Fred Zinnemann's demanding film boasts an unusually lyrical dialogue, from screenwriters Edna and Edward Anhalt, who altered little of Carson McCuller's book, first adapted to the Broadway stage in 1950.
Member of the Wedding fully uses the paradigm of the outsider, despite the fact that its characters are all residents of town. This shows that being an outsider could be a mental state or an attitude rather than function of geographical mobility. Each of the film's three protagonists is an outsider, estranged from his or her surroundings. All three are in a state of anomie, to use French anthropologist Emile Durkheim's concept, marked by normlessness (the lack of norms to prescribe behavior), or situations in which the norms are ambiguous, contradictory, and ill-defined.
The yarn's heroine Frankie Adams (Julie Harris) is a twelve-year-old tomboy, raised and looked after by Berenice Sadie Brown (Ethel Waters), her black housekeeper. Frankie's mother is dead and her father plays no role in her socialization. A severe, humorless man, he's seldom seen and hardly ever interacts with her. The narrative takes entirely Frankie's (i.e. a child) point of view, emphasizing that parents are never around when needed, and even when they are around, they may lack real understanding of their children.
Frankie's state of mind is conveyed in her narration that opens the movie: "It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person and she was afraid."
The film thus explores in an uncompromising manner Frankie's miserable loneliness. "I have never been so puzzled," is one of Frankie's recurrent sentences, along with "It give me pain just to think about it." Nothing at present pleases Frankie, though her future, as she sees it, also seems bleak. "I wish I had a hundred dollars and never see this town again," she tells Berenice, "I wish I was somebody else except me."
Frankie is always worried about one thing or another. "I am so worried about being so tall. You think I'll grow to be a freak" she asks Berenice in utmost seriousness. She feels that "If I'll be me for the rest of my life, I'll be crazy." Frankie does not even like her name, if it depended on her, she would change it to Jasmin.
The narrative is set in a small (unspecified) Georgia town, during one crucial summer in the life of Frankie, a fiercely lonely misfit, torn between childhood, which no longer satisfies her, and adolescence, which is denied her. Tough and lacking care about her hair or clothes, Frankie is different from the town's other girls. She doesn't understand why her brother has brought her a doll. Didn't he know that she doesn't play with dolls anymore Told by the girls that she was not elected to the club, Frankie kicks them out of her sight, forbidding them to cross her yard. "I think they've been spreading all over town that I smell bad," she tells Berenice.
Sympathizing with her, the cook says, "they are telling big lies about grown-up people too." It takes Berenice, a victim of prejudice and oppression, to explain Frankie the "rules of the game." "The whole idea of a club," she says in what is the film's central message, "is that members are included and non-members are excluded."
Throughout the film, Frankie envies her brother, not only for getting married, but also for belonging to a larger group. "All people belong to a we, except me," she complains. For Berenice it is the church, for her brother it is the Army. Belonging to no club, her ultimate dream is "to be members of the World! To belong to so many clubs that we can't keep track of them all."
There are no role models in Frankie's life. The only guidance comes from Berenice, who was married four times, the first time at thirteen. In the film's most lyrical scene, Berenice holds the two lonely kids together, Frankie cries on one shoulder and John Henry, Frankie's cousin and neighbor, on the other. For a fleeting moment, a community of misfits is created, an intimate group with a "we" feeling. It's a rare sight, considering the time in which the film was made. Black people have seldom served as the moral center in American films. "Why Should I Be Discouraged" Berenice starts singing before being joined by the children. "I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free."
Frankie is contrasted with John Henry (Brandon De Wilde), a boy who occupies a clear status in the social structure. In one of their arguments, Frankie dismisses John as "nothing but a child, entirely young." The other girls are also perceived by Frankie as "just ugly silly children." She mistreats and abuses John Henry; only when he dies, she realizes how much she has loved him.
John Henry has parents but, neglected by them, he spends most of his time at Frankie's. He is lonely too, but he reacts to his loneliness as any normal child would, playing all kinds of games (wearing women's clothes). The film captures well the tantrums and volatile outbursts of Frankie, who could be abusive verbally and physically. As in many small-town movies, she is preoccupied with the issue of death; Frankie doesn't believe she will ever die. Frankie feels sadder for Berenice's last beloved husband than for her own mother; she can't cry for her.
Two fateful events change Frankie's life forever: Her brother's wedding and John Henry's death. Indeed, the turning point I Frankie's life is the wedding with which she is obsessed. "I never believed in love until now," she tells her brother. Shortly after the ceremony, she leaves the house with a suitcase, waiting for the newly married couple in their car's back seat; her father drags her from the car, while she is screaming and yelling.
While Member of the Wedding has a self-enclosed quality, revealing no clues about its surrounding context, the town serves as a negative reference group. "I swear I'll never come back," says Frankie. Berenice tries to put some sense in her mind, "You're going, but you don't know where." The only outdoor scene in the film occurs when Frankie, running away from home, goes to a bar and encounters a drunken soldier. He too will be glad to leave town; in three days, nobody has said a word to him. Used as an abstract symbol, the town represents a hostile environment; its dark and empty streets make it look like a ghost town. There are no people on the streets, and the only sound is that of a couple screaming at each other.
At the end, it's Berenice who leaves town. Berenice knows she'll never see Frankie again, but she says nothing. As for Frankie, she finally makes some effort to socialize, to belong, striking a friendship with Mary, a new resident whom she met at Woolworth's lipstick stand. In the last scene, Frankie is dressed as a girl, not as a tomboy, exhibiting more conventionally feminine behavior.
This uncharacteristic Hollywood film has one major flaw: the age of Julie Harris, who recreated on screen her stage role. Harris was twice as old as Frankie when she made the movie, and the "cruel" camera, particularly in the close-ups that abound in this film, reveals a young woman instead of a teenager. Nonetheless, Harris's such a stellar and volatile performance that this credibility gap could be ignored.
To director Zinnemann's credit, the film' coherence and integrity depend on restricting the action to basically one set, the kitchen, and occasionally the backyard, without resorting to the more characteristic device of "opening up" stage plays; in this decidedly indoor movie, the weakest sequence is set outdoors. The movie as a whole qualifies as a small-town work because of the town's crucial role in shaping the lives of Frankie and Berenice.
Oscar Nominations: 1
Actress: Julie Harris
The winner was Shirley Booth, another stage actress making her screen debut, for “Come Back, Little Sheba.”