When your plot pivots on the hero diving into an icy pond to save the grandchild of a Wall St multi-millionaire – and reaping the career benefits – you are kind of in trouble. Not as much, though, as having a self-righteous hypocritical prig of a hero who lacks the self-awareness, a mark of the John O’Hara bestseller on which the film is based, to realize he is turning into a carbon copy of his father.
But it is handsomely-mounted and a decent enough melodrama with an excellent cast, though you would have to say, given the better material, Joanne Woodward (A Big Hand for the Little Lady, 1966) out-acts husband Paul Newman (The Prize, 1963), adding a rather contemporary element of a free-loving wife who manipulates the constraints of an era (post WW2) when divorce in high society was highly frowned-upon.
It’s a shame it drifts into predicable melodrama because the initial stages are niftily put together. A woman (Myrna Loy) is found dead drunk on a train, steel magnate husband Samuel (Leon Ames) ensuring he is not at home for her return, both actions meaning nobody is there to welcome only son David Alfred Eaton (known as Alfred at the start of the film and David at the end for odd reasons) when he returns from the war.
A few quick scenes establish that: the father holds a grudge against the living son because he has not got over his dead son; he has ignored his wife in favor of his career; he bullies his staff; the wife has embarked on an affair.
David Alfred’s character is quickly established: he refuses to be stiffed by a cab driver; is adored by the household staff; refuses to work in his father’s business; and beats up his mother’s lover.
After that, for all the emotional shifts through the gears, it slows down, not so laborious as devoting too much time to the inner workings of high society – O’Hara’s metier – rather than the new small-plane-building business into which David Alfred pours his energy. That is, if he has much energy left over after stealing Mary (Joanne Woodward) from fiancé Jim (Patrick O’Neal), a psychiatrist.
You are probably already aware that society operates in various strata. A mill owner is only on the verge of society and looked down upon by the likes of Mary’s wealthier parents who in turn are no match for the grand life enjoyed by the aforementioned Wall St broker MacHardie (Felix Aylmer). Snobbery is rife and money talks. And if you lack the dough you’ve got no say in anything as David Alfred discovers in an aeronautical business venture, his partner Lex (George Grizzard), who has put up all the money, excluding him from key decisions.
Luckily, while driving in the countryside there’s a drowning child to be rescued and a grateful grandfather willing to set you up in his business. But that means sacrifice. David Alfred is away from home so much his neglected wife instead of turning to alcohol merely turns to men. There’s a wonderful scene when after a telephone call with her husband promising not to see Jim again (at this point no impropriety apparently committed as far as David Alfred is concerned), Mary lies down on the bed and turns to an unseen figure and says, “You’re not to come up here any more.”
But there are too few scenes so slickly written. On a job in Pennsylvania David Alfred falls for industrialist’s daughter Natalie (Ina Balin), and as though this is key to their romance tells her to call him David rather than Alfred. As his stock rises in the company, he maintains a hypocritical front with his wife, who he knows is now engaged in various affairs, denying her suspicions that he is having a fling with Natalie. Mary is quite happy to maintain an open marriage since her status depends on her husband’s position and she still quite fancies him now and then.
You can see how this is going to end, but self-righteousness allows David Alfred to ignore that he is merely repeating the mistakes of his father. In sharp contrast to his wife who is all too conscious of her failings but contrives to make the best of the situation, and would happily continue in an unhappy marriage if only he would play ball. Although nothing is made of this, it’s obvious that David Alfred, despite his progress in the Wall St company, doesn’t have the business cojones of his father. He quit the plane business because Lex wanted to spend more time perfecting the prototype rather than rushing to the market in order to make money quickly. By following his own instinct, Lex is later proved correct, the business grown so big it attracts the attention of MacHardie.
There’s a sense here of Paul Newman pulling his shots. Though he is ruthless in making wife play second fiddle to career, and has no qualms really about playing away from home, nor about edging out MacHardie’s ineffectual son-in-law from the business, he lacks the killer instinct. The ruthlessness and amorality that made The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1962) so enjoyable is sadly missing. Handsome box office idols – the likes of William Holden apart – were reluctant to play the devious.
Mark Robson (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) directs as if this is an upmarket Peyton Place and can’t resist at least one close-up of Newman’s baby blues. The script by Ernest Lehman (The Prize) only occasionally sparkles but I suspect there was a lot to trim from the O’Hara doorstopper. As I said, Joanne Woodward is the stand-out and you will be surprised to learn that Patrick O’Neal is also minus his later ruthless screen persona. Felix Aylmer (Masquerade, 1965) and Ina Balin (The Commancheros, 1961) are the pick of the supporting cast.
An interesting more than a riveting watch, mostly to see Newman before he reached screen maturity.