June 07, 2008

MOVIES: Smackdown 1939: Edna May Oliver, Drums Along the Mohawk

Here's the hardest part of doing a Smackdown: You occasionally have to sit through a movie you really don't enjoy, and try to provide a fair evaluation of the nominated actress who's in that movie. This was one such occasion. Drums Along the Mohawk is not one of John Ford's better films; it's a slow, creaky Revolutionary War drama in which the most exciting moment is a foot chase, and even that goes on for far too long.

Henry Fonda (almost cartoonishly noble and stalwart) and Claudette Colbert (looking bored, and desperately longing to be back in a good comedy) are newlyweds who settle in the Mohawk Valley in 1776. This was the frontier at the time, and so they think at first that they are far enough removed from society to be unaffected by the beginnings of the war. Such is not the case; the British and their Indian allies (who are depicted as the stereotypical savages one would expect in a movie of the period) burn them out of their farm, and they are forced to hire out as laborers to the local Cranky Old Widder Lady, Sarah McKlennar.

And that's where our Oscar nominee, Edna May Oliver, comes in. As Mrs. McKlennar, Oliver is a veritable prototype for generations of Cranky Old Widder Ladies to come -- severe features, sharp tongue, and no apparent filter between thought and utterance. Mrs. McKlennar says what's on her mind, regardless of whether it's appropriate or polite. To her credit, she is aware of this tendency; "I've got a long face and I poke it where I like," she says. "You may think I'm a nuisance."

It's never quite clear whether Mrs. McKlennar doesn't care about observing the social niceties, or if she simply isn't aware that there are niceties to be observed. Even when she tries to say the right thing, Mrs. McKlennar's affect is never quite right. Fonda mentions during their job interview that he had had a farm of his own. "Yeeeeeeess, I heard 'twas burned well that's too bad," says his new boss, in so cold and distant a fashion as to make Dick Cheney look warm and cuddly. Even creepier is the edge of triumph that creeps into Oliver's reading of the line, "I'm a widow," as though this was some sort of personal achievement; one fears for young Adam, the young man with whom Mrs. McKlennar has a vaguely flirtatious relationship.

The only times that Oliver allows any warmth to edge into her performance is when Mrs. McKlennar mentions her late husband, Barnabas ("Barney"). Even on her deathbed -- she's been shot by an Indian arrow -- her response to Colbert's tears is "Don't start tunin' up."

Oliver's performance is an interesting one, and it's certainly got more energy than almost anything else in the movie. But it feels more like something from a particularly bleak piece of Scandinavian drama than like something from a patriotic John Ford/Henry Fonda flick. Part of great acting is making sure that you're in the same movie as the rest of the cast; on that count alone, Oliver's performance must be judged an interesting failure.

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