front-page special because of Wisecarver's age and statements given by the lovestruck "older women" in Sonny's life. Instead of being shocked or regretful, Sonny's elope-mates extolled him to the heavens as the perfect lover, the best man a woman could ever find: "You take Sinatra and have yourself a swoon. I'll take Sonny." "I would like to take care of Sonny the rest of my life, and not on a motherly basis."
This of course made great news copy, and the older women-underage man issue was hotly debated. Wisecarver's public relations problem was made worse by the fact that his second conquest was married to a serviceman in the Pacific theater. Whereas both women got off with probation, Sonny -- "The Woo Woo Kid" - served hard jail time.
The record of movies about the wartime home front is pretty spotty. Steven Spielberg completely lost his bearings in his epic comedy 1941, while studio troubles on Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift resulted in a re-cut compromise that pleased nobody. Jack Fisk's Raggedy Man is a lucky winner, with Sissy Spacek wonderful as a Texas divorceé bullied into working long hours as a telephone operator. 1987's In the Mood starts on shaky ground but soon finds its way into a genuinely funny groove. The slightly exaggerated characters get more lovable as the story proceeds. Patrick Dempsey's Sonny is a nice kid who's just knocked off his feet by the women in his life. With no yardstick by which to judge his behavior, Sonny naturally assumes that his healthy, natural feelings are a good, direct path to happiness. What could be simpler?
Phil Alden Robinson doesn't have to cheat his facts to produce a wartime comedy of errors that would have done Preston Sturges proud -- In the Mood is like a real-life version of the hilarious The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Teenager Sonny Wisecarver cuts school regularly, feigning sickness by eating cigarettes. He hangs out with older kids and helps them score illegal gas without ration cards. That's when he meets Judy Cusimano, a 21 year-old common law wife and mother of two children. Lonely and mistreated, Judy gravitates toward Sonny. When some friends get the idea of driving to Yuma to get married, Sonny and Judy come along for the ride, lie about his age to obtain a marriage license and head for a honeymoon hotel.
Both the fun and underlying poignancy of the story is the knowledge that the elopement is sheer madness induced by young love and desire. Neither newlywed has a job, they've falsified all their marriage paperwork and Judy's husband has already called the cops. It isn't long before they're in handcuffs being sent back to Los Angeles. The newspapers eat up their story, and Sonny is soon notorious as "What A Man Wisecarver", and The Woo Woo Kid. Judy and Sonny are split up -- to keep him from being locked away for five years, Judy proclaims publicly that she never wants to see him again.
The whole affair is funny but quite touching, as Sonny is surely an innocent (at least, in the movie's terms) and Judy's actions can be seen as a fantasy escape from boredom and beatings. The movie captures this essential innocence; there's really no "sin" in their story. At 21 years Judy has two kids but still hasn't lived. She's eager for love and adventure. Sociologists cite WW2 America as the birth of modern-day juvenile delinquency, when teens from good families began to get into trouble just to have something to do. Allen Sherman called the Wisecarver media event the "beginning of the sexual revolution". Instead of condemning the couple, young America questioned what exactly their crime was.
The Wisecarver legend jumps back into gear when Sonny meets Francine Glatt (Beverly D'Angelo), a saucy boarding house neighbor ten years his senior. Pretending that they're slipping out for a hamburger, the pair run off to a love nest in the High Sierras. This time the press has them pegged almost immediately. Sonny gets locked up while Francine tells the microphones,"He's more of a man at 16 than a lot of men at 35. I love him more than I do my husband." Sonny has the misfortune to land in front of the same merciless judge who handled the Judy affair. The judge's punitive attitude seems based on jealousy, as Sonny receives marriage proposals in the mail and is mobbed by adoring bobby-soxers. This time he's sent right to the reformatory.
Patrick Dempsey is an engagingly likeable Sonny Wisecarver, a sweet guy without a mean bone in his body. His parents offer little assistance in understanding the world. Dad (Michael Constantine) just says that "Life's a bitch, then you die". His mother (Betty Jinette) always seems like a deer caught in the headlights. She wants to defend her son in court, but her ignorance of sexual innuendo gives the courtroom audience the wrong idea when she describes Sonny as "big for his age".
The women of In the Mood are even more perfectly cast. Talia Balsam gives Judy Cusimano a real spark of excitement. Every parent fears their teenager might run off and do God knows what with their lives, and Judy has gotten herself into a real pickle with her goonish common law husband. But Balsam's look of happiness when interacting with the honest and polite Sonny is infectious. We don't roll our eyes when she finds herself in car with a near-adolescent, saying "I will" to an insane marriage proposal.
Beverly D'Angelo is a major contrast, a street-wise allotment wife who doesn't realize how vulnerable she is to Sonny's innocent charm. 1 The two of them bond over a mutual dislike for their tyrannical landlady (the hilarious, endearing Kathleen Freeman). Whether it's the absence of desirable, available men her own age or just a crazy fling, D'Angelo's Francine loses herself over Sonny as well, almost as if eager to take a leap back into her own girlhood.
One of the reasons In the Mood is so pleasing is that nobody is made to take the blame for all this love-happy madness. I suppose the real-life story must have been more sordid -- "Judy" surely had plenty to regret -- but the movie expresses the gap between the nation's sheltered Puritanism and the realities of living. Details pop through that recall the abandon of our own first loves and reckless romance. My personal favorite is when Judy converts their flea-bite Yuma hotel room into paradise, by soaking the bed sheets in cold water. Can't say I ever tried such a thing, but the image instantly brings back other memories.
The real Ellsworth Wisecarver plays a mailman, in a brief bit.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of In the Mood is a good enhanced transfer of this amusing comedy. The cinematography is colorful and the audio track is kept hopping with swing music. The title tune is such a cliché in movies of this period that it doesn't add very much, but calling the movie "The Woo Woo Kid" wouldn't have sold many tickets. There are no extras; I'm informed that an original VHS release contained a short interview with the real Ellsworth Wisecarver, which would have been nice.
I'd only seen bits of this show in passing on TV, and am glad to have caught up with it all in one go. The movie apparently didn't do all that well in release, but I imagine it impressed the studio folk. They gave writer-director Robinson another shot with Field of Dreams.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
In the Mood rates:
1. Allotment Wife: A war spouse living partly on the pay sent home by her husband serving overseas. Allotment Annies were female crooks that racked up multiple husbands, carrying on correspondence with all of them to cash in those monthly checks. Some of them targeted flyers, who received special hazard pay and yielded higher allotment checks. See John Costello's engrossing article Love, Sex and War: The Girls they Left Behind. There's enough content there for five movie ideas.
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T'was Ever Thus.