Director: William Wyler
Writer: Theodore Dreiser, Ruth Goetz, and Augustus Goetz
Cinematographer: Victor Milner
Producer: Lester Koenig and William Wyler
by Jon Cvack
Comparable to Michael Curtiz, William Wyler is one of those incredibly prolific directors who made a few great films and mostly good ones. Like Curtis, his range was broad, from the rom com Roman Holiday (1953) to the thriller The Collector (1965) to epic Ben-Hur (1959) to war dramas The Best Years Our Lives (1946) and Mrs. Miniver (1942: best picture winner) and further still westerns The Westerner (1940) and Big Country (1958). He hit all the genres and only because I didn’t look at his filmography before viewing, I expected Carrie would be his first dud. Yet again, I was wrong, discovering one of the most heart-breaking love stories I’ve seen in years.
In the early 1900s, Carrie Meeber (Jennifer Jones) decides to leave her family and head to Chicago. On the train, she soon grabs the attention of traveling salesman Charles Drouet (Eddie Albert) who plays the perfect creep; seeming like a kind and friendly guy until he starts refusing to take the hint. She finds work as a seamstress, in which the lax labor laws force them to work under dim candlelight, and where the slightest injury could get them terminated. When Carrie gets her finger trapped in the sewing machine she’s immediately replaced and forced to wander the streets.
After, Carrie contacts Charles who takes her on a date to a restaurant where he lends her some money and ends up meeting the restaurant owner and married George Hurstwood (Laurence Olivier). Later and in one timeless moment, he asks if she wants to come upstairs, saying that the cab will wait if she doesn’t want to stay. He then winks the cab off. Soon Carrie moves in with Charles, catching the attention of the neighbors who disapprove of their cohabitation.
George Hurstwood is married to the irascible Julie Hurstwood (Miriam Hopkins), providing an empty and often contentious marriage. He grows smitten with Carrie after meeting her. With Charlie constantly out of town, he one days visits their home; later taking her out to the theaters.
While I’m often incredulous with expedited romances, the combination of Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones’ personas make it work. As big a presence as Olivier is, his vulnerability and anguish tamper his superstardom the way only Tom Hanks or Jimmy Stewart could master. Jennifer Jones is as graceful and elegant as any of the classic era superstars, and yet she too makes herself accessible and equally vulnerable. Both are desperate for happiness and Wyler captures absolute conviction in their love for one another.
Soon George asks his wife for divorce. She refuses, declaring she’ll use everything in her power to keep his money; going so far as to go to his boss and explain the situation. His boss, fearing for the optics it would give the business, vows to give Julie his salary until the situation is resolved. Earlier that night, George accidentally shut the company safe without putting in $10,000 in cash. Unwilling to break things off with Carrie and return to his vapid marriage, he takes the cash with Carrie to Englewood where they two can start their lives over.
They find a small apartment and for a moment things look on the up and up. For as much as they’ve lost their comfort, they’re now with the person they love, dealing with only a momentary setback; that is, until his boss sends a bondsman to come and lien the money, leaving them with close to nothing.
With word having gotten around that the couple had stolen the money, both are forced into the streets, searching for any job they can get. George returns to being a waiter, but fails to maintain the job; especially when he leaves the iron on his suit jacket, burning in a hole. Things only get worse when his wife visits with their lawyer, demanding that George co-sign the deed to sell the house. George requests half the profits and Julie refuses, vowing to take him to court for bigamy unless he hands it all over. After George opts for a clean divorce.
Thinking George could make things up with his son who’s returning from overseas, now a successful young man, he heads to the docks in a ratty suit; his son ignoring him. Later, Carrie has a miscarriage and loses the child. George regresses further, resorting to joining a scam employment agency which takes a percentage of wages in order to secure day playing jobs.
Just as things look darkest, Carrie tries out for a play; which at this point, I thought was some type of minstrel striptease show and makes me think Wyler wanted us to suspect the worst. The small role leads to a larger one and soon Carrie thinks that the best she could do is leave George, allow him to get back on his feet while she pursues acting. It’s the one moment of the film where I was left wondering if Carrie was as selfish as the situation seemed. I don’t fully understand how else to see it; if George was so poor off, then it seemed like he would have needed Carrie the most. Regardless, she leaves him. Then again, maybe the point was that Carrie didn’t come to Chicago to be poor, but to pursue her dreams and George was an impediment to that, no matter how she felt.
George further descends, becoming full on homeless, wandering the streets and scrounging for food and change; spending his nights in shelters where the rooms are nothing more than fenced in boxes with dirty mattresses and unwashed blankets.
Carrie’s career continues on and she finds great success in the theater, receiving top billing and requests for interviews; her dream finally achieved.
One desperate night, a weak and hungry George sees her name on the marquee, waiting for her out back where in a completely heart breaking scene we watch as he hides in the shadows, ashamed to show himself, let alone ask for any food she could spare. She takes him inside, racing off to get him something to eat. George is overwhelmed with his embarrassment and turns to head out, stopping at a gas stove with the flame on, turning it off and then back on as the gas runs - contemplating whether to kill himself (or maybe her) and then leaving.
Olivier is the type of performer that seems to get better with age, as not knowing where this movie goes, I was enamored with his complete vulnerability. For such a legend, he somehow pulls off a miraculous arc, never allowing us to question where or who is. From a successful entrepreneur to a destitute and sickly vagrant, there is an incredible honesty to each moment, all while conveying his love for Carrie.
Jennifer Jones is equal in stature, showing a complex woman who desires to get out of her rural and poor existence and make something of herself. We never get the impression that she was necessarily exploited by Charlie, as indicated by the concluding scene with Charlie returns, hoping he could rekindle their romance, with Carrie expressing guilt for how much he might have led her on. Jones prevents us from ever thinking that she was entirely wrong for abandoning George, no differently than we blame George for having abandoned his wife. It is a selfish decision, but with George dealing with the consequences of stealing and uprooting his life, Carrie now deals with those effects.
I was left wondering what else Jennifer Jones had gone to do, if anything of equal caliber. I learned she had actually won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in 1944’s The Song of Bernadette and received five more Oscar nominations on top of that. I’m always left wondering how it happens that we remember some performers and others fade away. With the exception of The Towering Inferno (1974), I haven’t even heard of any of the movies she was nominated for and so I’m sure it’s her work’s inability to survive that might have led to the situation. Even still, you can’t help but watch this and wonder what else she went on to do and how an actress of this caliber has been so forgotten. Similar to Curtiz’s Flamingo Road (1949), it’s a small film that stands up to all their other great work; comparable to any of David Lean’s romances.
BELOW: Weird little taste, though I'm not sure what purpose it serves
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