Thursday, January 24, 2013

Parrish - 1961

“Parrish” (1961) proves that Hollywood can fabricate a lush soap opera story anywhere, under any conditions.  All you need is beautiful leads, nasty villains, and a Big Idea that the characters can exploit and then be destroyed by, or overcome.
This movie has an incongruous edge to it because probably most people not familiar with the Connecticut River Valley of western New England know that tobacco growing was a huge part of our agriculture here at one time, going back to the 1600s.  It was a very important crop, and a big engine in our economy.  Less so today.  For those of us living in the Connecticut River Valley, it is incongruous that Hollywood would turn it into a place of greedy land barons, nubile female field hands of questionable virtue, and Troy Donahue.

Long post.  Get a sandwich.
The Connecticut River Valley is my home, and so this movie has special significance for me just because so much of it was filmed on location, and the sites are familiar to me.  I had family and friends who worked on tobacco farms, and one friend in particular, now sadly no longer with us, claimed he made his film debut in “Parrish”.  He was just a teenage kid working on the farm where the final scenes of the movie were shot.  He recalled that he and a bunch of other kids were pulled from work and told to race across the fields and cheer for Troy Donahue. Lots of locals were in the movie.  I’m afraid I don’t recognize him in the long shots of running kids, and I doubt he could have recognized himself, but it gives me a warm feeling to know he was there.

In my neck of the woods, this is what barns look like.  Tobacco barns and curing sheds stand sentinel on the valley floor, fewer than there once were, but ghosts of former times. 

 Sunderland, Mass., photo by JT Lynch
Troy Donahue, who always looked good in red, travels with his mother, Claudette Colbert, from Boston to the tobacco farm of Dean Jagger just north of Hartford, Connecticut.  Mr. Jagger is a gentleman farmer, whose family farm, and its lovely Georgian house, has been here for ages.  His daughter, however, is no lady, played by Diane McBain with an industrial strength pout.
Miss Colbert is hired to help with Miss McBain’s coming out, in debutante-speak, and be a steadying influence for the rebellious young motherless woman. 

Donahue and Miss Colbert are seen first crossing a river on a ferry.  They are supposed to be in the Boston area, but this is clearly the ferry across the Connecticut River down by East Haddam.  You can even see the Gillette Castle across the river in the distance on the bluff in the photo below.  Have a look here for photos of the ferry crossing site on my essay about the Gillette Castle here on my New England Travels blog.  And here is another post on the other ferry on the Connecticut River joining Rocky Hill and Glastonbury.  It is the oldest river ferry in the US.

They fly from Boston to Hartford, which cracks me up.  (Look at it on a map.  They’re an inch and a half away from each other.)  I imagine the director thought that this would give him an opportunity to show the massive white tents of the Shade tobacco fields to their best advantage, and give the plane’s pilot a chance to narrate the view, thereby giving the audience a brief intro on the location and story background.

This movie is based on the novel, Parrish, by Mildred Savage.  It was her first of three novels and became a best seller.  I know she is a Connecticut native (and died only a couple years ago), but I don’t know what her connection was to the tobacco growers of the Connecticut River Valley.  Her book is rich in detail about the process of growing tobacco, about the economic realities, and labor problems, and history of this unique agriculture.  This area is one of the few places in the world able to produce quality Shade tobacco, which is used for the outer wrapper of cigars.  How a Wellesley-educated girl knew about the nuts and bolts of this world is something I have yet to learn, but I’d love to know more about her experience.

The book, like the novel, is largely a coming of age story about a young man named Parrish who must strike out on his own and deal with what he sees are the challenges and hypocrisies of life.  In a New York Times article by Eugene Archer (June 5, 1960), Mildred Savage, who visited the filming location stated, “I wanted to show an affirmative hero who may be confused because of his youth and sex troubles but is still masculine, unaffected, and optimistic—able to get ahead on his own two feet.  The idea of setting the story in this tobacco industry came last.  It seemed sensible to put a vigorous healthy young man to work in the soil.”

Her description pretty much defines Troy Donahue for us.  Never a great actor, but here he’s awkward, sincere, bewildered—just what he should be.  I find him very touching in the scene where he defends his decision to escort Connie Stevens, pregnant by the loutish son of the tobacco baron Karl Malden, to a harvest fair. 
“If some person needs a little bit of kindness, that’s no good.  That’s immoral.  That’s a disgrace to the great world we live in.”  The baritone ripple of indignation is boyishly brave, and if he seems naïve, it’s because he’s supposed to be. 
But other aspects of Mildred Savage’s book are not brought out in the movie. For instance, there is the young character who talks of unfair labor practices and unions.  There is another character named Tom Holden, who in the movie is played by Hayden Rorke in a brief scene.  He is at the party celebrating Karl Malden’s marriage to Claudette Colbert, and he defends her against the disparaging remarks of Malden’s son, played by Hampton Fancher.  Rorke’s defense is gallant and gentlemanly, but that’s all we get from Tom Holden.
In the book, he is a mouthpiece for progressive ideals.  His family has been raising tobacco for generations here.  He tells Judd Raike, the character played by Karl Malden, who is a newcomer to the Valley and new money, “It never bothers me to pay a good foreman a good wage...He’s worth it.”
But Raike, who is Snidley Whiplash, responds, “A man…is worth exactly as much as his nearest replacement.” 
His son, wanting to impress him, echoes his father, “It’s a crime what labor’s getting an hour these days.  Common labor.”

We don’t get these issues in the movie, and it only flirts with other issues about conformity and the hypocrisy of society.  We also don’t get as close a look at Mr. Fancher’s browbeaten wife, who figures more prominently in the novel.  We get more about the Jamaican workers in the novel.  In the movie they are seen from a distance.

Parrish likes the Connie Stevens character and her family (her brother-in-law in the movie is played by our old pal, Dub Taylor with delightful aplomb) because they are unfettered by social rules and self-consciousness.  They are easy and hail-fellow-well-met.  Connie is a tramp.  It is possible this is what Troy likes best about her.

In a scene that squeezes out every drop of eroticism you can get in a bottle of calamine lotion, Connie dabs Troy’s back gently with the lotion to soothe his tobacco poisoning rash. 
(When she shows him his room in her family’s ramshackle house, we hear the musical intro to “A Summer Place”, but director Delmer Daves coyly saves us from the rest of the song.)
Later, after the birth of her child out of wedlock, a fact that infuriates and shocks the locals, Parrish is compassionate and understanding.  However, what finally disappoints him is when Connie and her family accept a bribe from the absent father, for letting him remain anonymous.  He will not help raise the child nor contribute to its support, and not acknowledge his relationship to the child.  That’s okay with Connie and the gang, because they’ve got a new refrigerator and a TV set.  It’s like they’ve won the lottery.
Parrish sees that even these independent common folk have a price and can be bought, and that’s when he takes a step back from them.  It’s in the book, but not the movie.
Another thing that comes out more clearly in the book is the similar duplicity and opportunism of Parrish’s mother.  Claudette Colbert plays her like a ladylike member of the garden club, smooth talking and demure, and so she is in the book as well, but she’s also gently manipulative, of Parrish, of her employer played by Dean Jagger in the movie, and eventually of her husband.

She marries Judd Raike, played by Mr. Malden in the movie, because he’s filthy stinking rich.  She wants more than anything for Parrish to get ahead in life, and she sees he’s too cussed stubborn and independent to care about getting ahead, at least on her terms.  She has perceived that Judd’s sons are no-account fools, and that Judd will need an heir to take over his tobacco kingdom one day.  She sets her sights on the job for her boy.  Claudette has a brief scene where she stands up to her husband’s nasty remarks about her son, but that never happens in the book.  She’s just as phony as Connie Stevens and her family.  Just on a larger scale.

 As far as I know, there were never any tobacco barons in the Connecticut River Valley.  Most farms were small, family owned, and other farms were larger commercial farms owned by faceless corporations.  One guy gobbling up other farms like taking pieces on a chess board is as good a catalyst to tell the story of Parrish’s coming of age as any.  A story needs conflict, and especially conflict of a personal nature, conflict with a face.  That is the purpose in the novel for the character of Judd Raike, and he is as fiendish a guy as you will ever encounter between the covers of a book.
The author deftly depicts him as a man so clever, so moody, so tricky in his passive-aggressive challenges to his family and employees that he is actually one of the most vivid, most real people in the story.  He’s a bit frightening.

In the movie, however, Malden is given a script that shows only Raike’s anger, and none of his subtle machinations.  Malden has the thankless task of being nothing but an enraged cartoon of a man.  The character, and the actor, deserve better.  I suspect this was the director’s shorthand, like the plane flight over the valley.
Critic Bosley Crowther in the New York Times (May 5, 1961), is unusually accurate and eloquent in his wry review.
“Who would have ever imagined that growing tobacco in Connecticut would be as socially involved and emotionally exhausting as it is made to appear…”
Who, indeed?

He calls it a “status-conscious story”, where the locations and people are “over-dressed and artificial…They are all more or less absurd extensions of some kind of slicked-up social image or cliché.”
Well played, Bosley.

I suppose the biggest acting challenge, and most successfully done, was by Sharon Hugueny, who plays Karl Malden’s daughter.  She ages from her early teens to her early 20s in this movie, and proves to be the most sensible person in it.

I have a soft spot for Dean Jagger in his quiet, stubborn role as mentor to Troy Donahue.

Other faces to pick out are Hope Summers, who played Hattie for a while on “The Rifleman”, and Madeleine Sherwood, a lusty young field hand, who did lots and lots of TV and played Mother Superior on The Flying Nun.  I still think of her as Mother Superior and the field hand with the bare midriff shocked my delicate sensibilities. 

Carroll O’Connor is the fire chief, and wouldn’t you know it?  Bess Flowers is a party guest.  You can’t put out a plate of hors d'oeuvres without her showing up.

We get a shot of Mystic Seaport, and Troy and Claudette strolling on the whaler Charles W. Morgan.  More on Mystic here at my New England Travels blog, with the whaler in the background of these photos.  I, too, have strolled the deck of the Charles W. Morgan and took the wheel, pretending to be Captain Ahab.  Well, pretending to be Gregory Peck pretending to be Captain Ahab.

I’m not sure where the hotel on the shore is supposed to be.  Old Saybrook, I think, or Madison?  Maybe somebody can clear that up for me.  I wonder if it could be someplace they shot in California.  Also the church where two weddings take place, somewhere in the Valley.  What church is that?

We also get a brief glimpse of the submarine base at New London, which family and friends of mine have passed through as well.  About the only place I haven’t a connection with in this movie is the scene where Parrish, aboard the nuclear sub USS Nautilus, spears the ice at the North Pole.

The Nautilus is still down in New London, on display for visitors, and I may feature that on New England Travels sometime or other.
In the novel, to get away from his troubles, Parrish joins the Navy, but since the book is set in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he is sent to the waters around Korea and he and his mates fear what might happen if the Korean War involves them.
The movie strips us of that conflict and instead makes Parrish’s naval service a footnote, but still a fun peek at popular culture of the early 1960s.

There are grand parties, and grand tantrums, but most appealing are the scenes that focus on smaller images that become intimate: the young shoots of tobacco growing; we watch them climb and reach their full height.  The fields in all seasons, the muddy spring, the fallow autumn, the snow, the lush summer.  Dean Jaggers’ colonial furniture in his farmhouse, against the rich colors of the walls compared to the modern furniture, the pastels in Karl Malden’s showy Hartford mansion.

Those red sweaters of Troy’s.

And the final shot where Troy and Sharon Hugueny sew up a gap in the tent over his tobacco field.  We see an aerial shot, with just their two heads poking out of a massive field of white cloth.  They look like the USS Nautilus surfacing at the North Pole.

“Parrish” is not a great movie, but it is valuable if only for the scenes it preserves of my backyard.  The histrionic soap stuff I can live without.  But give me shots of my ain countrie, and I’m happy.

Have a look here at Moira Finnie’s post at The Skeins on “Parrish”, which I love, especially for remarks like this:
“As filmmakers sought to push the envelope on what was acceptable fare for general cinematic consumption, movie audiences were shifting dramatically from a substantially adult market to one that had the maturity of the average prurient thirteen year old. This movie reflects that trend.”
This is perhaps the greatest flaw in this film and other Troy Donahue flicks of the period (I’m looking at you “A Summer Place” and “Susan Slade”).  It shucks the social relevance of the novel for the frothy, the shallow, and the gloss.  That's what sells...if you're selling to a thirteen-year old.  Or someone with the mind of one.
For more on tobacco growing in the Connecticut River Valley, including the remarks of Martin Luther King, Jr., who worked on a tobacco farm here when he was 15 years old, have a look here at my New England Travels blog this week.


Come back next Thursday for "The Woman in White" (1948) with Sydney Greenstreet, Alexis Smith, Eleanor Parker, and Gig Young.  A Victorian mystery based on the classic novel by Wilkie Collins.  Rich in atmosphere, unlike "Parrish", the evocative locations in this movie are all backlot and soundstage.  But you'd swear you were there.  See you next week.



Rick29 said...

Jacqueline,I am a connoisseur of big screen soaps and PARRISH is one of my favorites. I like Douglas Sirk, but am always flummoxed that he evolved into a critical favorite while Delmer Daves--who mastered the genre more successfully--has not. The point of PARRISH, like other all great soaps, is to entertain and that it does. I agree that Troy wasn't a great actor, but Daves made the most of Troy's awkward charm. True, Karl Malden chews up the scenery and Claudette Colbert is wasted. But, like you, I like Dean Jagger and the three ladies in Parrish's life are all delightful. I'll never understand why Diane McBain didn't get better roles. She's quite fun as the bad girl in this film and even better in CLAUDINE INGLISH. Visually, PARRISH is lovely and the Max Steiner score is instantly hummable. Here's some PARRISH trivia: Hampton Fancher, who played Edgar Raike, become a movie producer and co-wrote BLADERUNNER; Sharon Hugueny was briefly married to producer Robert Evans (CHINATOWN). By the way, I loved your description of growing up in the area.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I'm glad you like the movie, Rick, and I know it has a lot of fans. I enjoyed it too; but while the point of the movie may be only to entertain (for people who are entertained by such), the book goes deeper and has social, historical, and philosophical significance that the film, with the self-absorbed attitude of most of its "soap" characters, ignores. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with gloss; there isn't. It's just that, knowing as much as I do about the story and setting, I think a movie could be made from this novel that is something a wee bit more thoughtful.

Caftan Woman said...

One of these days I will have to watch this movie all the way through from beginning to end, instead of catching bits here and there. Now armed with knowledge to enhance the experience.

Caftan Woman said...

Psst: "Hattie"

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hattie. Thank you. The minute I read that it clicked.

It took me years to see this movie all the way through, I never seemed to come in on it from the beginning.

Moira Finnie said...

It is great fun to read another person's take on this odd but watchable movie. Regarding Mildred Savage's knowledge of the tobacco industry, I believe it may have been derived from her having been born in Connecticut as well as her background as a technical writer and researcher, when she would have honed the skills needed to bring this esoteric background to life on the page. I believe that her background studying history at Wellesley College may have prepared her for translating real life detail to the page--even if she did create Judd Raike, tobacco baron out of whole (cheap) cloth!

Savage also wrote an interesting book "In Vivo" about the development of antibiotics in the pharmaceutical industry (some of which is still relevant to today)--much of that was also set in CT.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I'm going to have to chalk it up to her excellent research skills, then. As far as I know, she grew up in the New London area, not in the Valley. Granted, CT is not a big state, but I grew up in tobacco country (Mass) and I don't think I could write as vivid a portrait as she does.

Rich said...

You write so eloquently about New England. I'm gonna have to start looking at your other blog now.

Would you say this film is the most accurate representation of the CRV?

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Rich. As for an accurate representation of the CRV, in terms of history and color, no. It doesn't really try to much. But the location scenes are great, and since a lot of that farmland is now industrial parks and shopping centers, "Parrish" preserves a film image of what was there. I'm grateful to Delmer Daves for that.

Yvette said...

I didn't know this was in your 'backyard' Jacqueline. How wonderful to have it preserved on film and now with DVD you can fast-forward if you please and just view the once familiar scenery. :)

I saw PARRISH in the theater when it first came out, also SUSAN SLADE (which I remember not being crazy about) and A SUMMER PLACE which I also didn't love though I remember liking it well enough at first. These locales were so far away from what I knew and was familiar with growing up in lower Manhattan.

But then there are several movies from the fifties that show my neck of the woods, i.e. A HATFUL OF RAIN which I mean to write about one of these days...

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Yvette. One of the neat things about movies is showing us places we haven't been to yet. I'll look forward to your "A Hatful of Rain" post.

The more I think about it, what I really didn't like so much about "A Summer Place", and "Susan Slade" was the teenagers. I like Troy Donahue, but I found myself not caring about the teens as much as the grownups. Even in "Parrish" I was more interested in Dean Jagger than his daughter.

Kevin Deany said...

I saw "Parrish" on TV at a very impressionable age, about 13 or 14 and looked forward to a life where an assortment of beautiful women would throw themselves at me. I'm still waiting.

Like Rick, I like the Delmar Daves soapers as well. They may not be subtle, but they are highly watchable. I think I like "A Summer Place" the best, with "Rome Adventure" coming next, followed by "Parrish."

Thoroughly enjoyed your look at this movie, Jacqueline.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Kevin. Yes, I was surprised at how many women threw themselves at Troy in such a short space of time. If you're not having that kind of luck, I suggest you try wearing red sweaters. I'm thinking that must be it.

Crocheted Lace said...

Thanks for the input on the book. The movie is a very interesting but I thought the book would be even more so, I'll have to find it!
Karl Malden was always way too angry and blustering in this movie. I did not like his performance at all. When he chews the scenery, there is nothing left over.
Otherwise, it's highly entertaining and all the women are very beautiful. Normally, I don't like movies like this, but sometimes I'm in the mood for two hours of mindless technicolor soap opera with pretty clothes, and Daves always delivers. For example, I recently watched "Chicago Calling" with Dan Duryea, a grindingly sad realistic, brilliant movie with great acting. After watching that, I need a pick-me-up like "Susan Slade" or some cheesy 50's sci-fi.
Wouldn't Dan Duryea have been interesting in the Karl Malden role? Charming, ruthless, sneaky, manipulative, cruel. He could do it all!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I like your Dan Duryea suggestion. Interesting. The character was also bullying though, at times. I don't think I've ever seen Duryea in a bullying role.

Sometimes we're all in the mood for frothy stuff like this. said...

The beach hotel was shot on location in Old Saybrook at the Miramar, which at that time was next to the parking lot at Dock and Dine. Miramar was demolished, and character-less condos now occupy the area. Miramar was all the rage in the 1950s, with fresh and salt water swimming pools.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks so much for chiming in with that info, Louie. Since I wrote this post, I believe I've heard of that hotel, and I might even have a postcard image of it somewhere. I really appreciate your filling in the blanks for me.

Paul said...

I just stumbled on your article and thoroughly enjoyed your commentary. I grew up in Thompsonville (Enfield today) and worked on a tobacco farm in East Granby for two summers in '63 and '64. It was hard work for a 14 year-old working for 75 cents an hour but I felt rich! My family used to go to drive-in movies quite often back in that day and I recall seeing the previews for Parrish at an East Windsor drive-in but for some reason we didn't go see the movie. It was actually much later, in the late 1990's before I finally saw the movie and I've watched it again since. The movie was definitely "over-the-top" but was quite interesting to me because of the scenery and old memories working tobacco. Thanks for a good insightful article!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Paul, thank you so much for stopping by! I'm very glad to hear from someone who actually worked in the tobacco fields of northern Connecticut and knew something of the working background of this movie. It certainly does revive memories.

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