Monday, April 7, 2014

"Friendly Persuasion," or the Night I fell in love with Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper, 1941, promotional photograph/public domain.

The magic of movies is that they can touch the soul in so many ways. They can leave you feeling inspired, indignant, gleefully happy or filled with deep sadness, and sometimes they can fill your heart with love. This is how I felt the first time I watched the 1956 comedy/drama Friendly Persuasion starring Gary Cooper as Jess Birdwell; Dorothy McGuire as his Quaker Minister wife, Eliza; and Anthony Perkins as their oldest son.

A to Z Challenge: F is for Friendly Persuasion

I suppose the title of this post is a bit misleading as I didn't exactly fall in love with Gary Cooper. Let's just say his performance in this film made me fall madly in love with the feeling of family love. My heart was filled with love for this family, and I felt peaceful, content, and glad that I had spent my time watching this wonderful film.

The love between a husband and wife; the love, hope and dreams that two intelligent, determined, and deeply religious parents have for their carefully-raised children; the love that a community of friends has for each member of each family that they greet, converse, and pray with through their days. If there is one word that could describe a film, the word I would choose to describe Friendly Persuasion would be "love."
The Story

The story takes place in Southern Indiana in 1862 at the beginning of the Civil War, which is a theme that runs like thread through the fabric of this tale to the very end. Jess Birdwell (Cooper) and his oldest son, Josh, (Perkins) are clearly struggling with the conflict between their religious beliefs and their need to protect their family and neighbors from the threat of war as Confederates soldiers have been spotted near the edges of town, but the Quakers do not believe in violence, under any circumstances, and the matriarch of the family, Eliza Birdwell (Dorothy McGuire) is a Quaker minister.

Dorothy McGuire, publicity photo, 1947, public domain.

The film begins, however, with the youngest son, Jess Jr., or "Little Jess," (Richard Eyer) explaining to the viewing audience that he is searching for his mother's goose, Samantha, because she always plays tricks on him.  When Jess explains that his mother's goose is a pet, and considered "one of the family," I knew that I would love this film!

An Egyptian and Canadian goose in Loveland, Colorado. Geese can be aggressive and dangerous, but they also have a lot of personality. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Jess is fetching water for his mother, but he knows Samantha is waiting somewhere to taunt him. The audience knows Samantha is coming. We have already seen her paddling up the stream toward the house during the film credits. Samantha is shown hiding behind plants, peeking around the side of the house, and waddling between secret hiding places with as much personality as Ferdinand, the duck in the wonderful 1995 film Babe. In fact, Samantha is so well-trained, in this first part of the film that one begins to suspect she is animated, but she is in fact a real goose and is even given credit in the list of actors.

As little Jess peeks between the front steps to see if Samantha is beneath the porch she darts across the porch and bites him on the leg. Jess tries to strike her with the water bucket. His mother, Eliza, rushes onto the porch and grabs the bucket as Jess flings it backward, reminding Jess that Samantha is a pet to be loved and respected, and never harmed. This scene is important as it establishes the basis of the moral conflict the entire family will struggle with throughout the film. As a person who has taken a lifetime vow to never harm another living creature, I understand this film, the characters, and the conflict.

Smooth Transitions

The first person narrative disappears so smoothly the audience doesn't even notice its absence. Jess is sent up the stairs to fetch his brother and sister. He first enters the room of Mattie (Phyllis Love) who is twirling an umbrella, flirting in the mirror with an imaginary beau. Little Jess is caught eavesdropping, but the two playfully tease each other as Mattie continues to fix her hair.

Little Jess then moves on to his brother's room. He jumps through the doorway shouting, "Powie," pretending to shoot Josh Birdwell (Perkins) who rolls off the bed and onto the floor, pretending to fire back. Little Jess falls dramatically to the floor, his hand pressed against an imaginary wound. Josh then reminds him their mother told them not to talk about the war, but the war is not going to simply disappear. It hangs over this family like a dark cloud.

The Family Horse

Josh glances out the window and sees his father, Jess Birdwell (Cooper) training the family horse, Red Rover, racing her through a field. Birdwell appears to be preparing his horse for a competition, a competition that cannot be discussed in front of Eliza. It soon becomes clear that there is an unspoken challenge every Meeting Day between Jess Birdwell and his neighbor and good friend, Sam Jordan.

As Birdwell hands the horse over to one of his workers, Enoch (Joel Fluellen) he comments on the sad speed of the animal--clearly, Birdwell does not win this weekly race with his neighbor.

Birdwell is walking back to his house when he sees Professor Quigley (Walter Catlett) with a wagon full of small, portable church organs. Quigley is asking directions to the local Presbyterian Church, but somehow segues into a conversation about church music in general. Birdwell explains that Quakers do not listen to music in church--everything that happens in this film is a short lesson on love and culture. Birdwell send Quigley on his way in time to whisper a few words of support to Red Rover, the horse. Eliza overhears him and responds with, "If thee spoke as much to the Almighty as thee does to that horse thee might stand more squarely in the light."

Josh takes off for the meeting house on his horse while Mattie, little Jess, his father and mother climb into the buggy. Jess Birdwell is clearly watching for someone and when they reach the fork in the road he sees his neighbor, Sam Jordan (Robert Middleton) and Gard Jordan, his military officer son, waiting at the intersection of the two roads. Jordan quickly rushes up behind them, urging his prize horse, Prince, to the lead. As I said before, every little detail in this film is important, even the horses.

Jess smacks Red with a whip, much to Eliza's chagrin. Little Jess shouts encouragement to Red Rover. Eliza grabs her hat. Mattie smiles at Gard and Gard shouts a greeting and tips his hat as they ease alongside. Little Jess, leaning out of the buggy to catch a glimpse of the race nearly falls to the ground and is saved by Mattie and Eliza. Prince finally takes the lead and the two families arrive safely to park their buggies near the church and the meeting house, which are side by side.

The two men race their buggies to their separate churches, though Jess tries hard to pretend he is not racing. "I hope nobody saw us," Eliza whispers. "Me, too," Jess replies, but he is hoping for a different reason--he doesn't want anyone to know he has once again lost the morning race! "Jess, I want to come to meeting with nothing in my heart but peace and love," Eliza explains, clasping her hands. Her dedication to her spiritual beliefs is convincing and touching, and Jess looks back at his wife with admiration.

Prince takes on great importance later in the film, but throughout the film, Jess and his neighbor are seen admiring each other's horses and pretending not to race them. Naturally, when they arrive for church service they find the church elders standing in front of the church, frowning.

The Moral Dilemma 

I am intentionally detailing this scene because it serves to explain the moral message behind the film.

The families file into the meeting room and sit quietly. One or two of the members make confessions, such as a young girl who wishes for help in becoming less vain, and little Jess who shouts out, "God is love!" Josh nudges Little Jess who then hangs his head shyly while one of he elders stares him down, but his father pats him lovingly on the shoulder. In the meantime, sounds of singing and music can be heard coming from the nearby Presbyterian Church.

A buggy stops in front of the meeting house and an elderly soldier steps down. He walks inside with the help of a cane and asks to address the leader of the congregation. Eliza introduces herself as the Minister. The soldier asks permission to speak. he turns to the men in the congregation and explains that it is his duty to speak to the Quakers about the war. "Your men do not fight," he says. "Some have," Eliza replies. "But you do not encourage them," he says. Eliza admits this is true. The soldier explains that after two years, thousands of men have died to free others and Eliza explains that the Quakers are opposed to slavery, but do not believe in killing men to free others.

The soldier is beginning to sense that Eliza will not be easily persuaded so he turns to the men and reminds them that this is not a matter of fighting for principals, but protecting their own homes and families. He asks how the men can allow others to die to protect them. The camera pans from one side of the room to the other and it is clear the young men in the group are considering this question carefully. He begins to question the men individually. When he reaches Joshua Birdwell he asks if he is afraid to fight. Josh says he does not know. The soldier asks how many men are hiding behind their church to protect their skin. Purdy, one of the elders speaks up and denies using his church as an excuse for his fear because he believes what he has been taught as a Quaker, not to bear arms against another man. "Burn my house, destroy my crops, attack my family," he shouts, and his wife hangs her head in fear. He then criticizes Josh Birdwell for his confusion. "Nothing can move me to violence," he shouts.

Jess comes to the aid of his son by responding, "It seems friend Purdy has already been moved to considerable violence. I doubt any of us could say with surety what we would do in case of attack," Jess proclaims, which is true. No man knows how he will react in a situation of violence when faced with defending himself and his family until he is actually in that situation. Purdy then remarks that he doubts the strength of Jess Birdwell's convictions, too. Purdy is obviously a man who is quick to judge.

"I have my own doubts," Jess replies. "I often ask myself what I would do if I saw my family in danger my wife and children threatened. If the tests comes all I can say is I hope and pray I can be an instrument of the lord." The soldier points out that the test is coming, and we know from history that this is true. In fact, the fight scene in this film is based on an actual battle, but Jess replies, "That may well be so, friend. Let us pray that the will of God be revealed to us and that we be given the strength and grace to follow his will."

Eliza, once again showing her own strength, and one of the obvious reasons why she was chosen to minister to these people, takes control of the meeting again, reading a short prayer, asking the Lord to "let thy children partake of thy love and the love of all men, rendering not evil for evil, nor violence for violence done." As she continues speaking, the elderly soldier turns to leave the room. and with each of her words the audience can hear the tap of his cane on the wood floor, emphasizing the conflict between his sacrifice, his wounds suffered, and the Quaker beliefs. The congregation is clearly disturbed by the disruption, though. Eliza glances sideways at her family. Josh is looking at the floor. Jess is looking at his eldest son and Little Jess is glancing from the floor to his brother and back to the floor again.

Family Purchases

The film seems to take brief breaks from the war, but as I said before, the fear inspired by the ever-nearing battle is evident throughout the film from occasional battle sounds in the distance to brief conversations regarding the Josh's desire to join his friends on the battlefield. However, life does continue on the Birdwell farm as Jess and Josh leave to sell the farm's produce to neighbors. They arrive at the home of The Widow Hudspeth, played by the incomparable Marjorie Main who has a few too many single daughters who are eyeing poor Josh. In the meantime, the Widow Hudspeth takes Jess Birdwell for a drive. Jess is nervous at first considering the Hudspeth farm seems more like a wife market, but he quickly realizes The Widow Hudspeth is trying to sell Jess her horse--a racing horse. 

Jess purchases the horse and the two men head for home in time to meet Professor Quigley who is delivering an organ Jess purchased earlier. The organ creates even more chaos in the house and Eliza spends the night in the barn where Jess eventually joins her. Anger turns to romance, the two promise to meet in the barn again some night, and the organ stays.

However, the organ and the horse represent another important message--pride. Jess traded a perfectly good horse for a new one because he felt defeated by his neighbor. He bought the organ because he could hear music coming from his neighbor's church while his family was at church. However, when Josh explains that he wants to join the local militia because he's concerned his friends will think he's a coward, his parents must remind him to focus on what is right and not on personal pride. Little events, like the purchase of the horse and the organ show us that eventually, Jess will be forced to face this moral dilemma along with his son. 

The Battle

That time comes quickly. The Birdwell's can hear the battle nearby. Josh comes home and informs them he has joined the local militia and intends to help protect their homes. They consider trying to stop him, they discuss it, but eventually his parents realize they must let him go. He takes his gun and horse and rides off and the tone of the movie takes a drastic turn from comedy to intense drama. 

The Quaker sect is non-violent and (obviously) against war for any reason, but the American Civil War left men with few, if any, choices. Many families did not choose to involve themselves in the war. They believed they had no choice, the war chose them.

The war is now upon them. Prince, the grand black horse of their neighbor comes racing past Jess Birdwell without a rider. Jess fetches his own gun and horse and goes in search of his son. He finds his neighbor, Sam Jordan (Robert Middleton), who was shot in the stomach--a slow, painful way to die--and his friend dies in his arms.

In the meantime, Josh is entrenched with a few other local men. Some are soldiers, most are family men. Josh is still unsure of how he will react, of how his conscience will guide him. Jess, searching for his son, is attacked by a young soldier. He sends the boy running. Josh, in the battle, is forced into hand to hand combat and kills his attacker in self-defense. When Jess finds his son, Josh is clearly traumatized and changed forever by the encounter. The battle scene is based on an actual incident that occurred during the Civil War.

At the end of the film, Jess and Eliza's daughter, Mattie (Phyllis Love) marries the son of their former neighbor and friend, Sam Jordan. Eliza is still preaching to the community, and as the family leaves for service, young Jess reveals that while his father and brother were gone soldiers tried to steal the family goose and Eliza came to her rescue, smacking them with her broom. Jess pretends to be shocked by his wife's use of violence. However, the goose and young Jess have reconciled their differences and at the end of the film are good friends. It's flawless, with no loose ends.

Book and Film Versions

Friendly Persuasion is based on the 1945 series of vignettes about the Birdwell family written by Jessamyn West titled The Friendly Persuasion. West wrote a companion sequel to the book titled Except for Me and Thee, which was equally popular.

The film version was released by Allied Artists in 1956 and directed by three-time Oscar winner William Wyler, who also directed Ben Hur, Mrs. Miniver, and Wuthering Heights. Wyler wanted to make a film version of this book as soon as it was released, but waited ten years to make the film, which he said was one of his favorites, because he wanted Gary Cooper to star in the film and Cooper was always committed to other projects.

At this point, I have to say it surprised me that Cooper did not like this film. In fact, Robert Osborn of Turner Classic Movies explained in the introduction that Cooper did not want to see the film after it was made because he was disappointed in his performance. I think this is one of Cooper's best performances. Every scene, every facial expression, and even the tone in his voice is flawless. Every line he speaks, though he uses the unfamiliar "thee" and "thou" of the Quakers, is spoken with such sincerity by him and every other actor in this film that the viewer feels perfectly comfortable with the language, even though one of the actors points out that it sounds strange to him. Cooper's facial expressions are priceless in this film.


Friendly Persuasion was nominated for six Academy Awards, including a Best Actor in a Supporting Role nomination for Anthony Perkins. This must have been quite an honor for Perkins as Friendly Persuasion was only his second film. His previous acting experience was serial television work, and he had only been acting for three years prior to the nomination. There is no doubt that he deserved the nomination, or the award, if it had been given to him. His performance throughout the film is stellar. The un-credited screenwriter, Michael Wilson who was blacklisted at the time by Senator McCarthy, also received an Oscar nomination. The theme song, "Thee I Love" by Dmitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster received a nomination, as well. The film was remade into a 2 hour television film in 1975, but I personally believe some films should never be remade, and this is one such film. It is truly a classic.

  • Friendly Persuasion. Dir. William Wyler; Perf. Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins. Allied Artists: 1956. 137 min. 


  1. I love this movie as well. Gary Cooper could convey so much emotion with just a raised eyebrow. he was probably uncomfortable with the language and felt uneasy-just my guess

    1. It's possible he may have felt he was doing the Quakers a disservice or showing disrespect. That has occurred to me before. I always thought of him as a gentleman, careful of the feelings of others. I think that's very possible.


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