movies linger in your spirit for long stretches. They put you in a
trancedisturbed, 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).
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 $500,000a 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, betrayedand 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.
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
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
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. OZannemost probably a wink at Morgan’s memorable role(s) in The Wizard of Oz.)
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
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.
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
Thus the family tradition of bad
engagement karma passes to the next generation. As with Sophie for
Octaviuspersevering in marriage out of sheer duty bereft of all erotic
passionWilliam 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
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 graspif that's the right wordthe 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.
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