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World War II made the home front just a bit freer by loosening the icy grip of the censor on movie and plays. Just as films "with the right morale message" could be more violent, racy or vindictive, some Broadway plays were trading in double-entendre jokes for more serious challenges to the social fabric. In other words, a little more frankness about sex. John Van Druten's huge stage success The Voice of the Turtle opened in 1943 and played for five years before Warners turned it into a movie. One measure of the film's success is that movies about wartime New York were abandoned almost immediately with the end of hostilities. The subject immediately became dated.
The picture has a fine cast but the big surprise is Ronald Reagan, who as the male lead turns in a natural, likeable performance. Although the screen gave Reagan a several solid opportunities to shine, Reagan played an awful lot of best friends and one-dimensional action heroes. I don't think he's much of a comedian but this light comedy never goes for big laughs. Previous Warners "Ronald Reagan" collections have included features where he's barely a supporting character. I never would have believed that The Voice of the Turtle was this good.
Van Druten's play was a prestige hit when it came out. The movie now plays as a variant on the "no rooms available in town" WW2 movies that showed strangers in New York and Washington forced to co-habit due to the wartime housing crunch. Missouri transplant Sally Middleton (capable Eleanor Parker) came to the Big Apple to become an actress, but instead has fallen in love with big producer Kenneth Bartlett (Kent Smith), a man with no desire to get serious. Dumped, Sally finds herself taking advice from her best friend Olive Lashbrooke (Even Arden), who asks to receive her Friday date at Sally's place. Olive flaunts her string of boyfriends before Sally, which makes the less experienced woman feel even more miserable. Then an old flame calls -- a ranking Naval officer (Wayne Morris) -- and Olive decides to go out with him instead. Sally gets stuck with the somewhat bitter Sergeant Bill Page (Ronald Reagan), who realizes he's been snubbed and has no place to stay. When Sally and Bill go out together, they find that they seem to be compatible -- both have had romantic problems and don't want to get hurt again. Coming home at the wee hours of the morning, they decide that Bill will never find a hotel room. Sally puts him up on her couch for the night... they're alone in the apartment together.
The Voice of the Turtle is an endearing little romance that avoids broad comedy or outlandish developments one might find in a farce. It's not about snappy one-liners, either. Two young people during wartime buck the odds and find each other in the chaos of city life. They stay together one night, but a few words said the wrong way send Bill out on his own for the second night. Unlike comic constructions, these characters display quiet pride and a sense of propriety... and even more, sensitive feelings. Sally feels like a fool for having fallen in love with the urbane Ken Bartlett, who can get all the female companionship he ever needs without promising any individual girl anything. Ken is too much of a gentleman to allow Sally to get in deeper and be hurt even more. Bill fell in love with a girl in Paris just before the war, but was thrown over by her. The episode left a big scar that he's still hasn't gotten over. He's disappointed to discover that Olive is an even worse butterfly, using a lame excuse to break off a date for the only weekend he'll likely have free for months.
Bill's a nice guy, but interestingly Sally is the one with the inner conflicts. She holds herself in high regard yet at the moment feels entirely unworthy -- and is honestly surprised when Bill asks her out. Eleanor Parker was by this time an established star but during the war she was often cast as someone's Girl Back Home, either a military wife or a hopeful girlfriend, as in Delmer Daves' The Very Thought of You. Always underappreciated, Parker was nominated for Best Actress three times but never won.
Olive's 'dream officer' turns out to have gained weight since she last saw him. She seems to have misjudged him entirely, or maybe she didn't see past the uniform. Her selfishness is almost unpleasant -- not only does Olive openly use the men in her life, when she thinks that Sally may have 'stolen' Bill she's constantly phoning to check up on them. This is a different role for Eve Arden, who is usually a smart-talking but good-hearted best friend. Olive is just a climber and a user. Kent Smith comes off well, but poor Wayne Morris is once again playing a borderline buffoon. It's interesting that Stanley Kubrick picked up on his doofus quality, and cast him as a cowardly trench officer for his Paths of Glory.
The play was controversial (probably in the conservative view) for its sexual attitudes. In the stage version, Olive Lashbrooke is said to be just plain promiscuous. Sally reportedly worries about the state of her virginity. We don't know if (in the play) Ken dumped her because she wouldn't sleep with him, but a potential problem does arise with a star actor (John Holland) who likes to privately rehearse his leading ladies. Sally gets invited to the star's rooms to rehearse. Nothing happens and she later reports that all was perfectly above board. I should think that the play wouldn't spend all that time on a setup without paying it off; I'm assuming that in the stage version we hear more about Sally's visit to the star.
In the movie, it's assumed that no sex is happening, not nowhere nohow. Everybody's just having a good time eating at expensive restaurants and attending hit Broadway plays. There is some cute, suggestive byplay at Sally's apartment. She gives Bill some fancy pajamas that were surely meant as a gift for Ken. Might the PJ's be a vestige of Sally's jettisoned closer relationship with Ken? Sally has this funny ritual for folding bedspreads in prep for bedtime, a process that consists of flopping down on the bed several times, in motions that suggest, well, fun in bed. Wink wink.
Director Irving Rapper was a top dialogue director before becoming one of those semi-anonymous talents that has his name on famous pictures known mainly for their stars, Bette Davis in particular. It's hard to know if The Voice of the Turtle's perfect continuity flow is Rapper's work, or just the Warner house style in the capable hands of editor Rudi Fehr.
The Voice of the Turtle doesn't get heavy and never tries to hit us with a big message. But it does give a good idea of how people might find each other in the old days, when the rules of propriety made it difficult to discover what someone is really like. And frankly, it was rather nice to find another good Ronald Reagan movie. This role is a good fit for him.
Baby boomer kids all connect with "The Voice of the Turtle" through vintage Warner Bros. cartoons that more than once used its title as a joke. It is of course a quote from the Bible's Song of Solomon, heard twice in the film but without adequate explanation. Bill keeps talking about the coming of Spring, but we constantly see is rain and snow falling outside the windows.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Voice of the Turtle is a fine rendition of this low-key but pleasant comedy. Picture and track are in near-pristine shape. We're told that the movie was re-titled for TV as One for the Book, but I've never personally seen it broadcast with that title. In fact, why the name should have been changed is a mystery. The WAC's presentation includes an original trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Voice of the Turtle rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.