Summer Holiday (1948): Mamoulian’s Musical Version of O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness

Rouben Mamoulian’s musical film version of Eugene O’Neill’s acclaimed stage play, “Ah, Wilderness,” is one of his more satisfying pictures, a joyous celebration of small New England town in the early 1900.  The movie evokes through beautiful imagery and vignettes endless summer days, green grass, flowing meadows, simple pleasures, and life in an untroubled community

 

However, Mamoulian’s rendition (the first musical but the second version of the play) suffers from one problem: the lead performance of Mickey Rooney, who stars as Richard Miller, O’Neill’s alter-ego, a boy going through the growing pains of adolescence,

 

Release four years later, the narrative bears resemblance to Vincente Minnelli’s musical “Meet Me in St Louis,” a beautifully produced nostalgic evocation.  Like that picture, “Summer Holliday” employs song and dance to advance the narrative structure.  Moreover, the tune “The Stanley Steamer” very much recalls “The Trolley Song,” sung by Judy Garland in the Minnelli picture.

 

The Miller family consists of patriarch Nat Miller (Walter Huston), a newspaper editor and staunch upholder of Yankee tradition, his wife and dotting mother Mrs. Miller (Selena Royle), Richard (Rooney), their sensitive eldest son, Tommy (“Butch Jenkins), their youngest.  Also living in the household are an old maid cousin (Agnes Moorhead), and a bachelor Uncle (Frank Morgan).

 

Richard cultivates big ideas of how to change the world, while adoring from a distance his neighbor Muriel Comber (Gloria DeHaven), since her conservative father has forbidden them to see each other. Upset one night, Richard gets drunk, meets a dance-hall girl, spends every cent he has and gets kicked out of the bar.

 

“Ah, Wilderness” is the exception in O’Neill’s largely dramatic work, a tender comedy in which he satirizes lightly and in semi-autobiographical mode the growing pains of adolescence.  O’Neill wrote: “My purpose was to write a play true to the spirit of the American small-town at the turn of the century.”  Its quality depended on atmosphere, sentiment, evocation of the mood, which he did through dialogue and characterization.

 

This sweet nostalgic movie benefits from Mamoulian’ inventive camera and handsome production values.  The songs are appealing, such as “Weary Blues,” sung by Marilyn Maxwell who plays the saloon girl giving the young Richard the first taste of eroticism.

 

Actor Alert

 

A non-musical version of the play “Ah, Wilderness” was made in 1935, in which Mickey Rooney played the younger brother.

 

Cast

 

Nat Miller (Walter Huston)

Mrs. Milleer (Selena Royle)

Richard Miller (Mickey Rooney)

Tommy Miller (Jackie “Butch” Jenkins)

Cousin Lily (Agnes Moorhead)

Uncle Sid (Frank Morgan)

Muriel Comber (Gloria DeHaven)

Belle (Marilyn Maxwell)

Mildred Miller (Shirley Johns)

Arthur Miller (Michael Kirby)

 

Credits

 

Produced by Arthur Freed

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian

Screenplay: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Irvin Brecher, Jean Holloway, based on the play “Ah, Wilderness,” by Eugene O’Neill

Camera: Charles Schoenbaum

Editor: Albert Akst

Music: Harry Warren

Art direction: Cedric Gibbons, Jack Martin Smith

Costume: Irene, Walter Plunkett

Choreography: Charles Walters