Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. United Kingdom/USA, 1949. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart, based on the play by Robert Morley, Noel Langley. Cinematography by Freddie Young. Produced by Edwin H. Knopf. Music by John Wooldridge. Production Design by Alfred Junge. Film Editing by Raymond Poulton. Academy Awards 1949. Golden Globe Awards 1949.
Robert Morley and Noel Langley’s play is adapted into pure film treacle, imagine an update of Cavalcade and you have an idea of what you’re watching. Spencer Tracy and Deborah Kerr are both overripe as a happily married couple who give birth to a little boy and are determined to do everything in their power to make his life perfect. The child, who is always discussed but never seen (one of the more awkward mechanisms of the script that reveals its stage origins), grows up spoiled rotten thanks to the effort his increasingly successful businessman father puts into keeping him out of trouble: Tracy burns his first store down to pay for his son’s leg surgery with the insurance money, then later, as a supremely wealthy industrialist, buys the posh school that wants to expel Edward for his terrible behaviour. Later, when Edward is an adult, Tracy tries to bully the rest of the world into making room for his son’s flaws while being completely blind to the fact that his son is never learning from his mistakes. The toll it takes on Kerr, who suffers for her husband’s sins and is prematurely aged by her torment, is nothing compared to the disservice it does to the young man, and the film makes sure we have the moral finger wagged directly in our faces as a lesson. It also fully supports the film’s rigid ideas about class in England, fully on board with the headmaster’s labeling of Tracy as “nouveau riche” (this is why we can’t give poor people money, they don’t know what to do with it!) Tracy can’t make this boorish character likable, each scene more irritating than the previous, but there are moments of satisfaction when Kerr, earning her first Oscar nomination, gives him his comeuppance for the selfish things he has pretended to do in the name of helping someone else. Her turn towards bitterness in the film’s second half is probably the only glimmer of sharp intelligence in the whole thing, her character is like something out of Great Expectations or The Damned, and Kerr gives it a lot of oomph despite still not having achieved the subtlety that would come with her work in the fifties.