Silence is Golden: Buster Keaton, Rudolph Valentino & Gloria Swanson

 Is silence golden? For the early days of cinema, the answer is decidedly yes. It might strike modern movie-goers as odd to watch a film without sound, but watching classic films from the silent era makes you observe how actors communicated without any words other than the occasional intertitle, the term for placards bearing words that advance the plot. Here are two to try.





Directed by Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton

United Artists, 71 minutes, not rated.


Many have claimed that only Charlie Chaplin was a more brilliant physical comedian than Buster Keaton. Steamboat Bill, Jr. gives you the best of both, as co-director Charles Reisner was one Chaplin’s favorite collaborators. It’s also unusual in being a movie named for a 1911 hit song.


Captain William Canfield (Ernest Torrence) operates the Stonewall Jackson somewhere in the Deep South. You’d need a telescope to see the glory days of his tatterdemalion tub. When local banker J. J. King (Tom McGuire) launches his spanking new paddle wheeler, customers gravitate to it and King can’t help but gloat and make fun of the Stonewall Jackson. When Canfield gets a telegram from his son whom he hasn’t  seen in many years, he holds out hope that maybe Junior can help him get back in the river game. Canfield Sr. heads to the rail station and searches for a burly man such as himself. Imagine his disappointment when a nerdy, uke-carrying, beret-wearing fop steps off the train, oh-too-well-mannered from his years living in Boston.


Job one is to make a man out of this pencil-necked geek. Job two is to get his mind off King’s daughter, Kitty (Marion Bryon), which should be easy since J.J. King doesn’t want him within a country mile of Kitty. But Kitty is also “modern” and is smitten with Bill, Jr. All of this is a setup for a comedy of errors–Junior’s inappropriate riverboat costume, his even less appropriate piloting skills, his awkward courting skills, papa’s assault on King, a botched jail break–but the “plot” of all Keaton films are excuses for acrobatic comedy, some so dangerous that a few critics speculated that Keaton was suicidal. (Keaton never used stuntmen, but there’s no evidence he wished to harm himself.) Audiences of the day liked comedies mixed with romance, so you can count on Keaton to come through in the end, rescue an erstwhile enemy and his daughter, and win the “girl,” as they were called back then.


There are some astonishing stunts in this film that demonstrate why Keaton’s star shone so brightly in the silent era. Alas, this film also marked Keaton’s fall from grace. It was his last movie for United Artists, which really was a non-commercial coalition of actors in its inception. Keaton went on to bigger paychecks at MGM, but lost creative control over his films. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is now considered one of his best movies, but it was a box office bomb. But here’s a legacy: It inspired an animated film called Steamboat Willie, which was the first film for a character who didn’t yet have a name: Mickey Mouse.  





Directed by Sam Wood

Paramount, 80 minutes, not rated.


Who could ask for more than a love quadrangle between two of the silent era’s greatest stars, Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson? To add to its allure, Beyond the Rocks was considered a lost film–until it surfaced in a damaged nitrate version in 2003 and was restored in 2006. It is set in Dorset, England, but no need to worry about bad British accents in a silent film! (Valentino reportedly had a very high voice.)


Theodora Fitzgerald (Swanson) is one of three daughters to a retired seaman in dire financial straits. She is accident-prone and is plucked from a rowboat capsize by Lord Hector Bracondale (Valentino). She swoons over him, but he’s a confirmed bachelor. (Yeah, right!) To help her family, Theodora agrees to marry the considerably older Josiah Brown (Robert Bolder). Lord Hector is being actively pursued by Morella Winmarleigh (Gertrude Astor), a match the “proper” classes favor, except for Hector who warms to the spirited Theodora. She yearns for Hector, but she’s married to Josiah. This little scenario was risqué for 1922 as it involved situations the Hollywood Code would later seek to eliminate. (The sanctity of marriage was a core Code value.)


Josiah adores Theodora, but he’s no fool and can see what’s before his eyes. Another interesting aspect of this film is that it’s simultaneously a romance and a tragedy. If you’re wondering who owned the screen, Valentino was the pretty boy but Swanson ruled the nitrate. Director Sam Wood later became controversial for his difficult personality and his right-leaning politics, but he knew his way around the camera. This is a film that could be made today and I’d not be surprised if someone attempts a remake. Good luck finding Swanson and Valentino substitutes.


Rob Weir


Now is Not the Time to Panic: What Sticks from Adolescence



By Kevin Wilson

Ecco/HarperCollins, 248 pages.





Sociologists tell us that most fads and crazes are short-lived and harmless. Not all though; some degenerate into rumors and mass hysteria. Now is Not the Time to Panic, the newest novel from Kevin Wilson, explores the dark side of fads, albiet in an often humorous way.


Precocious sixteen-year-old Frances “Frankie” Budge lives in Coalfield, Tennessee, a dishwater-dull generic town. She comes from a home broken when her father was discovered having a second family on the side, including another daughter who is also named Frances. Frankie’s mom is a free spirit, which probably serves her well given that Frankie is working through her adolescent blues and she also needs to rein in her ABC triplet sons (Andrew, Brian, Charlie). They’re more rambunctious than criminal, but they don’t hesitate to walk off with things that aren’t nailed down. That includes a copy machine that sits under a tarp in the garage, because they think they broke it by, of all things, making copies of their butts!


Frankie is so bored that she’s writing a novel about a bad Nancy Drew knockoff and worrying that she’ll be rutted in Coalfield forever. Did any of you ever have an unexpected summertime experience that changed your life? Frankie is about to. A kid “trying out” the name Zeke is in town. He, Benjamin Ezekiel Brown, is staying with his grandmother in Coalfield, because his parents in Memphis are also having marital problems. Neither Frankie nor Zeke have friends and are in that physical stage of adolescence best described as plain-looking.


The two hang out, engage in some awkward kissing, and listen to 1990s grunge, but their big adventure begins when Frankie’s wordcraft and Zeke’s drawing ability collide. Out of the blue Frankie comes up with a phrase you’ll see over and over in Wilson’s novel: The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us. Zeke illustrates the slogan with a comic book-like drawing featuring a pair of hands. It is also adorned with dots resulting from pricking their fingers to splash blood on the poster. Much to their surprise, the printer is easily fixed and they begin to reproduce the poster and secretly hang it all over Coalfield. At first residents ignore it, then they grow curious, then rumors begin. An unexpected event/lie thrusts the poster into the public consciousness and pushes the panic button. Most of the rumors are patently ridiculous–until they become serious.


As such things go, the poster cycle evolves from copies to copycats. Zeke and Frankie are scared to reveal their authorship, as some things have gone down that could get them into trouble. Plus, Frankie is obsessed with their creation and doesn’t want to stop plastering the town with posters. Crazes tend to burn out via circumstances and time. Such is also the case for the partnership between Zeke and Frankie, but obsession is harder to shake.


Wilson moves the clock forward 21 years, by which time Frankie has been to college, has published books, has moved away, has a marriage and family of her own, and has lost touch with Zeke. What would you do, though, if a New Yorker writer contacted you as she (Mazzy Brower) is positive that Frankie made the poster that once dominated the news? Do you fess up? If so, do you give Zeke credit? Do you even know if he’d want it? For that matter, is he even still alive? There’s also the fact that Frankie still tacks up posters. All of these are interesting dilemmas and I invite you to imagine what path you’d choose.   


Now is Not the Time to Panic is a short novel that stays that way by not straying far from its original premise. Some readers questioned the believability of Frankie’s two-decades’ obsession. I can’t resolve its veracity and Wilson doesn’t try; within a book on collective hysteria the answer probably depends upon individual personalities. Speaking only for myself, as much I’d like to deny it, I suspect there are various values, habits, tastes, and patterns that link to my adolescence. But I would argue against anyone who finds the hysteria part of novel far-fetched. As H. L. Mencken is credited with saying, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” That wasn’t his exact quote, but close enough! 


Rob Weir


Three Documentaries That Could Have Been Better


Documentaries are often a problematic film genre. They are didactic by nature, not “movies” whose major purpose is to entertain. Good ones present new information; mediocre ones merely rehash the familiar under the pretense of “discovery.” I tend to avoid ones that deal with traumatic subjects with which I’m already familiar, but offer no solutions. Why wallow in sorrow or anger? Quite a few documentaries disappoint because they could/should have been better. Here are three that are perfectly decent, but left me wanting more.



Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time (2021)

Directed by Robert Weide and Don Argott

IFC Films, 127 minutes, not rated




 What’s new: As he grew older, Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) settled into a self-crafted public persona: witty, eccentric, harmlessly cranky, aloof. He was deep into that role when he was a writer-in-residence at Smith College and overlapped with my time there. The most revelatory part of the documentary shows a tender, sentimental side at odds with the image he cultivated. Interviews with some of his children–three biological and four adopted–adds a personal touch. One that resonates out my way comes from his daughter Nanny, an artist who lives in Northampton, MA.


What’s old: Talking heads are a documentary cliché. Did we need testimonials from a Morley Safer or a John Irving to tell us that Vonnegut was an interesting writer? Likewise, his foundational experiences– growing up in Indianapolis, being a POW in Dresden during World War II, working for GE, struggling to get published–are decidedly old info.


What’s bad: I want a law that bans filmmakers from telling us how hard it was to make their documentaries. Memo: All filmmakers struggle to bring their vision into being! Co-director Robert Weide tells us he doesn’t want the film to be about himself, but that’s exactly what he gave us. He had a 40 year friendship with Vonnegut, but we learn as much about how Weibe’s other projects–Curb Your Enthusiasm, Parks and Recreation, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth–sidetracked his documentary than we do about his subject. Even IMDB calls this one “a filmmaker’s journey.”



Be There to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004)

Directed by Margaret Brown

Palm Pictures, 99 minutes, not rated




What’s new: What’s new is exactly what made Townes Van Zandt (1944-97) an almost impossible subject: He was an alcoholic, a heroin addict, suffered from mental illness, and an id-driven individual. The external squalor of his life was more extensive than you might imagine.

What’s old: Van Zandt is presented as a lynchpin of the outlaw country movement. I’m not sure he was that influential, but this is a well-traveled assertion. We also see a parade of other “outlaws,” such as Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and Guy Clark, the true father of the genre. They paled around with Van Zandt, rehashed old stories and each, of course, declared him a genius. 


What’s bad: Director Margaret Brown couldn’t find a center to give coherence to her film, which gives it a random and episodic feel. I really wanted her to make me admire Van Zandt, but she could not make sense him. This may rub some readers the wrong way, but I think Van Zandt was overrated. He wrote a few gems–“Pancho and Lefty,” “Waitin’ Around to Die,” and “If I Needed You” are my favorites–but the film didn’t change my opinion about is overall repertoire.


Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010)

Directed by Tamra Brown

 Arthouse Films, 90 minutes, not rated.



What’s new: I was late to the party in appreciating street art, which has been elevated to the kind of art that gallery owners sell for major bucks. The commodification of street art came more rapidly and was more extensive than I realized. The best insights into Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) come from other artists such as Julian Schnabel, Fab Five Freddy, and Kenny Scharf. (Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore is pretty good as well.)


What’s old: Tamra Brown spends a lot of time presenting the views of collectors, gallery owners, and the self-proclaimed (read pretentious) New York avantgarde who pursue the darling of the moment. Do we need more validation that they are the equivalent of sleazy ambulance-chasing lawyers? 


What’s bad: Nothing is bad per se, but once I started to appreciate street/outsider art, the figure who most perplexed me was Basquiat, whose use of repetition and symbolism requires decoding. The film’s tone is flat and my attention began to drift. It was also too laudatory. I learned to appreciate and see some of Basquiat’s personal and artistic flaws, but  from a 2020 MFA Boston exhibition and from Jane Oneail of Culturally Curious.


Rob Weir





All the Pretty Horses a Fine Anti-Western



By Cormac McCarthy

Knopf, 302 pages.




I’ve heard good things about the two new novels of Cormac McCarthy, so I decided to read his National Book Award winner All the Pretty Horses as a prelude. It’s a novel I intended to read for a long time, but I simply never got around to it until now. Maybe I was put off by the poor reception of the movie adaptation that starred the always-forgettable Matt Damon and was directed by flavor-of-the-moment Billy Bob Thornton, whom I find creepy. But back to the book.


As many know, this was Book 1 of his Border Trilogy, the demarcation in question being that between the Southwest and Mexico. All the Pretty Horses got a lot of love from critics and mixed reviews from the reading public. Some no doubt disliked McCarthy’s anti-Western framing that has little to do with the romantic image many Americans hold of a West that never was. The novel is set in 1949, a time that’s a good candidate for the actual closing of the frontier rather than 1890, the marker upheld by the Census Bureau and a famed study by Frederick Jackson Turner. (He later repudiated his own assumption, but never mind!)


The anti-heroes of this anti-Western are 16-year-old John Grady Cole and his 17-year-old best buddy Lacey Rawlins. If either lad got much book learning in school, it thoroughly wore off by the time they reached adolescence. Both are more suited for a cowboy life than the emerging world represented by the highways and rail lines that bisect what was once open range. Cole’s life is upended when his grandfather dies, his parents separate, and the ranch he hoped to inherit is sold. For no good reason other than the need for a change, Cole and Rawlins decide to leave San Angelo, Texas, and ride their horses Redbo and Junior to Mexico with the vague idea that there might be better opportunities there. It helps that Cole speaks passable Spanish. The book has numerous Spanish conversations, of which McCarthy translates only a few, but you can get by fine if, like me, your Spanish vocabulary doesn’t extend much beyond taco and cerveza.


It wasn’t hard to jump borders in those days. Technically a 1929 act tightened crossings, but it wasn’t much enforced until a new immigration act in 1965. For Cole and Rawlins, the hardest part was riding across arid sections of west Texas until they reached a shallow enough part of the Rio Grande to swim their horses across. They are soon joined by a third, a kid calling himself Jimmy Blevins. Everything about him screams “trouble.” He says he’s the same age, but he’s probably around 14, syas little about himself, shoots like a demon, and rides an impressive stallion. Cole thinks he’s a thief who stole pistol and his mount alike and is probably fleeing the law. They lose him at one point, though his blend of bad news returns.


Cole and Rawlins eventually make their way to the grassy Coahuila region where they secure jobs on a hacienda run by a wealthy individual. Cole impresses the owner and the local vaqueros with his horse whispering skills and is respected there. If only he hadn’t allowed his eye to wander to the owner’s beautiful daughter Alejandra. There’s a considerable social class gap between the two, their mutual physical attraction notwithstanding.


McCarthy readers know that he likes themes of angst, danger, and being pursued. All the Pretty Horses has plenty of that, as well as a vengeful aunt, a Mexican jail that Putin might envy, killings, horse rustling, remorse, and a strong mixture of bravado, courage, and naiveté. There can be no denying that it’s a very XY novel. Some have called it a coming of age tale, though I’d call it a passing of an age work. One could see Cole as the last free spirit in an American society that clings to the myth of individualism.


Some readers disliked the novel’s slow pace, which stands in marked contrast to the elegiac tone McCarthy used to describe the land and horses. I learned a new term in research: polysyndetic syntax–the use of conjunctions to slow the rhythm of the prose, a way of saying that McCarthy wanted readers to experience the languid pace of rural life. Call it a love story about girl and horses and bet on the four-footed species.


Rob Weir


Less is Lost a Disappointing Sequel



By Sean Greer

Little, Brown & Company





I really liked Book 1 of this series, but too much of the sequel comes off as if Sean Greer was as discombobulated as his main character, Archie “Arthur” Less. Greer is an established figure in gay literature­–Less won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018–but Less is Lost lacks the strong narrative and sharp humor of Book 1.


This novel is another travelogue of sorts for Less, a man who definitely comes down on the first side of the flight or fight scale. He’s now in his 50s and the mirror tells him the bloom is fading from the rose. So too did the death of his longtime lover, poet Robert Brownburn. He’s now in a (sort-of) relationship with Freddy Pelu, one that’s probably clearer to Freddy than to Arthur. In other words, Arthur is having a major end-of-midlife crisis. To top it off, he’s broke, though that’s nothing new.


His objective is to make his way from the West Coast to Valonica Island off the coast of Maine to be with Freddy and assess where things are headed. All manner of things conspire to waylay him. First, his agent Peter Hunt hands him the task of interviewing iconic poet H.H.H. Mandern, an 84-year-old primo uomo who has settled into the role of pampered crank. Arthur has met him before, but Mandern doesn’t recall that, keeps calling him “Yes,” and has two conditions for the interview: a question answered in exchange for a question of his own, and Arthur’s agreement to drive him, his pug Dolly, and his campervan Rosina across the Southwest to find his daughter. This gives Less limited time to join a tour across the South with a theater company that has adapted one of his stories (“The Last Word”), make it to his home state of Delaware to a lecture/awards ceremony, and then to Maine to join Freddy.


As if things couldn’t be messy enough, he’s also on a prize committee that doesn’t seem to care about his opinion, there’s another Arthur Less, and his father Lawrence, from whom he is estranged, is allegedly going to meet him somewhere. Arthur thinks Lawrence might be underwriting the theater tour. Arthur doesn’t want to do any of these things­­­–especially see his father–but he hopes to collect enough money to pay off debts. Did I mention that Hurricane Herman is bearing down on the South? Or that he is asked to meet with the foundation that is sponsoring the play?


A gay man in the Deep South holds the potential for humor tinged with danger. Less (Book 1), had some very funny situations, but Less is Lost falls more into the mildly amusing category. More’s the pity; in this case, less is not more. There is a redux of Arthur’s misplaced belief in his proficiency with German, plus mistaken identities, partners traveling in opposite directions, and a switcheroo that falls into a category marked “obvious.”   


I wouldn’t call Less is Lost a bad novel, but Greer has previously played the disappointments of aging card and second acts seldom pack the same dramatic punch. There is an overall flatness to the prose and an often confusing narrative structure. Freddy is the putative narrator for most of the book–Arthur the rest–but this leads to illogical jumps between past and present tenses. How can Freddy even be the narrator of things happening to Arthur in the present when he hasn’t yet arrived in Maine? (There is nothing to suggest that Freddy has chronicled Less’ journey ex post facto.)


I know nothing about Greer’s writing process, but the four year gap between Book 1 and Book 2, the short length of Book 2, and its copy of a copy elements suggest either writer’s block or publisher demands for a sequel. Let’s just say that Less is Lost is not an LGBTQ parallel to John Updike’s Rabbit series. I could add that I’m not terribly inclined to read Book 3, should one appear.


Rob Weir


Fox Creek a Thrill Ride Across the US/Canada Border



FOX CREEK (2022)

By William Kent Krueger

Atria/Simon & Schuster, 385 pages.





Fox Creek is the 19th book in the Cork O’Connor series. I know what you’re thinking: “This book’s not for me. There’s no way I’m going to plow through the first 18 to get to this one!” Don’t despair. Author William Kent Krueger possesses a skill many claim to have but few actually demonstrate; longtime readers know his characters well, but Krueger produces discrete stories independent of what was previously written.


Krueger specializes in mystery and crime novels that invite comparisons to the late Tony Hillerman. Like Hillerman, he’s not Native American, but he draws praise among the Anishinaabe/Ojibwe peoples about whom he writes. His main character, Cork O’Connor, is of mixed Irish/Ojibwe blood, but he identifies mostly as the latter. He was once a sheriff, but now works in a restaurant, does private detective work on the side, and lives in northern Minnesota.  


This mystery unfolds when a man claiming to be Lou Morriseau asks Cork to help him find his wife Delores. He claims she ran off because she was having an affair with Henry Meloux. Cork agrees because he it’s not hard to smell a wolverine when you know that Henry, a Native healer, is 100 years old and the great uncle of his second wife Rainy Bisonette, who has been with Henry organizing a sweat lodge ceremony. (Cork’s first wife was murdered.) Cork finds Delores easily, so who is the imposter and what’s his game?


The plot thickens when Cork’s son, Stephen, has a vision of Henry dying in the woods, and Cork learns of the real Lou via his brother Anton, a tribal cop from a nearby reservation. The real Lou is a real estate lawyer and Cork surmises that maybe he’s in over his head on some deal. Besides, it’s never a bad idea to think money is at the root of lies. Cork also realizes he’s been had in locating Delores and essentially did the fake Lou’s work for him. When Rainy and Delores vanish, Cork senses serious danger and concludes he has a limited amount of time to find them. The only clue he has is a cryptic reference to “kill Catie.” Or is it “Katie?”


The situation grows murkier when Tanya Baptiste, a Native woman, shows up at the home of the real Lou’s parents to tell them she really needs to talk to the real Lou. Stephen, who plans to study law enforcement, is sucked in when he meets Lou’s sister Belle, a law student. He’s falling for her and feeling might be mutual. But the first problem is finding Lou, who has also disappeared.


The flight of Delores, Rainy, and Henry is at the heart of the story and the bad guys make a mistake by underestimating Henry; nobody knows the woods as well as he and he’s incredibly resilient for a centenarian. A substantive and unexpected obstacle appears, though. Henry recognizes that their pursues have enlisted a tracker so skilled that he has to be a Native American. We ultimately learn that his name is Le Loup. His visions play a major role in the novel as do his divided loyalties. The drama plays out at the novel’s namesake Fox Creek, which empties into a lake near Winnipeg, Manitoba, thereby making this a cross-border tale.


Fox Creek is a thrilling read made all the more so by the ambiguity of motives, identities, and circumstances. Pay close attention; this is not  a WYSIWYG novel. Be as suspicious as Cork as you read, but perhaps more astute. One of the things I like about Krueger’s stories is that Cork is often impulsive and makes flawed assumptions, just like real investigators often make rather than the omniscient ones that show up in detective stories that place personality above probability.


Krueger’s sympathies for the Ojibwe are on display, but he doesn’t make them uniformly virtuous. When you discover the identity of “Catie,” the key to the mystery, you might be prompted to investigate some recent Native American history from the Minnesota/Canadian border. My sympathies align with Krueger’s, but if we take weapons and illegal activity out of the equation, complex political issues remain. That’s seldom good news for Natives living outside the pages of a work of fiction.


Rob Weir





Marjorie Morningstar: Wood, Kelly, and 1950s Values



Directed by Irving Rapper

Warner Brothers, 123 minutes, not rated.




Though it has been 42 years since her death–officially a drowning, though possibly a murder–Natalie Wood (1938-81) continues to be the subject of nostalgic remembrances and lurid tabloid stories. At age 8 she attracted attention in Miracle on 34th Street and went on to become a famed beauty, a rare raven-haired siren at a time in which Hollywood definitely preferred blondes. Whether or not she was a great actress has been hotly disputed.


You can get an education in gender mores during the 1950s by watching Wood in Marjorie Morningstar. She is the title character, though that’s a pet name slapped onto her by Noel Airman (Gene Kelly) and the actual surname is Morgenstern. Wood plays the daughter of Rose and Arnold (Claire Trevor and Everett Sloane), an upwardly mobile Jewish family in New York City. (Wood was actually Russian Orthodox.) One refreshing thing about the film is that there was no attempt to homogenize Jewishness; we see outward professions of faith, a Passover meal, and a debate over Noel’s non-faith. This reflects the refashioning of Americanism after World War II to become, as an influential book put it, “Protestant, Catholic, Jew.”


Wood’s Marjorie is a vivacious Hunter College student with aspirations of becoming an actress who is too spirited for her about-to-be-ex boyfriend Sandy. Her best friend Marsha Zelensky (Carolyn Jones) convinces Marjorie that she needs a change and should accompany her to the Catskills where the two become camp counsellors. The trouble begins when Marsha also convinces her to paddle across the lake­–filming took place at Schroon Lake near Glens Falls, New York–because there’s an adult resort on the other side. They need to be careful and inconspicuous, though, as South Winds Resort owner Maxwell Greech (George Tobias) would not hesitate to have them arrested for trespassing. Now there’s an obvious setup! Marjorie sneaks into a dance rehearsal and is enthralled by the professionalism and skill of social director of Noel Airman. When the two are indeed caught, Airman claims Marjorie is a job candidate and offers her employment.


That’s settled, but as you probably suspect, the employer/employee relationship will evolve from fascination into romance. Okay, that’s very 1950s, though it did raise some eyebrows even back then. Kelly’s character is said to be 32, though he was actually 46, and Wood was just 19. Marjorie’s parents, of course, have reservations, the aforementioned indifference to religion among them. Marjorie, though, sees Noel as a genius and a show biz bigshot who might help her realize her dreams. We viewers have our doubts, as she’s actually quite amateurish and is starting to suspect it herself. Nonetheless, she rebuffs the advances of the age-appropriate budding playwright Wally Wronkin (Martin Milner), who is smitten by her. The best Marjorie’s parents can do in hope of keeping her from screwing up her life is to plant her uncle Samson (Ed Wynn) at the resort.

Marjorie Morningstar is a romantic drama with comedic touches. Many of the latter are provided by the barbed comments of Claire Trevor and the clowning of veteran character actor Ed Wynn. They are, however, diversions in a story about obsession involving Wood, Kelly, and Milner. This is something of a problem, because the tone of Marjorie Morningstar is an uncomfortable mix of high schoolish skits, Kelly’s dancing, and adult themes of ambition, desire, coming of age, flight, and realizations of one’s limits. It doesn’t quite turn out the way you might expect; some audiences of the day applauded the film’s resolution and others were disappointed. It departed from the ending in the Herman Wouk novel from which the movie was adapted.


There is no question that this was a vehicle for a rising star (Wood) and fading one (Kelly), nor can we divorce the content from what was acceptable in the 1950s, cringe-worthy though some things were. I confess that I fall on the side of those who saw Wood as a beautiful young woman, but a fairly ordinary actress. You can make up your own mind about all of that, but the film is probably best viewed through the gauzy Technicolor lens of Harry Stradling’s cinematography. It often looks like an old snapshot rescued from a photo album in the back of a closet. Some might see Marjorie Morningstar as a classic. I’d call it an artifact on par with the Borscht Belt Catskills where it was set.


Rob Weir