When discussing talented or famous film actresses of the classic film era, Jean Simmons is not a name that comes up as often as it should. Often those with larger screen personas get all the attention. I myself have been guilty of overlooking her work. And yet, she appeared in some very successful films, was twice nominated for an Oscar and continued working until she died in 2010 racking up almost one hundred film credits. So I’m absolutely thrilled that she is receiving some well deserved attention with the Jean Simmons Blogathon.
In choosing one of Jean’s films to write about, I discovered that I have seen more of her movies than I realized. Despite being a beautiful woman, she has the talent of disappearing into her roles. What’s amazing is that she accomplishes this without any drastic changes to her appearance. Instead she actually BECOMES her character.
I have a few personal favorites among her pictures, and she has several famous film titles to her credit. But I wanted to choose one that I had not seen and also which I felt is a bit more obscure among her fans. That is how I found myself watching the 1963 film, All the Way Home.
All the Way Home is a simple story of the young Follett family living in turn of the century Tennessee. In spite of differences in temperament and religion, Jay and Mary’s marriage is a happy one. Young Rufus adores his father and it is clear the feeling is mutual. Their days are filled with the mundane contentment of their daily tasks and interactions with each other. This is occasionally interrupted by visits with both Jay and Mary’s family members who live in the area. But their lives are disrupted by tragedy when Jay is killed in an auto accident. Mary and Rufus are left behind to process their grief and to find a new normal.
This story is simultaneously a portrait of the bonds of family meshed with a picture of grief. As is appropriate for this type of story, the film moves at an unhurried pace, giving the audience time to soak in the everyday simplicity of the Follett’s lives and the depth of their love for each other. Just as the viewer settles in to appreciating this slow pace of life, we are wrenched away into a maelstrom of emotion, along with Mary and Rufus.
What really surprised me about All the Way Home was learning that it was based on a true story. Written by James Agee, this is the tale of his own childhood in Tennessee and loss of his father. His book, A Death in the Family, was published after his own death in an effort to help provide funds for his widow and children. It won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted for the stage, before making its’ way to the screen.
The opening scenes of the movie run much like a silent film, showing Jay and young Rufus as they take in a Charlie Chaplin film at the theater. There is only music, no dialogue, as they make their way home in the moonlit dark, but the depiction of their bond with each other is more than clear. After reading a bit about Agee, I learned that he was big fan of Chaplin’s work and even wrote a screenplay for Chaplin which was never used. I love how the film subtly pays tribute to him by beginning All the Way Home in this way.
I’ve never been a fan of Robert Preston, but his portrayal of Jay Follett as a dedicated family man is touching. Jay’s interactions with his young son are tender and playful. His love for Rufus is betrayed every time he calls Rufus, Honey. For that matter his interactions with his wife are much the same. Theirs is not a perfect relationship, but it is one with great affection and patience with each other’s differences.
Michael Kearney plays young Rufus Follett and does it rather well. He is the picture of innocent childhood whose life is secure in the love of his family. After his father’s death, we see the grieving of the adults through his uncomprehending eyes. He cannot understand the mercurial emotions which are constantly shifting around him. That innocent ignorance is perhaps the most heartbreaking thing about the whole film. Because the adults in his life and the viewer knows what he does not. That his life has changed irrevocably and that his beloved father is never coming back.
But this is Jean Simmons’ film, although it’s not obvious until a third of the way into the running time. Prior to that, the focus remains on the larger than life Jay Follett. Mary remains somewhat in the background as the only woman in her household and the quiet glue that holds them together. As soon as Jay drives off to visit his ailing father, the focus shifts to her.
That intensity increases as soon as she learns her husband has been in an accident. Simmons starts displaying a range of emotions as Mary waits for further news on her husband’s fate. She busies herself in conversation with her Aunt Hannah (played by the under rated Aline MacMahon), alternating between impatience, worry, laughter as she tells a joke, frustration with the silence. The unknown fate of her husband prods her to the edge of an emotional breakdown.
Upon receiving news of Jay’s death, she goes into calm shock as her brother breaks down and is comforted by the rest of Mary’s family. As the evening and the days pass, she experiences the full range of grief, her emotions on full display. Simmons is magnificent, never overplaying it and giving a realistic portrayal of the a grieving wife and mother. I completely forgot I was watching Jean Simmons on screen. It just may be one of her best performances.
All the Way Home is a film which remains under the radar. I understand why. There is nothing showy about it. The entertainment value is blunted by the subject matter. It isn’t a picture which leaves you feeling good at the end. Instead, the viewer feels emotionally wrung out and exhausted. It’s much less like your typical movie experience and more like watching in horror as disaster falls on people you feel you know personally. Still, it deserves to be seen. Because, it’s not the kind of story dreamed up in a Hollywood studio. It is real life portrayed brilliantly. It draws out our humanity and seeks out our quietest joys and deepest fear. And if that isn’t reason enough, it is worth watching for Jean Simmons, one very underrated but talented actress.
Thanks to Phyl of Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and Virginie of The Wonderful World of Cinema for giving Jean Simmons the attention she deserves. I highly encourage you to stop by their websites to read more about this magnificent actress.
(All photos are my own screen shots except for the publicity photo of Simmons which is in the public domain.)