12-year-old Frankie Addams (Julie Harris, Reflections in a Golden Eye) a southern tomgirl who struggles with feelings of alienation and loneliness. The other girls her age don't really want anything to do with her, and Frankie doesn't have any interest in hanging out with the younger kids in town. Her mother is dead, and her father is a distant figure who stays focused on his work. Her older brother Jarvis (Arthur Franz, The Caine Mutiny) is about to get married to the lovely Janice (Nancy Gates, The Magnificent Ambersons), and they tend to pay more attention to each other than to anyone else. So, Frankie mostly spends her days in the company of two other lonely people: her family's African-American maid Berenice (Ethel Waters, Pinky) and her bespectacled younger cousin John Henry (Brandon De Wilde, Shane).
True to the Carson McCullers novel it's based on (and the McCullers-scripted stage production it takes more direct inspiration from), The Member of the Wedding doesn't have a lot of plot. The majority of the film is comprised of scenes in which Frankie, Berenice and John Henry stand around and talk (though Frankie has a tendency to do more than her share of the talking). We hear their dreams, their frustrations, their joys, their frustrations, their doubts and their frustrations. Meanwhile, Jarvis and Janice's wedding looms around the corner, and Frankie fantasizes that they'll ask her to go live with them in a lovely new place, allowing her to leave all her frustrations behind. Berenice knows exactly how things are going to play out, and so do we, but that doesn't make it any less heartbreaking when it happens.
While it's immediately obvious that Harris is older than 12 (she was 26 when the movie was filmed), her performance is so authentic and persuasive that you quickly accept the casting decision. She depicts Frankie as a force of nature: wiry and angry, sporting a perpetual scowl and a harsh tone that frequently boils into explosive anger (and occasionally melts into defeated self-pity). The fact that she's so different from the other girls her age makes her both defiant and insecure, and she responds to rejection by lashing out and declaring that she's the one doing the rejecting.
Berenice and John Henry have known Frankie long enough to be unphased by her behavior: the former maintains her composed demeanor no matter how outlandish Frankie's behavior gets, and the latter doesn't let Frankie's ferocity dissuade him from teasing her now and then. These supporting characters aren't merely sounding boards for Frankie's monologues, but well-drawn individuals with their own sets of complexities.
Waters' performance is as powerful and magnetic as Harris'. Though she's playing one of the few types of roles black women were allowed to play in films back in the 1950s – the matronly maid – this isn't a stereotypical character. Berenice's warm exterior masks a profound sadness that occasionally rises to the surface. Years ago, she lost the love of her life, and has since tried unsuccessfully to fill that void with other relationships. One of the film's most stunning moments arrives midway through, as Waters delivers a long, dark monologue about the most painful moment from her past.
Director Fred Zinnemann does a fine job of turning this talky film into something visually compelling, finding a lot of indelible images within the confines of the slightly-cramped Addams home. Alex North's moody, occasionally jazzy score effectively underlines the turbulent emotions of the film without ever becoming too melodramatic (yet another reminder that North was perhaps the most underrated composer of his era).
There are traces of To Kill a Mockingbird in the way the film outlines the realities of childhood in the deep south and offers its young female protagonist a complex coming-of-age story, but this is ultimately a darker and more cynical tale. The final act of the film goes to some bleak places, pouring water on the notion that the struggles our characters are facing are mere hiccups on the path to understanding or happiness. At one point in the film, Frankie expresses anger that she hasn't been invited to be a member of a local girls' club. Berenice reminds her that for clubs to exist, some people have to be excluded. The Member of the Wedding reminds us that the world is full of all kinds of clubs, and shows us what can happen to the people who aren't invited to be a member of any of them.
The Member of the Wedding
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 89 minutes
Release Year: 1952