Sunday, October 01, 2006

1936: The Overlooked -- MARCIA MAE JONES in “THESE THREE”


It’s almost inevitable that when modern audiences watch William Wyler’s “These Three”, they’re astonished by little Marcia Mae Jones. Her name is hardly remembered today. But there’s a timeless quality to her performance - she projects tremulous sensitivity that builds to a startling emotional wallop. It’s quite outside the usual polite conventions of thirties screen acting. And she was only eleven years old when she did it. But Hollywood didn’t nurture Jones’ very special gift. She shone in Shirley Temple’s “Heidi”(1937), turning a potentially cloying role (as Clara, the invalid) into a thing of quiet beauty – and left the showboating to Shirley. Scuttlebutt has it that Fox pruned Marcia Mae’s role because she was putting Shirley in the shade. Whatever the case, she got few such chances in the years to come. Between them, Temple and Jane Withers had the little girl movie star slot sewn up. Jones didn’t sing. So Deanna Durbin was safe on her perch. As it happened, Marcia Mae milled around in the background of a few Durbin pictures, but with little scope to get noticed. She soon wound up at Monogram in a series of moth-eaten teen films with Jackie Moran and Frankie Darro. Threadbare efforts at best. As she grew up, Jones remained a pleasure to look at. But not in a conventional pin-up way. Big studios weren’t interested. And Marcia Mae was reduced to plying her wares at PRC and other Poverty Row pitstops. There she had to contend with five-day shooting schedules and fungus-covered scripts. Even when she landed a potentially meaty part like Jean Parker’s wayward sister in “Lady in the Death House”, the odds were stacked against her. She’s always special, though. There’s a little something in every performance to remind you of the moment when Hollywood got it just right. And channeled her gift into a breathtaking and fully realized little masterpiece.


Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins are ladylike and appealing in “These Three”. And it’s always fun to marvel at how they transform a ramshackle old dump into a country showplace armed with just $38 and nice manicures. Joel McCrea must have been one heck of a part-time handyman! They proceed to convert their showplace into the Wright-Dobie School for Young Ladies. And that’s where we encounter Marcia Mae Jones as Rosalie. She’s a pie-faced little creature with pig-tails, gentle eyes , heart on her sleeve. There’s a quick charming curtsy, Then some halting Latin translation in the classroom. But after she and Evelyn (Carmencita Johnson, also excellent) get caught doing some innocent eavesdropping, we follow them upstairs with budding sociopath Mary (Bonita Granville). Rosalie’s a little put out because she’s going to have to share a room with Helen, who “blows her nose all night”. But Mary will soon provide her with bigger things to worry about. As a matter of fact, when the vicious Mary raises a threatening hand in Rosalie’s direction, the girl does a very quick and convincing dodge. It seems Rosalie already has a pretty good idea that Mary’s bite is just as bad as her bark.

The real fireworks start when Mary tries to bully Rosalie out of her pocket money. Rosalie actually defies her at first. Until Mary discovers the stolen bracelet. And immediately twigs to the power of her position. Mary’s threats of exposure bring on the first of Rosalie’s remarkable exhibitions of hysteria. Quivering with desperation and terror, she hardly seems to be acting. This is no Neely O’Hara conniption. It looks and feels like the real thing. One wonders what Wyler did to extract it from the child. But it’s clear the brilliance was there inside her all along.

Once Rosalie’s in Mary’s power, she’s increasingly more helpless, dragged from pillar to post like a sack of feathers. The girl still has the urge to defy Mary and tell the truth . But she’s instantly paralyzed with fear everytime Mary menacingly dangles the pilfered trinket.

Rosalie’s second and even more spectacular emotional outburst comes when Mary forces her to swear the oath of the knight. Whatever the word “vassal” means to Rosalie, it clearly encompasses the torments of Hell.

A third breakdown – and again just as impressive as its predecessors – takes place when she’s confronted by the assembled grown-ups at Mrs. Tilford’s house. She aches to come clean. But Mary’s crafty bullying by suggestion sends her into one more paroxysm of shrieking terror. The adults, who remained unimpressed during Mary’s tantrums, stand slack-jawed in front of this display. One can only speculate what the actors thought watching such a bravura exhibition from a tot.

There’s an intimate scene between Rosalie and Miss Dobie(Hopkins) at the door of Rosalie’s house. But this time Mary’s not there and Dobie is able to coax out Rosalie’s natural instincts. No hysterics here. Just genuine purity of feeling. The scene fades into Mrs. Tilford’s home as Rosalie continues her confession. Mary arrives on the scene. But the cat is well and truly out of t he bag. She’s busted. The little conniver rails and screams but Mrs. Tilford (the great Alma Kruger) silences her with a magnificently shouted “STILL!”.

Rosalie is freed from Mary’s tyranny. But Marcia Mae Jones still has time for a couple of eloquent close-ups, gazing up at Hopkins in gradually dawning relief and gratitude. Then she races out of the room. Gone but not forgotten. Not ever.


Vertigo's Psycho said...

Thank you- I agree with every detail of your eloquent description of Jones' masterful grip on the role, especially the fact Marcia's so convincingly unnerved throughout the film, it's hard to tell where reality ends and acting begins (for example, check out the reaction shot of McCrea, Hopkins, and Oberon after Jones' phenomenal "I said it!! I said it!!! breakdown- I don't think Wyler had to work much to obtain those "Oh my God- she may have just ruined our lives, but is that poor kid going to be okay?" expressions from his stars).

I'm convinced some voters had Jones in mind when choosing Granville for a nomination- the two were equally praised in several of the rave reviews which greeted the opening of These Three in 1936.

Your writeups on 1936's and 1962's "Overlooked" choices also are real gems, and are at least as entertaining as the actual smackdown- looking forward to reading your take on 1982's "forgotten."

CanadianKen said...

Thank you for your kind words. I almost feel like purring. I felt pretty certain that a re-examination of "These Three" and "Dodsworth" would leave smackdowners jubilantly high on Marcia Mae Jones and Mary Astor. I think you'll agree we all owe Brian of StinkyLulu a hearty "Thank you" for creating the smackdown. I know I'm glad I stumbled onto it. He's provided a fun forum for ethusiastically interested parties to celebrate work that's well worth revisiting. In fact,he seems to have mobilized a little squad of detectives now happily investigating the supporting actress scene year by year. Result: some neat surprises and entertaining re-assessments of old favorites (and not-so-favorites). Looking forward to many a future smackdown.