(Picture from here.)
I will pretty much watch anything with Cary Grant in it.
There are a lot of reasons for this. He has a charm and grace that is always worth watching. He speaks well. Moves beautifully. Most of all, he has a grace in front of the camera that is often lacking.
By this, I mean he knows when to take the light of the camera and when to lend it away.
The camera loves Grant. He is perfectly capable of pulling in all the light to himself. Yet, he gives that away to his co-actors when required. No one working with Grant gives the least impression they are fighting for the spotlight. He shares it.
I saw this film when I was quite young—I couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven. It came out in 1952. Like a lot of films from that period, events outside the frame of the film are not acknowledged but still have a lot of influence. Things like World War II, for example. That is not alluded to in the film but that post-war affluence and giddiness are on display.
The film is not perfect in any way. It’s a simple film. George “Poppy” Rose (Grant) and Anna Rose (Betsy Drake) have three children. They had four but lost one—this is referenced a couple of times in the film but the circumstances are never discussed. Anna is part of a church group touring a home for children. The woman running the home states she has no issue finding adoptees for the infants but a terrible time finding homes for the older children. Anna is the kind of person that takes in any stray in the neighborhood and is prevailed upon to take in a troubled teen girl named Jane.
Poppy is against it but eventually accepts her in the house. Later, a second child, a polio victim named Jimmy-John. Both children are difficult at first but are won over fairly predictably by Anna, Poppy, and their original children.
The film goes forward showing how the foster children become part of the family and how the family is stronger for it. The film is Betsy Drake’s much more than Grant’s and Grant happily moves out of the light and lets her have it. Grant is clearly the stronger presence but he makes sure Drake gets every inch of camera space she needs.
One quick aside: from 1916 onward, there was at least one polio epidemic somewhere in the US every summer. In the epidemic of 1949 over 42,000 cases were reported. Polio was a big deal all through the forties, fifties, and sixties. I recall standing in a long line that stretched around the block to get stuck. Every one of the kids was there with at least one parent or parent-equivalent. It was a big, big deal. Every one of us was no more than two degrees of separation from a kid that had had polio. Often, that kid had been crippled by it. When the vaccine came, the country scrambled for it.
Watching this, watching Jimmy-John walk with leg braces, I couldn’t help but contrast that with today.
Anyway, the film is not great. It presents lost kids as a problem and presents a fairly Pollyanna solution. It suggests that this problem, and by extension many problems, can be solved by just stepping up. Christian virtues aren’t mentioned directly but there are oblique inferences that this would be the Christian thing to do. Harder problems are either not mentioned or papered over.
Yet, it works.
I’ve been re-reading Parzival lately—which I do on occasion. I’m going to paraphraser Joseph Campbell here. Paraphrasing Wolfram von Eschenbach is a lost causer. (See The Western Quest lectures. Specifically, The Forest Adventure.)
In that story, Parzival fails the adventure of healing the Grail King with a compassionate question. He vows to attempt the adventure again even though he is told that this is impossible: the opportunity only comes but once. He is castigated for his failure, told that he is a curse upon the land and is cursed. He decides he hates God: he has served God and God has not been loyal. He goes into the wilderness and is five years in deprivation and loneliness, failing over and over again. He is bitter towards God.
At one point, it is Good Friday and he comes upon a little charade of penance by a noble family. The family has left their nice castle and taken a day of penance, walking in the snow and such, with their little dogs and with servants accompanying them with food. The lord berates Parzival for being in armor on this day. Parzival doesn’t know what day it is. He doesn’t know what year it is. He thinks, they love whom I hate and takes his leave. But, he thinks about this little family acting out this shallow penance and it works on him. It softens him. It makes him ready to confess his sins and at least discuss the idea.
I read this section and I didn’t understand it. Why would this purely symbolic, substanceless act move him?
As I was watching Room for One More, I started to get it. RFOM is a purely symbolic, substanceless film—it represents the issue but never actually grapples directly with it. But, by acting in the purely symbolic realm, it allows us to infer and grapple with those hard truths on our own. It leaves us that choice.
This in no way diminishes the need for the hard look at difficult problems with barely tractable solutions. Too often we have decided the world is good and neglected the hard truth that often that good world is not good for everyone.
That said, I wonder if that modern turn towards hardness, pulling that difficult material up close and personal, has cost us something. When you have something shoved in your face, you must react. There is no distance to look at the idea critically. No time to reflect. A person might accept or reject it but that acceptance or rejection might be reflexive. If you call someone an idiot for not wearing a mask, they might reflexively spit on you.
A gentle reminder, such as RFOM, allows this reflection. It gives one the opportunity to engage something other than that reflexive, limbic response.
Of course, it also allows the opportunity to discard the message of the work with a smug feeling of satisfaction: I watched this movie and agreed and therefore I need not consider it further.
Still, I think there’s a place for this approach. One of my heroes in SF is Clifford D. Simak. He excelled at this gentle reproach or encouragement. He didn’t say, you must be your better self or else! More, he said, wouldn’t it be nice to be your better self?
And you find yourself agreeing: yes. It would.