My Foolish Heart (1949)

myfoolishheartMy 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.

Ronnie Rating:
2Ronnis

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6 thoughts on “My Foolish Heart (1949)

  1. I think you’re a bit harsh on ol’ Kent Smith. I’ve always had a soft spot for him. He’s most effective when playing a typical American Jock, solid and straight and true- and then thrown into these rather nightmarish scenarios ( the other side of the American dream ), and in his best performances you see the unravelling of someone who was brought up to believe everything is fine in the world and that the world belongs to people like him. He was spotted by Val Lewton on the RKO lot cycling by, and Lewton immediately knew that he had to cast him in Cat People, to throw an ordinary American into a nightmare situation and see how he handles it.

    • True, Martin. Smith represented America and all its virtues so his presence in films – especially Cat People – makes sense. For me, though, especially in Cat People, he ends up becoming the villain. I was rooting for Irina all the way!

  2. Crickey, I think villain is a bit strong Kristen ! If there is a villain in Cat People it would have to be Tom Conway the psychiatrist, but then I dont think there are any villains in Cat People. I think at the beginning of the film; Kent Smith ( I should really be using their character names ? ) is in love with Irena, he’s attracted to something he’s never encountered before – the exotic ! and those scenes back at Irena’s flat are very touching. However, Poor Kent ( Oliver ) doesn’t stand a chance, as Irena is really a lesbian.

    It’s a fascinating film, one of my very favourites. And I think it’s interesting to see the supposed sequel, Curse of the Cat People as well, because in that film Oliver has to face up to the way he treated Irena, as she comes back as the child’s ‘invisible friend’.

    People dont talk about Curse of the Cat People so much, but I think it a very good film, and interesting in that through out Cat People Irena can not come to terms with her sexuality, and hides it with terrible consequences. Oliver and Alice are so determined to get over the whole unpleasant business that ( as we see in the sequel ) they run away to the countryside, but Irena’s sexuality even after her death is so strong it literally comes back to haunt them.

    I do like your post Kristen, it’s great to see someone bringing these old films out and hopefully other people reading them will get to enjoy them again

    • Haha, well he does try to have her committed behind her back. I think it all depends on how one interprets the film’s multiple layers. Because Irina fears being sexual – for fear of becoming a cat – Oliver (Smith’s character) almost completely loses interest. It doesn’t help that he ends up finding love with the all-American girl right after. The lesbian reading has been written on heavily, and I can definitely buy that. Lewton’s creation, as a whole, is what makes Cat People such a fantastic film.

      I, too, adore Curse of the Cat People…again, another movie where Smith doesn’t exactly play the hero, haha.

  3. Pingback: The 20 Worst Classic Films of 2016 | Journeys in Classic Film

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