Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Our Very Own (1950)

It has been famously said that the basis for all Hollywood pictures is melodrama. While this is certainly true — after all, melodrama in general is characterized by the emotional crisis of the main character — one of the challenges of the filmmaker is the extent to which the subject matter is allowed to become … overtly melodramatic. As a viewer I always am struck by movies in which the authors recognize the inherent dramatic potential of the subject matter and then move forward with restraint. This approach often results in films described as small, quiet … and powerful. One such picture is 1950's Our Very Own, a domestic drama infused with a little comedy and healthy dose of Americana. It tells the story of a popular girl who discovers, in the days leading up to her high school graduation, that she was adopted. The film explores the repercussions of this discovery within an idealized nuclear American family.

The girl is played by Anne Blyth, who proves to be a better actress than I had previously given her credit for. She's an absolute knockout, but her performance in this film is one that comes across with great subtlety, despite the heavy studio trappings. Blyth is matched by mom Jane Wyatt in a big role (this is a mother / daughter picture), as well as a universally strong cast that includes beau Farley Granger, dad Donald Cook, and sisters Joan Evans and Natalie Wood. All of the performers are strong, but Ann Dvorak absolutely steals the show as Blyth's “real” mother.

In 1950 the term birth mother had not yet entered the vernacular, so the awkward and mildly insulting term real is used in its place. I actually thought the term was worked into the script as a set-up — meaning that after repeatedly hearing Blyth refer to Dvorak as her real mother there would be a moment of payoff when Blyth recognizes Wyatt as the only true mom she's ever had. Being that the term real is in fact utilized as the functional term of the era, the payoff never materializes, though the film's ending certainly delivers the goods.

The strength of the film lies in its script, which places real emotion and small moments over that most common of mid-century dramatic stand-bys: scandal. Time and again throughout, the characters react believably to all of the film's potentially melodramatic moments — saying as much with quiet facial expressions and body language as with words. Furthermore, and much to my surprise, everyone around this popular girl takes the news of her adoption in stride. She's not heckled at school or whispered about as she walks down the street. Blyth's Gail gets all the support and understanding that anyone could hope for. The main thrust of the drama is in Gail's disillusionment with her place in this carefully constructed family, and how in the wake of this emotional slap in the face she has to recapture her seemingly lost identity and consequently, her place in the world. This is an authentic and knowing film.

There a few moments worth sitting up for in Our Very Own, both narrative and filmic. In one scene Gail stays out all night, despondent after learning of her adoption. When she arrives home, on the bad side of three in the morning, she says the wrong thing to her worried father, who responds with one of the most surprising, yet appropriate, slaps in film history. The scene is so raw that I suspect even Blyth didn't know what hit her. Another great sequence depicts Gail's first meeting with Dvorak. It's a rather involved series of cuts, but suffice it to say that I viewed the scene multiple times — for acting, cutting, and music. Themes of disillusionment, cynicism, heartbreak, and regret collide as these two women encounter each other for the first, make that the second, time in their lives.

Circling back around to the notion of melodrama, the climactic scene in Our Very Own plays almost entirely without music. Considering the etymology of the word melodrama: melos (music) and drama — it's impressive to see fifties studio filmmakers recognize that the movie's most emotional scene was strong enough to unfold in near-silence. Yet another moment of calculated restraint in marvelously subdued picture.

Our Very Own (1950)
Grade: B
Directed by David Miller
Starring Ann Blyth, Jane Wyatt, Natalie Wood, Farley Granger
Released by RKO Pictures
Running time: 93 minutes
Availability: VHS, airs on TCM.

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