My Foolish Heart’s claim to fame is being the first and last adaptation of a story by author J.D. Salinger. Salinger was so horrified by the resulting adaptation of “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” that he refused all studio offers to adapt his works again…so maybe it’s not something to brag about. Honestly, I don’t blame Salinger as My Foolish Heart is a foolish three-hanky melodrama where your hanky will end up being waved at the screen in frustration. Directed by the King of melodrama himself, Mark Robson (of Valley of the Dolls fame), the A-list cast flails in a story whose eccentricities are tamped down at every turn to please mass audiences.
Eloise Winters (Susan Hayward) is married to Lewis Wengler (Kent Smith), but the marriage is an unhappy one, leaving their daughter Ramona (Gigi Perreau) in the middle. Eloise flashes back to her past relationship with pilot Walt Dreiser (Dana Andrews) who might actually be Ramona’s father.
Tolstoy said “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and boy, howdy, does Robson and screenwriters Julius and Phillip Epstein prove that true. Eloise and Lewis are introduced like soap opera characters seemingly married for twenty-five years who have had plenty of time to hate each other and, in Eloise’s case, develop a drinking problem (a staple for Hayward’s characters).
Then again, I’d be depressed too if I was married to Kent Smith. Sorry, but after watching him in both Cat People movies, he’s a character actor I want to punch repeatedly. And, really, he’s no different here. Despite a flashback relationship where he dated Eloise’s best friend, whom he subsequently dumped to be Eloise and is apparently sneaking around with once Eloise turns lush, he’s meant to be perceived as a hero of some sort.
Again, reminiscent of a soap opera, exposition is delivered and the brunt of the story is told via flashback. Taking into account Salinger’s dialogue-heavy source material and the all-female cast the story was better suited for the stage than a film. Salinger wrote “Uncle Wiggily” as a commentary on upper-middle class suburban families, particularly housewives, in the wake of WWII.
Eloise, in the story, dreams of a man she’s idealized, whose life was cut short in the war. Her resentment towards her life, and her daughter especially, stems from the idealized conception of what her life should have been, and how her daughter is seemingly skipping down the same world of romanticism and sentimentality. In a way, Robson’s directing is a blessing and a curse – though he worked on film’s about a women’s desires, they always skewed towards the tawdry and gossipy by the end.
So, what we end up with in My Foolish Heart is a sentimental romance about a woman whose one true love is killed, and thus her unhappiness stems from being unable to let him go. Gone is the questioning of the middle class, fantasy vs. reality, and why Eloise and Lew are unhappy. Everything just ends up piling on Eloise and her problems, right down to her “doing right” by vowing to give up her child to be raised by a nice girl. Don’t bother to question why she believes she’s bad since a scene is included where Walt gets indignant about being “trapped with a nice girl.”
Actually, the inclusion of men here leaves you wondering how anything could be happy. The men are, for lack of a better word, total douchebags. Not only is Lew changing women as frequently as he changes his socks, but Eloise’s ideal man, Walt, only likes her on his terms. Eloise is smart and more than aware Walt thinks she’s “easy.” And he really demands ease, thinking that taking her up to his apartment is an invitation. Yes, I know gender dynamics are different, but considering how fervently Hollywood fought against premarital sex, it’s weird how we’re supposed to believe in Walt’s good intentions. It is their fraternization in his apartment that gets Eloise kicked out of school, but it’s all fine because it allows her to bond with her dad? I can understand Salinger’s disgust, since the inclusion of men only intensifies why Eloise is currently the way she is.
Susan Hayward’s similar to Barbara Stanwyck for me; it’s near impossible to believe she’s a delicate flower that would be so easily trampled under a man’s foot. Her relationships with both Andrews and Smith never seem on the same level as her, and in spite of their ill treatment of her, she’s way out of either man’s league. The college flashbacks with her and Lois Wheeler as Mary Jane also yield unintentional laughs as both are the oldest college students. Andrews and Smith are fine, and Perreau is in two scenes bookending the film. Those bookends imply a melodramatic revelation of Ramona’s true parentage, but it’s built up and then dropped for the sentimental Walt/Eloise story, so by the time it’s picked up there’s nowhere to go in the short time left.
Though I can’t fault those who enjoy soapy pap like My Foolish Heart, it squanders both Salinger’s prose and a fantastic cast. Hayworth and Andrews are good, but Hayward’s too much of a weakling to be believed.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.