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Welcome to one of the most memorable, yet frustrating, epic soap operas ever filmed!
Post-war MGM kept its movie factory assembly line going assuming that the audience would still want the same kinds of entertainment the studio had put out before the war. Louis Mayer's assemblage of top musical talent resulted in a blossoming of the song 'n' dance genre, but most everything else was a case of diminishing returns. 1947 was the pivotal year when seers predicted gloom and doom for the industry: the coming Consent Decree, the arrival of Television on a national scale and the higher cost of labor combined to make one of the most profitable companies in the country, suddenly unprofitable. The New York office would bring in Dore Schary as a second production executive, giving Mayer strong competition. Big-budget epics weren't doing particularly well -- Fox's spectacularly expensive Forever Amber and Captain from Castile had trouble breaking even. But MGM launched into an old-fashioned "tradition of quality" potboiler, Green Dolphin Street. The story concerns the romantic fates of two beautiful sisters, spans at least fifteen years and sprawls across the globe from France to New Zealand. The key star is Lana Turner, then a hotter-than-hot MGM property.
Adapted by screenwriter Samuel Raphaelson from Elizabeth Goudge's page-turner, Green Dolphin Street charts the fortunes of Marianne Patourel (Lana Turner) the ambitious daughter of a wealthy owner of a shipping firm. Marianne wants to make the perfect marriage to insure that her status as a woman (the early 1800s) doesn't interfere with her plan to get rich in business. To that end she sets her cap for William Ozanne (Richard Hart), the son of the doctor across the street. The passive William seems to prefer Marianne's less assertive sister, Marguerite (Donna Reed). Various family matters come up -- Marianne and Marguerite's mother Sophie (Gladys Cooper) was once secretly in love with William's father Dr. Edmond (Frank Morgan). But William doesn't declare himself to Marguerite until he ships out with the British Navy. That's just the beginning of a tale that becomes an adventure in the logging business in a frontier New Zealand. William partners with a rogue businessman, Timothy Haslam (Van Heflin) and lives among savage Maori tribesmen. A tragic error will send Marianne halfway around the world, to marry the wrong man.
Remember that Warner Bros. cartoon in which an apoplectic Daffy Duck describes his movie idea to a fat studio mogul, an idea that drags in 20 grandiose plot ideas ("And then the DAM BURST! Sploosh!") ? Green Dolphin Street does the same for the bodice-ripping women's romantic adventure tale. Everything but the kitchen sink is tossed into a story that employs every known major theme of popular women's literature of the day: 1.) An aggressive, beautiful young woman challenges conventions in the pursuit of happiness. 2.) Competition between sisters, one daring and showy, the other modest and reserved. 3.) Family secrets that include a forbidden romance in the past, still recalled by the now- elderly lovers. 4.) The hunky boy next door. 5.) The hunky boy next door who badly needs a strong woman to do his thinking for him. 5.) The hunky boy next door that repeatedly makes bonehead mistakes that change the course of everyone else's lives. 6.) A more sensitive, deserving heroic lead male who loves the heroine but remains loyal to his best friend, the hunky but weak and boneheaded boy who used to live next door. 8.) Young love fighting for expression in some Godforsaken faraway native jungle. 7.) The secondary heroine, her chances for romance thwarted by a cruel trick of fate, who considers suicide but is instead inspired by the Church. 9.) Several characters that suffer in noble silence.10.) Lots of deathbed scenes as beloved older characters are killed off to clear away the debris from various subplots. 11.) And then the
The only thing missing is the Byronic, tortured hero ... wait, I think Van Heflin's character fulfills that requirement.
Green Dolphin Street was a big-deal MGM release, the kind given an ad campaign comparing it to the studio's award-winning greats. It did everything but please audiences. The plot certainly engages, but the main character isn't interesting enough. Lana Turner is beautiful but neither she nor the direction by Victor Saville can decide whether she's a manipulating Scarlett O'Hara type, or an honest woman driven by love. Marianne isn't bothered in the least in trying to pry William away from her sister; her plan appears to be to marry this walking marshmallow and be the business power behind the throne. Marianne's father already depends on her judgment and rubberstamps her radical ideas, even though her mastery of the shipping business is demonstrated only in her knowledge of the names of the sails on Reginald Owen's Clipper Ship. Marianne sits on the stairs and eavesdrops on the conversations of the male businessmen, beaming as William attributes his success to her guidance. When the lumber empire is wiped out in northern New Zealand, a single dissolve to five years in the future shows that Marianne has made a success of a sheep concern in southern New Zealand.
Actor Richard Hart had more success on the stage, and died only a few years later at a very young age. He seems to have been made up to look like a variation on Laurence Olivier, but his character is a complete jellyfish. William forfeits his naval career when he allows himself to be drugged and robbed by a Eurasian shop girl (Lila Leeds again) and fails to report to the nearest authorities. Later on, he screws up the lives of both Patourel sisters by getting drunk and... continuing would be too big of a spoiler. When Marianne comes halfway around the world to marry him, everybody's romantic dreams are dashed. Also a fugitive, Timothy Halsam knew and loved Marianne back home, and must watch as she marries the biggest clod ever to call himself a romantic hero. 1
Green Dolphin Street won an Oscar for its special effects, which are indeed impressive. Enormous miniature landscapes of forested mountains were built to depict a huge wall of water, released from a high lake by an earthquake. (The script calls this a tidal wave, for some reason.) The elaborate Maori village where Marianne, William and Timothy run their profitable lumber business (exploit those natives!) is a very big set, most of which appears to have been constructed on giant rocker foundations. The wooden buildings shake to flinders while huge trees topple onto helpless Maoris via the miracle of rear projection. For every crack that opens in the earth some unlucky native manages to fall in. The same goes for those falling trees, each of which hammers at least one panicked Maori into the shaking ground.
Not so striking are the film's matte paintings, which turn the same quarter-acre of period buildings on the Metro back lot into a seaport town on a channel island between England and France. William and Marianne live across the street from each other, but there's no evidence that the buildings are so arranged in reality. The little stone bridge they walk across can be seen in at least fifty MGM movies, everything from Madame Bovary to The Dirty Dozen. The most egregiously fake matte shows one of those imposing giant rock islands, cut off from the mainland by the tides, jutting up into the frame. An Abbey sits at the very top. We aren't shown how the elderly Mother superior (Dame May Whitty) gets up and down this towering edifice without suffering a stroke or a heart attack. Is there an escalator on the back side?
The impressive earthquake is followed by a Maori uprising that catches the whites unawares. Marianne clutches her young child, convinced they'll all be massacred. But our group of outsiders is allowed to walk out of the compound, with the Great White Bwana or whatever Timothy leading the way. He went native from the start, see, and wears some pretty cool half-Maori outfits. 2
Green Dolphin Street is an excellent epic soap opera, but its conclusion sends the wrong message to postwar audiences expecting either realism or optimistic escapism. As befitting the rules of good taste, no bodices are ripped, and for all her talk the 'daring' heroine defies no social edicts. The leading couple decides to make the best of things in their marriage, and to be satisfied with being filthy rich. Other characters exit quietly or find peace in the Church. A later scene contains what must be the most overstated "spiritual" analogy in any Hollywood movie of the 1940s. A young woman is caught on the beach rocks below the abbey as the tide comes in. To save herself from drowning she must climb an endless chimney of stone inside a solid rock mountain. She literally sees "the light at the end of the tunnel." She emerges at the top under a statue of the Virgin Mary.
The final message is that our lives are decided by fate, and even when outrageous fortune stomps on the romances of youth, "everything always turns out for the best." I have a hard time even approaching this philosophy let alone giving it serious consideration. It's a denial system to pretend that nothing really matters as long as you play the game sincerely. And don't forget to forgive the man who ditched you or the sister who betrayed you. Green Dolphin Street covers its own interesting story turns with a thick coat of sticky sanctimony.
The acting in the movie is always better than acceptable, yet nobody really stands out. The more I concentrated on Lana Turner's performance, the less I found in it. I realize that she's still the favorite of many but to me she seldom approaches anything like credibility in a role. Donna Reed looks confused and rather hurt through the whole movie, while Van Heflin hits no false notes with his dashing, emotional self-made man. The interesting Richard Hart can't do anything with his aggravatingly limp character -- you want to smack this guy with a shovel. The movie shows his weaknesses but never seems to have an opinion about them. Interestingly enough, the best moment in the show is between the actors playing Lana Turner's parents, Gladys Cooper and Edmund Gwenn. Cooper is usually stuck playing unpleasant aunts and assorted old biddies, and Gwenn's deft character turns are rarely appreciated. They share a tender romantic scene at her deathbed that's also honest and touching.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Green Dolphin Street is a beauty, a Remastered Edition that brings the picture and audio tracks back to top quality. An original trailer is included. At 141 minutes the show zips along and is never boring. I'd never heard of it, until I read about it in John McElwee's fascinating Green Dolphin Street article over at Greenbriar Picture Shows.. The interesting discoveries at the WAC never seem to end.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Green Dolphin Street rates:
1. MGM also screws up the details. An all-important letter is supposed to have been written by a man who is so drunk that he makes a ridiculous (Freudian?) mistake in the text -- yet this same letter has the perfect calligraphy shared by ALL inserts of hand-written letters in MGM movies. Was Louis B. Mayer obsessed with good penmanship?
2. The little girl is played by Gigi Perreau, who 50 years later coached drama at my daughter's high school! I'm slowly catching up with all of Gigi's movies -- I wonder if she and her brothers and sisters (all child actors) collect them too, or if they couldn't care less about such things.
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T'was Ever Thus.