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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 favourite pictures of all time. It is a kooky little comedy, which I think is perfect to watch over the Easter weekend. This also happens to be my favourite Ronald Reagan picture.

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 struggling 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 weekend 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.
 
Wayne Morris, Eve Arden, Eleanor Parker and Ronald Reagan in The Voice of the Turtle.
 
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 home from a rehearsal to find her apartment filled with bouquets of flowers. When Bill asks her to marry him, she finally admits that she loves him too and they sit down to eat the dinner he has ordered from the same French restaurant they went to on their first date.
 
Ronald Reagan, Eleanor Parker and Eve Arden in The Voice of the Turtle.
 
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 was taken 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 three-character play featured Oscar-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 controversy over the story point of a woman allowing a man she had just met to share her apartment, The Voice of the Turtle was a massive success. The New York Times called it «the most delightful comedy of the season,» while the New York Herald Tribune described it as «a romantic comedy that is at once witty, tender, and wise.» It closed on January 3, 1948 after 1,557 performances, making it one of the longest-running plays on Broadway.
 
Ronald Reagan and Eleanor Parker in publicity stills for The Voice of Turtle.

Warner Bros. purchased the screen rights to The Voice of the Turtle in 1944, although it took two years for the project to be green-lighted by studio executives. Irving Rapper, best known for the Bette Davis classic Now, Voyager (1942), was hired as director, while Charles Hoffman worked as both producer and co-writer along with Van Druten. They were charged with the task of «opening up» the original play, adding scenes that took place in a French restaurant, a dinner and the Broadway theatre where Sally is being considered for a job.
 
The studio envisioned the part of the young soldier as ideal for one of their biggest contract stars 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 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 Kings Row (1942), but military service prevented him from capitalizing on his success.
 
Ronald Reagan as Sgt. Bill Page in The Voice of the Turtle.

Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan, Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh were all considered for the role of Sally Middleton, but burgeoning young star Eleanor Parker was ultimately 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 the Academy Award-nominated 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. However, he changed his mind as soon as they started filming. 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
 
Eleanor Parker and Ronald Reagan as Sally and Bill in The Voice of the Turtle.
 
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 largely steer clear of filmmaking until he agreed to work with Sidney Lumet on Deathtrap (1982) more than 30 years later.
 
Ronald Reagan and Eleanor Parker in a scene from The Voice of the Turtle.

The role of Olive Lashbrooke, Sally's cynical friend, was given to Eve Arden, one of Warner Bros.' newest acquisitions. Arden made her film debut in the backstage musical Song of Love (1929) and then rose in the Hollywood ranks as the wisecracking supporting character in such comedies as Stage Door (1937) and Having Wonderful Time (1938). After signing a seven-year contract with Warners in 1944, Arden was cast opposite Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945), which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Two male characters were added to the screen version of The Voice of the Turtle. The role of naval commander Ned Burling, Olive's old flame, was given to Wayne Morris, who had actually served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Like many other actors at the time, including Reagan, Morris put his film career on hold to serve his country. He joined the Naval Reserve after Pearl Harbor and served as a fighter pilot abroad the USS Essex. He shot down seven Japanese planes and contributed to the sinking of five ships, which earned him four Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Air Medals. To play Broadway producer Ken Barlett, Sally's ex-lover, Warner Bros. hired Kent Smith, also a war veteran. He had served as a private in the U.S. Army Air Forces, appearing in several government training films.

Theatrical release posters for The Voice of the Turtle.

The Voice of the Turtle premiered on December 25, 1947 and it became one of the highest grossing films of the following year, earning $2,450,000 at the box office. Critical reviews were also positive. Variety called it «an infectious, fluffy mirth-maker», while Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times described it as «one of the brightest comedies of the season

 
____________________________________________
SOURCES:
Eleanor Parker: Woman of a Thousand Faces by Doug McLelland (The Scarecrow Print, Inc., 2003)
Eve Arden: A Chronicle of All Film, Television, Radio and Stage Performances by David C. Tucker (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012)

Comments

  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.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Why was the title of this film changed to ‘One for the Book’?

    ReplyDelete

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