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Stars Gary Cooper, Diane Varsi, Suzy Parker, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ray Stricklyn.
Despite my initial enthusiasm to view the Twilight Time Blu-ray of 10 North Frederick that’s now been available for a couple months, I had to be re-nudged to take a fresh look at a movie that has always gotten to me a little, notwithstanding its structural imperfections. With human tragedy at its core and a Gary Cooper performance that’s among his most poignant, I didn’t really need refortified viewing motivation. But then we had the arrival at my door just a few days ago of a new Library of America collection devoted to the earlier John O’Hara novels that long predated Frederick’s 1955 publication — though the LoA volume does contain Appointment in Samarra, which even O’Hara detractors concede is a still major player when it comes to 20th-century literature.
And detractors he had. O’Hara was an off-putting self-promoter, the quality of his writing fell off badly toward the end of his career and his dissection of small-town ambition and the country-club-ism that went along with it got shrugged off by new generations that cared little for what looked a lot like provincial white privilege. Still, I was delighted to see former Paris Review editor Lorin Stein quoted in O’Hara’s Wikipedia entry comparing the “binge factor” inherent in the author’s best work as comparable to “Mad Men’s” … and for some of the same reasons. (Stein later had to resign the Review over sexual harassment issues, which may or may not be irony, given at least implied Don Draper-ism.)
Imminent fading rep or not, Frederick-the-novel was a big deal at the time, following its banning in some cities (including by Detroit’s finest) before winning the National Book Award for fiction. The censorship concerns compounded screen adaptation challenges that the movie already had, and after I saw Frederick in 1958 at a drive-in with, of all things, a Diane Varsi double bill completed by Henry Hathaway’s Western From Hell to Texas, I sneaked around the house to locate my parents’ paperback of the novel so I could read “the good parts.” The movie was cleaned up by top screenwriter-turned-middling-director Philip Dunne from a source so lengthy that it had to be pared down extensively. This is why a) the screen adaptation immediately throws us into a situation where it’s difficult to understand just why Cooper’s mild-mannered lawyer wants to be lieutenant governor of his unnamed state (read: Pennsylvania); and b) why a told-in-flashback movie gets stronger as it progresses after this and other mysteries eventually get explained (it also helps that three or four of the best written and performed scenes are weighted near or at the end).
The story spans the final five years (1940-45) of aging Ivy League protagonist Joe Chapin (Cooper), who’s been successful enough as a lawyer to render money worries a non-issue yet has never satisfied the loftier goals of life he’s never wanted in the first place. It hardly matters because his longtime wife and Hall of Fame harridan (an unforgettable Geraldine Fitzgerald) has enough craven ambition for both of them, projecting a level of chill-pill coldness that has estranged both of their grown children. These are: a daughter (Varsi), who’s initially too ladylike to fight back much even when mom becomes a key factor in the wreckage of her marriage to a trumpeter; plus a perennial academic flunk-out (Ray Stricklyn in an overlooked excellent performance) who wouldn’t mind watching mom bisecting the goalposts as part of someone’s successful 65-yard field goal attempt. He also drinks to excess, which is something he’ll have in common with dad during the movie’s later scenes, when everything goes wrong for the senior Chapin excepting one brief but lovely respite.
This is a mutually beneficial May-December romance with his daughter’s New York roommate (supermodel Suzy Parker, who had a limited career as an actress, and, like Stricklyn, was never as effective on screen as she is here). Cooper, who had only three years left in real life, rarely got to tread this kind of emotional ground on screen (and wearing suits at that); he soon followed this movie with two of the best Westerns he ever made: Man of the West and The Hanging Tree. He did, however, leap to play this role, apparently having learned a lot about this kind of material following his famous late ‘40s affair with Patricia Neal, when he almost left his wife for his Fountainhead co-star.
Around the edges, there’s a lot of drinking in public to go along with all the drinking in private; serial adultery braggadocio at “the club”; domestic arguments that are as cruel as they are unnecessary; lots of WASP hypocrisy; woefully underhanded political graft; an implied threat of blackmail; and all the other things that made Mayberry so great. The graft largely has to do with a local political string-puller (Tom Tully) who’s apparently the one Irishman the local power structure will allow into its circle. Tully has a lot of grease on his palms, including the $20,000 pittance (albeit in circa 1940 dollars) that Cooper/Chapin slips him in an envelope just for the chance to be considered for the state’s lieutenant governor slot, which he and/or the Mrs. have determined might be a smoother-sailing path to the White House. Yet one of the movie’s main themes is that Cooper is far too much of a classy gentleman to go for the jugular, which makes him irresistible to Parker and an object of adoration by his daughter.
Given its pedigree going in, there’s visual evidence that 20th Century-Fox didn’t spend the money it should have on location footage, even though the same studio mounted a large-scale production just two years later of O’Hara’s doorstop novel From the Terrace, which sold well but without the former’s substantial acclaim. It’s less a case that the Parker-Varsi New York apartment exteriors are on an obvious set than on an obviously bad set — complete with an in-your-face waterside matte painting in the background that’s, well, in your face. This kind of thing takes the viewer out of the picture and puts extra pressure on the actors to carry the day, which they manage to do here even if there’s not much to write home about when it comes to Dunne’s visual style.
This said, Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography never disappoints, and this is more ammo for that assertion — another display of how great widescreen black-and-white used to look before the taste of teenaged dufuses began to mandate the visual content of the movies we see. I’ve never understood how the cinematographer of My Darling Clementine, Viva Zapata! and The Young Lions (all in black-and-white) plus color credits like Niagara, Bigger Than Life, The Carpetbaggers and especially The Sand Pebbles (with all that snake-is camerawork in and around that claustrophobic engine room) could be underrated, but Blu-ray has shown MacDonald to such great advantage that the true story is on your monitor.