William Wyler’s ‘Carrie’: Drowning in Middle Age

Misfires can often be more interesting than classics, but there are so few of them in William Wyler’s filmography. He is the only person to direct three Best Picture winners, the only person with a resume that includes Jezebel, The Letter, The Westerner, The Big Country, Wuthering Heights, The Best Years Of Our Lives, Ben-Hur, Dodsworth, Roman Holiday and on and on and on.

One of Wyler’s misfires was Carrie, his 1952 adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie. Although the film reunited Wyler with The Heiress writers Ruth and Augustus Goetz, it does not have the same kind of beauty and teeth as the prior collaboration. Where The Heiress took Henry James’ Washington Square and refused to sentimentalize it for audiences, the end result of Carrie did the opposite, robbing Dreiser’s original work of its backbone.

Jennifer Jones stars as the titular Carrie, a country girl who moves to Chicago to live with her sister and brother-in-law. On the way there, she meets traveling salesman Charles Dourey (Eddie Albert), who offers to help her out. She initially refuses, but after losing her job at a shoe-making factory, she returns to Dourey and essentially becomes his live-in escort. Through Dourey, she meets restaurant manager George Hurstwood (Laurence Olivier), who instantly falls in love with her. Hurstwood puts everything on the line, including his fortune and life with wife Julie (Miriam Hopkins).

While some of Wyler’s best films center on women, Carrie is strangely focused on Hurstwood. It makes the film seem more like a eulogy to youth and about a man who can’t face entering middle age than a woman struggling in the big city. Her eventual success as an actress appears to only be shown through the prism of Hurstwood’s ruined life as if we should somehow feel bad that the guy who married Carrie before he was officially divorced cannot celebrate her happiness.

Part of this has to be because Wyler was not all that interested in directing Jones. When Wyler found a new star, like Audrey Hepburn or Barbra Streisand, one could feel the joy coming from the other side of the camera, coming from a director enjoying capturing star-making moments. With Jones, Wyler seems uninterested in her. Jones is good in some films, but here she just can’t carry the same dramatic weight that Olivier can.

Olivier, speaking in an uncommon American accent, is carrying everything in this movie on his shoulders, which is astounding since he is not introduced until about 20 minutes in. So thanks to him, Carrie does not seem like that bad a film about a restless man searching for someone to love him as much as he loves his status in society.

Sister Carrie has more of a downbeat ending, but Carrie has a lighter one, at least when compared to an ending involving suicide. The ending is so focused on Hurstwood though, it once again feels like Carrie is the supporting player. It’s not about Carrie discovering she needs more than just success at work to live a happy life (as the book’s ending is). It’s about Hurstwood once again refusing her – or anyone’s – help.

Paramount released Carrie on DVD back in 2005. There are no bonus features, but the case advertises it as an “extended version” that includes the complete “flophouse” scene re-inserted.

This is still a film Olivier fans should seek out. It is one of his best film performances, and it is surprising he was not nominated for an Oscar (the film’s only nominations were for Set Direction, B&W and Costume Design, B&W).

Carrie was released in 1952, and is a quickly forgotten part of Wyler’s amazing run that had been going almost non-stop since These Three was released in 1936. Wyler was making great film after great film, reaching new heights with Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives. Carrie was released during his time at Paramount, and he quickly rebounded the following year with Roman Holiday. Carrie does have some powerful moments sprinkled throughout its two hours, but it ultimately doesn’t carry the same uncompromising emotional weight we expect from Wyler’s best work.

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