Friday, 14 April 2017

Film Friday: «The Voice of the Turtle» (1947)

This week on «Film Friday» I want to tell you a little bit about one of my favorite pictures of all time. It is a kookie little comedy, which I think is perfect to watch over the Easter weekend. This also happens to be my favorite Ronald Reagan picture.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Irving Rapper, The Voice of the Turtle (1947) opens in December 1944, as Broadway producer Ken Bartlett (Kent Smith) is ending his affair with stuggling young actress Sally Middleton (Eleanor Parker), who then vows never to fall in love again. Months later, her friend, Olive Lashbrooke (Eve Arden), arranges to meet Bill Page (Ronald Reagan), a sergeant on a weeken pass, at Sally's apartment. While she is waiting, she calls for her messages and learns that an old flame, Naval Commander Ned Burling (Wayne Morris), is in town for one weekend only. Choosing the commander over the sergeant, Olive breaks her date with Bill, who eventually invites Sally to dinner at the same French restaurant that she frequented with Ken.

While Bill and Sally are eating, Olive arrives with Ned, but quickly leaves when she spots them together. Disappointed by her night with the commander, Olive telephones Sally to question her about Bill. By the time the call finishes, Bill has fallen asleep at Sally's apartment. Because it is late and raining and difficult to find a room in the city, Sally offers Bill her couch, which he gratefully accepts. Over the weekend, Bill and Sally grow closer and he tells her that he loves her. However, she explains that she has given up on love, after which Bill leaves for an hotel. The next morning, Olive telephones Bill at the hotel, but he does not answer since he has already left for Sally's apartment. Olive suspects that he has spent the night with Sally and hurries over to confirm her suspicions. After Bill convinces Olive that they arrived at the same time, she invites him to lunch and dinner, but he turns her down. Later, Sally returns homes from a rehearsal to find her apartment filled with flowers. When Bill asks her to marry him, she admits that she loves him and then they sit down to eat the dinner he has ordered from the same French restaurant of their first date.

The Voice of the Turtle began as a Broadway comedy written by English playwright John Van Druten, who had had great success in the London West End in the early 1930s. The title of the play comes from a verse in the Song of Solomon in the Bible, which reads, «The voice of the turtle [as in turtle dove] is heard in our land.» Produced by Alfred De Liagre Jr. and staged by Van Druten himself, The Voice of the Turtle opened at the Morosco Theatre in New York on December 8, 1943. The risqué three-character play featured Academy Award-nominee Margaret Sullavan as Sally Middleton, as aspiring young actress who has given up on love; Elliott Nugent as Bill Page, a U.S. Army Sergeant on a weekend pass; and Audrey Christie as Olive Lashbrooke, Sally's worldly friend. Despite some mild controversy over the story point of a young woman allowing a man she had just met to share her apartment overnight, The Voice of the Turtle was a massive success. It ran for a total of 1,557 performances, closing on January 3, 1948, making it the 51st longest-running play on Broadway. 

Warner Bros. purchased the screen rights to The Voice of the Turtle in 1944, although it took two years for the project to be greenlighted. The studio envisioned the young soldier lead as ideal for their contract star of the past decade, Ronald Reagan, recently returned from World War II service. A graduate of Eureka College, Reagan began his professional career as a sports announcer, broadcasting the baseball games of the Chicago Cubs for WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa. In 1937, while travelling with the Cubs in California, he took a screen test that led to a seven-year contract with Warners. He was relegated to the «B film» unit for a few years, until a lead role opposite Pat O'Brien in Lloyd Bacon's Knute Rockne, All American (1940) made him one of the most popular young stars in Hollywood at that time. He received further critical acclaim for playing a double amputee in Sam Wood's Kings Row (1942), but military service prevented him from capitalizing on his success.

Eleanor Parker and Ronald Reagan
Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan, Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh were all considered for the role of Sally Middleton, but burgeoing young star Eleanor Parker was cast instead. A former waitress, Parker was signed by Warner Bros. in 1941, after being spotted by a talent scout in the audience at Pasadena Playhouse. She was quickly given strong supporting roles in important productions, finally getting her big break when she appeared opposite John Garfield in te biopic Pride of the Marines (1945).

Initially, Reagan did not want Parker to be his co-star in The Voice of the Turtle, requesting that the studio borrow June Allyson from MGM instead. As soon as they started filming, however, he changed his mind about Parker. In his autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me?, Reagan wrote: «The girl the soldier inevitably meets and romances was played by Eleanor Parker. [...] A number of new performers had come along while I was flying my air force desk and she was one of them. To me she was unknown, [but] it took me only one scene with Eleanor for me to realize I'd be lucky if I could stay even. She is one of the truly fine actresses in motion pictures.»

Producer Charles Hoffman was charged with the task of «opening up» the play, working with Van Druten to add acenes taking place in a French restaurant, a diner and the Broadway theatre where Sally is being considered for a job. Veteran Broadway producer Alfred de Liagre Jr., who went to Hollywood to assist in adapting his stage hit to film, was dismayed by Jack Warner's insistence on casting Parker and Reagan, both of whom he considered miscast. As he told syndicated columnist Norman Nadel in a 1980 interview, «So we fought about it for two months, daily, and finally Jack said, 'I paid you half a million dollars to do this, and it's my privilege to louse it up if I want to.'» Unhappy with how Hollywood treated what he considered «the most enchanting romantic comedy of all time [...] a great piece of play craftsmanship,» de Liagre would largery steer clear of filmmaking until he agreed to work with Sidney Lumet on Deathtrap more than 30 years later.

The Voice of the Turtle received a rave review from the Los Angeles Times's Edwin Schallert, who «enthusiastically recommend [it] as one of the brightest comedies of the season.» Variety called it «an infectious, fluffy mirth-maker with sturdy box-office prospects.»

Eleanor Parker: Woman of a Thousand Faces by Doug McLelland ()
Eve Arden: A Chronicle of All Film, Television, Radio and Stage Performances by David C. Tucker (2012)

1 comment:

  1. I just watched this yesterday and loved it!! Eve Arden was so great. So glad Allyson wasn't in it, otherwise I would have probably never watched it.