Some movies linger in your spirit for long stretches. They put you in a trance—disturbed, humorous, or charmed, depending. You re-watch them (let’s call them atmospheric films) and the trance returns thicker, and even more pleasant.
Green Dolphin Street (1947) belongs in this charming category. Directed by Victor Saville and based on the 1944 novel of the same name by English novelist Elizabeth Goudge, the movie has a haunting quality, a la Frank Capra’s dreamy epic Lost Horizon (1937).
Screenwriter Samuel Raphaelson condenses Goudge’s floral, unusually vivid descriptive style into a 161-minute adaptation that became MGM’s highest grossing film of 1947. Nominated for a handful of Academy Awards it took home the Special Effects statuette for the then state-of-the-art earthquake and tsunami scenes, which cost MGM $500,000—a whopping budget item at the time.
The movie-going public was primed for a change of pace from rah rah World War II dramas, rugged Westerns, and light Bing Crosby-Bob Hope comedies. The last successful “costume drama,” as they were called, was the gigantic hit Gone With the Wind (1939), and the studio brass were evidently convinced that it was an anomaly at the box office. By the end of the war, the poofy dress genre was ripe for a reboot. In acquiring the rights to the Goudge novel, they hit pay dirt.
Like all classic stories, Green Dolphin Street makes use of an epic backdrop (complete with glorious nineteenth-century sailing ships and an august cliff-top monastery) to tell a simple story of love found, betrayed—and regained, but in a in a way that brims with bittersweet irony.
It’s also a depiction of the dynamics behind the way some families seem to pass identical patterns of bad luck.
Summarizing the plot makes it inevitably sound like a cross between Downton Abbey and a Mexican TV novella. No matter. The backstory is that Dr. Edmond Ozanne (Frank Morgan), the town drunk who happens to be a fine doctor, is in love with Sophie. While Sophie loved him, her parents had other plans, chief of which meant “recommending” that she marry someone suitable, like the wealthy Octavius (a bald Edmund Gwynn, best known for playing Santa in Miracle of 34th Street). That lopsided union results in two lovely daughters, the brunette Marianne (Lana Turner) and the blond Marguerite (Donna Reed) Patourel.
The two female leads are study in contrast. In Jungian terms, Marianne and Marguerite are dueling animas. Marianne is sensual, worldly, and not above scheming when it serves her ends. Her sister Marguerite is softer-edged, and is gently receptive to the world around her: the quintessential girl next door. Lana Turner was your classic Hollywood siren, and her performance in Green Dolphin Street hits the emotional marks that characterized her career as the woman who gets the hero at the end.
But Donna Reed’s work here showcases a depth and a refined human dignity (and shoulder-shaking grief) that never quite came to the surface in roles in the highly popular It’s a Wonderful Life, From Here to Eternity (which earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), and television’s iconic The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966). Watching her as the spurned Marguerite makes one ponder how the marvelous the Oscar-winner could have been in, say, an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
Early in the film, Dr. Ozanne has returned to his hometown, one of the British-owned Channel Islands off the coast of France called St. Pierre, along with his strapping son William (Richard Hart). Sophie’s daughter Marguerite and William fall for each other. Just to add some spice to life, Marguerite’s sister, Marianne, also loves William, more or less clandestinely and with ambitious plans for his improvement.
The additional twist has some sideways torque to it: village handyman Timothy Haslam (Van Helfin in an intelligent, understated performance) also has eyes for Marianne. After Haslam kills a man in a knife fight, Dr. Edmond helps him flee to New Zealand. (The sign on the door is hand-painted, with the first two letters in bold: Dr. OZanne—most probably a wink at Morgan’s memorable role(s) in The Wizard of Oz.)
Lovesick for Marguerite, William yet deserts from his Navy commission and hitches an ocean ride to New Zealand, where he meets and starts a lucrative logging business with none other than Haslam. Yes, a small world.
Here we come to the story engine’s main flywheel. William, taking after his old man, gets stoned drunk and pens a robust letter to his would-be father-in-law Octavius. He fervently asks for Octavius’ daughter’s hand in marriage and asks that she travel across the wide world to New Zealand to begin their new life together.
The bad news? Being as tipsy as he is amorous, William accidentally writes the name Marianne, the wrong sister.
He doesn’t learn of his error until months later as he spies the happiest woman in the world that he doesn’t want to marry, waving from the deck of the ship as it docks. Next to him on shore stands Haslam (who, note well, is still in love with her). Seeing William’s stunned face, Haslam reads him the riot act on the spot, forcefully telling him that honor and chivalry demand that he go through with the marriage. He (William) must take this woman who, after spending years pining for him, has braved two oceans to be with him. William, in the face of soul-crushing disappointment, agrees.
Thus the family tradition of bad engagement karma passes to the next generation. As with Sophie for Octavius—persevering in marriage out of sheer duty bereft of all erotic passion—William white-knuckles it for the sake of an ideal of self-sacrifice. The pair doesn’t exactly make a happy home for one another. Depression is yet replaced by devastation when Marianne learns the truth.
But the story is not just about a mistaken identity sitcom scenario. Green Dolphin Street takes a close look at how human beings play the cards dealt to them and how they grasp—if that’s the right word—the mysterious interplay between what they propose and what God disposes.
The final scenes of the last act depict a Catholicism that is fulsome, mysterious, and thoroughly attractive. I won’t dole out a spoiler, but when Marguerite offers a little prayer-speech while holding her sister’s hand beneath an outsized crucifix, one is witnessing is a slice of cinematic loveliness that’s impossible to imagine in the Hollywood of today.
The cryptically named Green Dolphin Street is a fascinating exploration of disinterested love and its power to reshape a bad marital foundation into an impressive edifice of true marital happiness. Some impossibly shaky marriages can be restored, and some religious vocations can be found, for those with eyes to see.
One last observation for jazz lovers. The title song by Bronislaw Kaper (sometimes known as “On Green Dolphin Street”) later became a jazz standard recorded by the likes of Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.