SELZNICK VS. DE SICA — AND THE LOSER IS … Jennifer Jones
Stazione Termini Vittorio De Sica 1953
” … it is fascinating to see how identical material can be pushed and pulled, wholly through the post production process, in two radically different directions.” (Dave Kehr, writing in the flyer included with Criterion’s two-version disc comprising Stazione Termini and Selznick’s re-edited version titled, for American release, Indiscretion of an American Wife.)
The conventional wisdom is that David Selznick edited out most of De Sica’s portraits of various little people and Italian types — supposedly neorealist cameos — wandering in and out of and through Rome’s huge train station in the interest of focusing on Jennifer Jones. WHAT ELSE IS NEW? Focusing on Jennifer Jones was at the center of of all his last years’ involvement in film. But the (for lack of a better adjective) restored film, containing all the footage from De Sica’s cut, reveals a script that focuses on the Jones character anyway. And De Sica’s direction emphasizes close-ups of her face — when not focusing on close-ups of Montgomery Clift or close two-shots of them together. De Sica’s character vignettes are, for once, not all that interesting. Stazione Termini is not major De Sica even with this near half hour of added material. And the two versions make it appear that Selznick removed some of the most embarrassing close-ups of what must be Jennifer Jones’ poorest performance (the high praise of the New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter notwithstanding).
Jennifer Jones has been a favorite star of mine for many years. She appears in two films I count all-time personal favorites. I have always seen her as an actress as well as a beautiful star. If lately I have been willing to reconsider my opinion, study her work and re-evaluate earlier judgments, nothing could have prepared me for this performance in which she seems to have been allowed to bring all her weaknesses to the fore.
WHAT MIGHT BE WRONG: I think I may have discovered one indicator of what might be wrong with Jennifer Jones here and with this film. There is a scene in which she first boards for the first time a train for Paris. She is carrying a wrapped gift for her daughter, a charming peasant combination she has purchased in a depot shop where she specifically asked the clerk to wrap it for her. On the train, musing about her daughter, she tears a hole in the wrapping with her fingernail and strokes the garment, smiling.
Can you think of any human being you have ever known who would do this?
The characters in this film simply do not act as we are accustomed to seeing people act.
Was this in the Zavattini script? Is this an invention of Selznick or De Sica or Jones? It is eerily strange and decidedly incredible.
Despite the fact that the Selznick version does seem to make for a slightly better performance — Kehr cited above disagrees, thinks Selznick’s cuts remove her back story and motivation — there is other evidence that Selznick’s attitude and fixation, his determination to be Svengali to Jones’ Trilby, did irreparable harm to the work of her later years. His editing, exclusively-in-the-interest-of-Jones, made a botch of an interesting and beautifully colored Powell and Pressburger film Gone to Earth, released by him in the United States in a truncated version called The Wild Heart.
Selznick’s latter day madness –not the Selznick of taste and judgment, the Selznick of Gone with the Wind and Rebecca, of Tom Sawyer and A Star is Born — is on display in the short that was released with the American Indiscretion to eke out its length (he had cut the feature to 63 minutes and advertised it with vulgar posters and a crude falsifying trailer). The short features Patti Page singing two songs devised from the background score. For this 8-minute film Selznick brought in William Cameron Menzies to direct and James Wong Howe to photograph it.
This pretentiousness running wild was glimpsed as far back as Duel in the Sun when he called Joseph von Sternberg to the set to light Jennifer Jones looking at a smokehouse ham. On the set talking to Jones’ co-star Lillian Gish was David Wark Griffith who in his last days had gone mad in his own way.
Praise and gratitude to Criterion, though, for making both these films available in beautiful transfers.
NEXT FRIDAY POST DECEMBER 11
See you at the movies,