Sep. 15, 2009
Carrie (1952)
Grade: 84/100

Director: William Wyler
Stars: Jennifer Jones, Laurence Olivier, Eddie Albert

What it's about. Set circa 1900. Beautiful and innocent Carrie (Jennifer Jones) is travelling by train from the country to stay with her humorless married sister and work as a seamstress in a sweat shop. This bleak life is too hard for her to take, but she is too proud to return home. So, she takes salesman Drouet (Eddie Albert) up on his offer to keep her in the gilded cage of his apartment, as his mistress. While no one would care about such things today, in 1900 that made her a "fallen woman."

One day Drouet takes Carrie to a fine restaurant and bar managed by George (Laurence Olivier), a seemingly wealthy man whose assets are in fact controlled by his financially shrewd and henpecking wife (Miriam Hopkins). George falls for Carrie immediately, and begins a romance with her while Drouet is out of town. But everyone soon finds out, and just before the walls close in on George's foolish infatuation, he steals a large sum from his employer and elopes with Carrie.

A detective tracks down George, and confiscates his nest age. George is now broke and can't get a good job. It's like A Star is Born as Carrie lands a gig with the theater. Over time, she becomes a successful actress, while the now-abandoned George hits rock bottom.

How others will see it. Ask most people, "What is the best film adaptation of a Theodore Dreiser novel?" and they will respond, "Theodore who?" Or perhaps, "Is that Dr. Seuss?" But then there is the 1% percent of the population familiar with classic literature. That bookish minority will answer, probably with conviction, "A Place in the Sun."

Fair enough. That movie had Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, who had the advantages of being younger and thus more fashionable than Jennifer Jones and Laurence Olivier. The central theme, that of a promising life ruined for the love of a wonderful woman, is shared by both stories. The difference is that A Place in the Sun came out a year earlier, was better promoted, and had a bigger budget.

As it is a romance more than a tragedy (after all, nobody dies), it is unsurprising that men will likely prefer the George Stevens movie. Women, however, may secretly savor Carrie, not for Jones' satisfactory performance, but for Olivier's tour-de-angst role. Throughout, he's so bent on winning and keeping Carrie that he gradually cedes all his tomorrows for today. When he has no more tomorrows left to bargain with, it's off to the flophouse. Better that than face up to Carrie, confess his past sins, and beg for forgiveness and understanding. Which, as it turns out, is all that Carrie is capable of, aside from performing on stage.

Thus the tear-jerker ending, in which Carrie sees George as a stray dog that must be rescued and restored to the hearth. But George sees himself as a cockroach that only scurries into the light when absolutely forced to by hunger. It is Carrie that turned George into that cockroach. But she didn't mean to! Boo-hoo, if only George would clean up his act.

How I felt about it. Studio lore has it that Olivier took the role only because his wife, Vivien Leigh, was making A Streetcar Named Desire on a nearby set. But the part was perfect for him. He plays it as a man somehow aware that he is about to be stripped of all dignity, as punishment for loving a woman who is beneath his station. And he feels he deserves this punishment in return for the pathetic lies and false fronts he shows Carrie. But without those evasions, he will lose Carrie, and he would rather continue his descent than do without her. Until, at the end, he feels so unworthy of her that he cannot bear her presence.

The moral: better to stay married to a cold-blooded shrew. Happiness is unsustainable anyway, and material comfort beats the alternative.