CARRIE (William Wyler, 1952)

Victor Milner’s gray, faded black-and-white cinematography suits the mood of Theodore Dreiser’s turn-of-the-century urban naturalism in his dense, painstaking Sister Carrie, from whose title Hollywood excised the first word not to confuse audiences into thinking that the heroine was a nun. Carrie Meeber isn’t that, nor as a nervous Paramount studio or “actress” Jennifer Jones would have it is the film’s Carrie much like the novel’s. Rather than Dreiser’s complex figure, she might as well be a nun, given the sanctified treatment she is accorded here.
     Indeed, William Wyler’s well-upholstered film has also been stripped of its sociopolitical context (to which, beyond family addressing, the first word of Dreiser’s title refers). Now small-town Carrie’s embarkment for the big city, Chicago, is a plot springboard only; in the book, the myths motivating her move make it a thematic springboard as well. Nor is it now clear that Carrie’s “rise” to theatrical prominence, dueting with her older lover, restaurant manager George Hurstwood’s “fall,” is steeped in embittered irony since, despite the hallowed ground that popular culture occupies in our own day, Carrie’s “success” as actress is, at best, ambivalently received in hers.
     I’ve been wrong about something—well, about many things—all my life. Since the release of Carrie, a financial flop, followed the same studio’s money-making release of A Place in the Sun (1951), based on a play based on Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, I presumed that the success of one film emboldened Paramount to make the other. Now I’ve learned that Carrie predated Place but was immediately shelved and doctored to avoid political controversy in the McCarthy era. Therefore, I no longer blame Wyler for the diluted result.
     The one reason to see this film is brilliant Laurence Olivier’s elegant Hurstwood, a gripping slide into degradation.


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