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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. III, No. 3
January, 1980



[The Public Theater's recent screening of six films based on O'Neill plays, plus a simultaneous run elsewhere in New York City of the Lee Marvin Iceman Cometh, elicited a series of evaluative ripples in the capsule-film-review pages of the October 15, 22 and 29 issues of The New Yorker. Given Brendan Gill's oft-repeated views on the playwright (see page 15 of the September 1977 issue of the Newsletter for a characteristic slam), one can't expect eulogy, but the film capsules, reprinted below, are, of course, anonymous. --Ed.]

1. Ah, Wilderness! (1935). "This piece of ordinary-family-life Americana, centering on the sweet love pangs of adolescence, is so remote from Eugene O'Neill's life and his other work [? --Ed.] that it's something of a freak. O'Neill said that the play came to him at night, as a dream, but it seems to be a dream based on Booth Tarkington's world. Eric Linden (who always looks as if he's just about to cry) plays the mooning high-school-valedictorian hero in the era of choking starched collars; that cloying old fraud Lionel Barrymore is his father; Wallace Beery is his tippling uncle; and Aline MacMahon and Spring Byington wear neat shirtwaists and make themselves useful about the house. If it sounds Andy Hardyish, it is, and more than a little; in 1948, MGM tried to capitalize on the resemblance by starring Mickey Rooney- in a musical version of the play, called "Summer Holiday." The musical turned out to be an abomination, but this early version, directed by Clarence Brown, while not a world-shaker, and rather dim as entertainment, has at least a nice sense of period."

2. Anna Christie (1930). "One waits for an eternity for Garbo to show up and utter her first talking-picture line—'Give me a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don't be stingy, baby.' This is not one of Eugene O'Neill's best plays, and dat-ole-davil-sea stuff is pretty hard to take in this version, directed by Clarence Brown."

3. The Emperor Jones (1933). "Eugene O'Neill's play about a black man's disintegration was conceived in a semi-Expressionist style, and it was filmed in that style by Dudley Murphy, from a screenplay by DuBose Heyward. Murphy, a director with ideas but almost no technique, used painted sets, exaggerated decor, and an artificial jungle; the effects are sometimes powerful, sometimes foolish. O'Neill's violent emotions are accurately rendered by Paul Robeson and Dudley Digges, though they seem to be acting on a stage."

4. The Iceman Cometh (1973). "Eugene O'Neill's great, heavy, simplistic, mechanical, beautiful play has been given a straightforward, faithful production in handsome, dark-toned color. A filmed play like this one doesn't offer the sensual excitement that movies can offer, but you don't go to it for that; you go to it for O'Neill's crude, prosaic virtuosity, which is also pure American poetry, and—as with most filmed dramas—if you miss the 'presence' of the actors, you gain from seeing it per-formed by the sort of cast that rarely gathers in the theatre. The characters are drunken bums and whores who have found sanctuary in Harry Hope's flophouse saloon; each has a 'pipe dream' that sustains him until Hickey, the salesman—the 'iceman'—who attempts to free them all by stripping them of their lies and guilt, takes the life out of them. The play is essentially an argument between Larry, an aging anarchist (Robert Ryan), and Hickey (Lee Marvin); Larry speaks for pity and the necessity of illusions, Hickey for the curative power of truth. They're the two poles of consciousness that O'Neill himself is split between. Larry, a self-hating alcoholic, is a weak man and a windbag, but Ryan brings so much understanding to Larry's weakness that the play achieves new dimensions. Ryan becomes O'Neill for us; he has O'Neill's famous 'tragic handsomeness' and the broken-man jowls, too, and at the end, when Larry is permanently 'iced'—that is, stripped of illusion we can see that this is the author's fantasy of himself: he alone is above the illusions that the others fall back on. He is tragic, while the others, with their restored illusions, have become comic. Yes, it's sophomoric to see yourself as the one who is doomed to live without illusions, yet what O'Neill does with this sophomoric conception is masterly. And Ryan (who died shortly after) got right to the boozy, gnarled soul of the play. The film is marred by the central miscasting of Lee Marvin (he's thick, somehow, and irrelevantly vigorous), but it isn't destroyed. Though the characters are devised from the thesis and we never lose our awareness of that, they are nevertheless marvelously playable. Fredric March interprets Harry Hope with so much quiet tenderness that when Harry regains his illusions and we see March's muscles tone up we don't know whether to smile for the character or the actor. And there are Jeff Bridges as Parritt, Bradford Dillman as Willie (you can almost taste his joy in the role), and Martyn Green, George Voscovec, Sorrell Booke, Moses Gunn, Tom Pedi, and John McLiam. Directed by John Frankenheimer."

5. The Long Voyage Home (1940). "One of the finest of all the movies that deal with life at sea, and one of the most successful of all attempts to put Eugene O'Neill on film—perhaps because the director, John Ford, and the adapter, Dudley Nichols, were so free in their approach to O'Neill's material. The young Mildred Natwick has a memorable scene in a cafe with John Wayne, and Barry Fitzgerald's return to the ship is a truly great moment. Greg Toland did the cinematography (which includes some early experiments in deep focus)."

6. Mourning Becomes Electra (1947). "O'Neill's six-hour Freudian-American Greek tragedy accumulates power on the stage, but it becomes merely oppressive in the nearly three hours of this painstaking yet static version, written and directed by Dudley Nichols. Rosalind Russell is the Electra, Katina Paxinou her adulterous mother, Raymond Massey her father, and Michael Redgrave her brother. (It is apparent from their accents that they have only recently become a family.)"

7. Strange Interlude (1932). "Whoever decided to revive this one forgot a sound bit of advice: let sleeping dogs lie."



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