Saturday, February 11, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Until They Sail (1957)

UNTIL THEY SAIL is the story of four sisters living in New Zealand during World War II. The film was based on a short story in James Michener's RETURN TO PARADISE, a follow-up to his TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC.

I last saw UNTIL THEY SAIL seven or eight years ago and liked it very much, so at Christmas I bought the remastered widescreen Warner Archive DVD, which I enjoyed today. The Archive DVD is a beautiful print.

Coincidentally, UNTIL THEY SAIL pulls together a number of talents from movies I've seen earlier this week: leading lady Joan Fontaine starred earlier today in FROM THIS DAY FORWARD (1946); director Robert Wise was the editor of both CITIZEN KANE (1941) and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), seen last night; and composer David Raksin wrote the score for THE BIG COMBO (1955), which I watched just a couple of days ago.

Fontaine plays Anne Leslie, the oldest of the four sisters, who also include Barbara (Jean Simmons), Delia (Piper Laurie), and teenaged Evelyn (15-year-old Sandra Dee, in her film debut). The girls, whose parents have died, share a home in Christchurch as they cope with the tumultuous war years.

Anne, initially wary of the American soldiers who invade their town, falls for Capt. Richard Bates (Charles Drake), then anxiously waits for news about his safety. Barbara waits for word of her husband Mark, who is in the service, and she also frets over her troubled sister Delia, whose hasty marriage to a local soldier (Wally Cassell) is a disaster. Barbara also slowly develops a friendship with Capt. Jack Harding (Paul Newman), who is charged with evaluating the fitness of New Zealand girls to wed American soldiers. Barbara and Anne also make sure their boy-crazy littlest sister, Evelyn, stays out of trouble.

This is an absorbing, interesting drama with a fairly unusual setting for a WWII movie. It's well acted by the entire cast, with a clear-eyed, frank presentation of the sisters' problems. Anne and Barbara face a variety of challenges with a steely resolve, which makes the climactic delivery of a cable all the more emotionally powerful, providing a cathartic moment.

My one criticism of the film is that Delia's motivations and unhappiness are never adequately explained, particularly her decision to marry a completely obnoxious boor. Delia was a lovely girl who surely must have had other options.

The movie was partially filmed on location in Christchurch, with some very clear shots of Christchurch Cathedral which was heavily damaged in the recent earthquakes. The beautiful black and white cinematography was by Joseph Ruttenberg.

The trailer includes a brief scene of the sisters in a bedroom which does not appear in the release version of the movie; there's a shot of Joan Fontaine I don't remember from the film either. There are a couple of spots in the film where characters refer to events that I believe were filmed but cut, such as a lecture to prospective wives of American soldiers; I suspect that deleted scene is pictured in the still to the right. With so many characters in a 94-minute movie, the film could easily have run 10 minutes longer and not been too long.

In addition to the Warner Archive DVD, UNTIL THEY SAIL was previously released on VHS. It can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies.


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