Sunday, October 01, 2006

1936: The Overlooked -- ALMA KRUGER in “THESE THREE”


Though Alma Kruger’s name was never a household word, her talent was of the highest calibre. She was sixty-seven when she made “These Three”. It was her first film. But she’d spent her whole life on the stage. And the experience showed.

The role of Mrs. Tilford offers rich possibilities to an actress equipped to exploit them. She’s not a villain. She’s a proud woman, priding herself above all on always trying to do the right thing. In this case, good intentions produce very bad results. 1961’s incarnation gave Fay Bainter a memorable swan song. Alma Kruger’s interpretation, twenty-five years earlier, gives her an equally memorable debut.

We first encounter Mrs. Tilford in the back seat of her chauffered car as she meets Karen and Joseph (Oberon and McCrea) on a country road. A beautiful speaking voice. A sense of authority. A person of consequence – but self-assured rather than condescending. Mary’s disruptive behavior in the car (just a faint preview of what’s to come) tips us off to the fact that Mrs. Tilford is coming back from what was probably a very abrupt and unpleasant end to Mary’s last scholastic situation. It’s clear that Mrs. Tilford enjoys helping people. But she’s also quick to see that a new school in her vicinity may offer a solution to what she no doubt already sees as a tricky problem – what to do with little Mary.

The girl’s parents are never mentioned. I sense a back story where Mrs. Tilford’s son has given her grief. Maybe he was like Mary. He broke away. Perhaps there was an unsuitable marriage. Estrangement from his mother. The couple lived fast. Died young. Leaving behind a baby girl. Inevitable feelings of guilt on Mrs. Tilford’s part. Determination to do right by her granddaughter. Fear she’ll repeat her mistakes. Not quite sure what they were. No wonder the Wright-Dobie School for Young Ladies looks like a godsend.

Mrs. Tilford’a not gullible. When Mary runs home with Rosalie in tow, she initially dismisses the girl’s melodramatics. But when Mary whispers some salacious specifics in her grandmother’s ear, Kruger justifies her close-ups with a masterful display of genuine shock. She simply can’t believe a little girl could invent details like this. Rosalie’s apparent corroboration brings out the protectress in Mrs. Tilford. She girds her loins to do her duty. She’s sad – but firm – when the three adults confront her.

“You’ve been playing with a lot of children’s lives. I did what I had to do.”

When Mary’s lies momentarily trip her up, Mrs. Tilford begins to doubt her.

“I want the truth!”, she demands, engaged – as she says it – in some impressive physical wrangling with the writhing child. But it’s Rosalie once again whose very genuine terror convinces her that she is doing the right thing. And who wouldn’t be swayed by Marcia Mae Jones’ performance?

When she wins the court case, there’s no sense of victory in Mrs. Tilford’s face. It’s not just the unpleasant publicity that seems to disturb her. Is it the nagging feeling,perhaps, that Mary has somehow manipulated her?

Finally, when Martha brings Rosalie to her for a full confession, Mrs. Tilford sits almost catatonic – defeated, discredited, ashamed. Her ringing, wounded cry of “STILL!” silences Mary’s final tantrum. But she sinks to quiet anguish with her next words.

“All my life the mistakes I’ve made have been honorable ones. You’ve made me make the first that was dishonorable.”

In the end Mrs. Tilford is framed alone in a doorway, with Martha’s words ringing around her.

“For the rest of your life, there won’t be a word she says or a move she makes that doesn’t frighten you’”

Kruger captures it all – the dignity, the warmth, the pride, the fall, the regret and the fear. A great actress can perform wonders even in an ordinary part. But there’s nothing like seeing a great actress in a great part. She takes you soaring with her.


Vertigo's Psycho said...

Although I love the forceful "I WANT THE TRUTH", the Kruger moment that stays with me the most comes a little earlier when, in a slighty exasperated tone, Mrs. Tilford tells Mary, who has just begun her tirade against her teachers, to "Stop using that word." The way Kruger says the line, it's fully conveyed Grandma knows something's about to hit the fan, and she'd really rather be far, far away rather than deal with the very ugly accusations she senses are forthcoming.

Her reaction to Mary's deception makes it almost a mute point the screenplay was toned down because, as you mention, Kruger's ultra-stunned look to Mary's whispers (and the ensuing "grab" and interrogation) makes the audience believe that, whatever Mary told her, the utterance is too shocking to avoid serious consequences for the title characters.

If I had to pick one SA for 1936, Marcia Mae Jones would fully earn the prize; however, Granville, Kruger, and Catherine Doucet also contribute heavily to the success of the film. Too bad the Academy couldn't have awarded an Oscar en masse to the dynamic supporting actresses who do so much to ensure These Three contains some of the most riveting cinema found in any 1930's drama.

CanadianKen said...

I got a real buzz as I read your "Stop using that WORD" quote. There aren't many phrases Alma Kruger doesn't get full mileage out of. But, you're right. She makes that one an extra-special corker. As I read the words, I could hear her voice again.