Dear Heart, More Like Melt Your Heart: Or I Never Thought I'd Be So Upset to See Angela Lansbury Show Up in a Movie.

May 19, 2014

Harry Mork: You get a kick out of people, don’t you?

Evie Jackson: As much as they let me.

 

Note: I got a BIG kick out of this delightful movie, and the word count reflects that. Spoilers may also abound.

 

1964's Dear Heart pleasantly surprised me, which, by my own admission, is quite hard to do. I am very picky about movies, though some of my favorites don't fit into the categories I normally veer to (comedy, pre-code, film noir). This is one of them. Dear Heart was billed as a romance, to which I let out a sigh and prepared myself for sap and declarations of "I Love You" 10 minutes into two characters meeting.

Yes, I own this poster.

But perhaps I'm too accustomed to romances of the 30s, 40s, and even 50s, because 15 minutes into this tenderly comedic love story, I already knew I wanted to watch it 10 more times. In a row. On a Friday night. Clearly, emotions were running high, but it's rare that I see a movie and instantly love it so much.

 

Why? It's right in the title: Heart (good thing the title was switched from The Out-of-Towners to Dear Heart after the positive reaction to Henry Mancini's theme song of the same name). The quirky indie has a healthy dose of both comedy and drama, but at the center of it all is a surprisingly sweet, refreshing love story that makes for a delightfully spent two hours. The movie flows differently from what you'd expect at the start, as the main characters, firmly planted in middle age, find themselves dealing with love later in the game, ripe with some complications and baggage, which is a subject more popular in contemporary films like 2009's It's Complicated. A perfect movie it sure is not, but if you're in the mood for an endearingly retro flick, look no further. Also, Geraldine Page plays a woman who has quickly become one of my favorite cinematic characters. (Much) more about her later.

 

Page stars in Dear Heart as Evie Jackson, a postmistress from Ohio attending a Postmasters convention in NYC. Evie's lonely and middle aged, yet she has a quirky energy about her. Disembarking the same train in Penn Station is former traveling salesman/expert womanizer Harry Mork (Glenn Ford), recently promoted to a marketing position at the greeting card company he works for. Harry checks in to the same hotel as Evie after breaking the news to one of his mistresses, Mitchell (Patricia Barry), that he's settling down and getting married to Phyllis (Angela Lansbury), a widow from Altoona, partially the result of a bet. To add to Harry's pending life change, Phyllis' borderline deadbeat son, Patrick (Michael Anderson, Jr), shows up at the hotel, throwing Harry into fatherhood 18 years too fast. As Mitchell echoes: "That's not coming down to Earth, Harry, that's a crash landing."

No sleepovers this trip for Mitchell (Patricia Barry). Harry Mork (Glenn Ford)'s getting hitched!

After a chance meeting in a restaurant, it seems that Evie's bouncy yet genuine personality doesn't quite mesh well with Harry's errant ways. However, that all changes when they run into each other again in the hotel lobby after Evie flees a potential bad situation. After talking and wandering into a late night convention party, the two find themselves drawn to each other over the next few days in the midst of Evie's convention madness and Harry's search for an apartment, even though they are completely different people. Evie, falling for Harry, never took his wife and son stories seriously until Phyllis shows up and surprises both. It seems that Harry feels something for Evie too, but will that be enough?

 

To be honest, I tuned into this movie for Glenn Ford (swoon) and to a lesser extent Angela Lansbury (who had a very small yet juicy role), but it was Geraldine Page who completely blew me away. Page is usually referred to as one of America's greatest actresses, but she's not as well remembered as, say, Katharine Hepburn, partly because she split her time between the stage, film, and TV. Though she didn't appear in many movies, she was nominated for eight Academy Awards during her lifetime, so that should nicely sum up her acting skills. Ford and Lansbury turned in solid performances as well - he as a bachelor who thinks he's ready for an insta-family, and she as a widower who wants to lead the good life without having to do anything. As the subtitle to this entry suggests, I seriously have never looked less forward to Angela Lansbury's entrance in a film; I nervously awaited her character's debut, and from the moment the very opinionated, blissfully ignorant, and unintentionally hilarious Phyllis walks in at the tail end of the second act, her mere presence instantly derails everything. Just everything. In ways both good and bad.

 

Apart from the performances, which were steered jointly by Tad Mosel's warm script adapted from his own story and Delbert Mann's deft direction, the movie delighted in several other areas. Though Dear Heart was produced at a time when color photography largely dominated the scene, prolific cinematographer Russell Harlan's gorgeous camera work in black and white effectively added a simple, romantic look to the picture. Additionally, Mann adeptly maintained a mix of playful dialogue and heartfelt sentiment that runs throughout the film's narrative. Surprisingly, due to the plotting and character arcs, I wasn't 100% sure who Harry would end up with until the end; when Harry and Evie don't hit it off at first, we chalk it up to the realization of two stereotypes up to this point: she a slightly awkward yet spunky middle aged woman and he a womanizer with a short attention span. After meeting again, though, we pleasantly realize that underneath their exteriors neither is quite what they seem (but there's still the problem of Miss Phyllis...)

Harry's not overwhelmed by his first meeting with Evie (Geraldine Page). 

Dear Heart was filmed in October and November 1963 and released in Los Angeles for a qualifying Oscar run in December 1964 before premiering at Radio City Music Hall on March 8, 1965.

 

The movie was produced a few years before the Production Code was officially abandoned for the adoption of the current MPAA ratings system in 1968 (though those rules which were so strict decades earlier were already beginning to crumble by the 1960s), which could explain the slight cultural and sexual clash between the 50s and 60s that appears onscreen. Overall, I feel a safe 50s vibe pervades the atmosphere, as the situations in the film are mostly gentle and tame, leaving a lot to inference; however, a few scenes, such as one where a random man attempts to attack Evie in the hall and another in which Harry tries to check into a hotel for a few hours with bombshell hotel employee Miss Loveland (Barbara Nichols), definitely stick out as trying to push those 50s boundaries. On the other hand, most of the female characters - Evie, Mitchell, Miss Loveland and Patrick's girlfriend Zola (Joanna Crawford), in particular - reap the benefits of the 1960s in one way or another, namely, the sexual revolution and female empowerment. Evie wants to find someone to love and share her life with, but in the meantime she's content with her independence and job (and a past affair or two). Mitchell and Miss Loveland - well, we get the sense that they are (hopefully) taking advantage of those newfangled Enovid birth control pills. And as for Zola, though she's a bit mousy and spacey with a hint of 60s flower child in the few moments she appears onscreen, it's clear she wears the pants in her relationship with Patrick, as least as he tells it.

 

When released, Dear Heart opened to rather harsh reviews. Bosley Crowther's New York Times piece on March 8, 1965 was scathing, calling the picture "stale, dull, and humorless," only stopping the negative outpouring briefly to praise Geraldine Page's acting skills and commitment to the character. He even attacked the joyous Postmasters portrayed in the film, saying they "make you wonder whether maybe this isn't a tip-off as to why we're having so much trouble with our mail these days" (um, Mr. Crowther, try dealing with the post office in 2014 then we'll talk). Eleanor Perry, in her review for Life that I found quoted in an article on TCM.com, was a little nicer, writing:

 

"While you're seeing the film you are supposed to get plenty of laughs, a few tears, and some homely philosophy about how we must all open the doors of our hearts to each other. And finally, you're supposed to drive away misty-eyed...[...] So you go home and let the dog out and put the kids to bed and naturally you talk about the picture. [...]And sitting there over a beer at the kitchen table you are not supposed to get the feeling that plain folks like yourself have been condescended to and patronized. You're supposed to get a nice flowing feeling about being just folks. But will you?"

 

I feel like Crowther may have been having a bad day (or month) when he watched and wrote about the film, but Perry's sentiment I can understand. I didn't feel patronized by the picture, but I'm also watching and thinking about it  - perhaps through rose colored glasses - in 2014, a good 50 years since it's release and initial reception. The movie personally made me smile, and though I'm a good decade or two younger than Page's character in the film, I very much identified with Evie and had great respect for her, kooks and all.

 

Speaking of Geraldine Page, it's been too long since I mentioned how amazing she is. Besides Dear Heart, I've only see her in 1962's Sweet Bird of Youth, and I'm convinced it's not the same person in both movies, because it seems she physically morphs into each character. Her association with the Actor's Studio and well-known tendency to "bring out the most inner detail of the character she was playing," as aptly quoted in her IMDb bio, probably explains those transformations. Also, lots of makeup and some hair dye.

For your reference, here's Geraldine Page in Dear Heart (1964) and Sweet Birth of Youth (1962). Seriously, not the same person.

In Dear Heart, Page's portrayal of Evie is so nuanced that if someone told me she was Evie Jackson, I'd believe it hands down. The character is a whole lot of (sometimes conflicting) adjectives, some of which I've already mentioned - quirky, lonely, independent, vulnerable, strong, open, lighthearted, sweet - mixed into one woman who in no way falls into the standard middle aged spinster model that the three other female Postmistresses seem to fit to a 'T.' Dialogue Evie delivers, such as "I wish I could be one of those women who takes what she has and loves it for what it is," can veer a bit to the dramatic side but nevertheless are introspective lines at once candid, sincere, and bold that are rather rare to hear so truthfully conveyed, which is one of the main reasons I find Evie so appealing as a character. She's an open book with idiosyncrasies scattered about, and that's perfectly okay.

 

Evie's slightly unusual behavior from the get-go points to a character one would think is simply lonesome and perhaps a bit delusional - I mean, she comically sends a wire to herself when she arrives in NY and tips bellboys to page her periodically throughout the lobby so it sounds like someone wants her. However, where these acts could easily typecast her, they are not performed in a sad way; in fact, she wears a smile for most of the film. Along the same lines, Evie genuinely takes an interest in others, exhibited merely seconds into the movie when she bids farewell to people she's met on the train, setting in motion her tendency to make herself feel part of other's lives to fill the voids in her own. Again, this gesture comes off as more bona fide than depressing - for instance, upon checking out of the hotel, she presents a check-in clerk with a gift for his daughter's birthday. That would sound a bit weird to most people, but it's such an Evie thing to do.

Evie bidding farewell to one of the women working at the hotel. She makes friends everywhere she goes!

If this all sounds like it could be overly sappy, sad or dramatic, fear not. For working in a post office, Evie and her fellow convention goers, mostly all Postmasters, know how to cut loose and have a good time. There's a rather unexpected "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" rowdy attitude at the event, particularly in a late night drunken party scene at the hotel bar in which Harry perks up when he witnesses a happy-go-lucky, flirtatious side of Evie for the first time. Most everyone affectionately calls each other by their respective city or town name, a clear indication of comfort in the group, and even though there are a few women present, Evie seems to be the only female joining in the fun, and it's obvious the men adore her for it.

One of Evie's fans.

Just call her the life of the party.

It seems that most wives tend to the home while their husbands attend the convention, and the few wives dragged along congregate on the sidelines. Single Evie, with her bright disposition, genuine care for her peers, and free spirit, has obviously struck a chord over the years with her fellow Postmasters, as she remarks at one point: ”Other men say 'Evie can take care of herself, let's not worry about her,' but the minute they become husbands they all want to look after me." And it's true. During an early convention get together, one married Postmaster playfully (and harmlessly) flirts with Evie, offering her his room key to meet him at midnight, at which point another married man asks her to hold his glasses while he defends her honor. Evie, drink in hand, obliges, but once the men scatter (still to guard her good name) she cheerfully returns the key to the first man's wife and glasses to the other.

The bored wives club.

Not everyone is taken, though, like Mr. Cruikshank (Richard Deacon), one of the event organizers. On the lookout for eligible bachelors, Evie tries a few times to flirt or grab the attention of these unattached men but fails when another perkier, drunker, or prettier woman slides in. Refreshingly, however, these snubs don't crush her, and she goes right along her way.

Evie's flirtation fail with Mr. Cruikshank (Richard Deacon).

When the tables are turned, and Evie is the pursued as opposed to the pursuer, she shows that she's capable of smart, rational thinking. While inclined to sentimentally at times, in her relationships Evie's level-headed where she was once, by her own admission, prone to idealistic infatuation, shown by her run-in with a past lover, married Postmaster Frank (Charles Drake). Though she readily accepted Frank's company years prior and admits the fling was fun, he's married with four - no, five! - kids now. Evie gives her reasoning for turning him down this time around:

 

Evie: Does she [your wife] know what she's doing when she waves goodbye and says enjoy yourself?

Frank: Yes.

Evie: Well, then she's on my mind as much as I'm on hers.

Frank: Evie, don't you know you're a nice woman? Are you afraid you're not?

Evie: Being nice has nothing to do with it. A woman starts off wanting everything. When she finds she can't have it, she starts wanting less and less, or pretending to. Then she reaches a point in Chicago or someplace where she settles for what she can have and thinks it’ll be enough. She’s still nice. She’s just unrealistic.

 

Again, Evie's candor and self-perception is admirable. At this point in her life, what she wants isn't "a hotel in Chicago or New York…it’s just nothing. I don’t want nothing." She quickly corrects herself, with an adorable laugh: "That doesn't even sound like very good English." Even when Frank offers to accompany her if she decides to tour the city, Evie still sends him on his way, telling him that she's "quite able to buy my own ticket to the Empire State Building." DENIED!

No more Miss Nice (or Easy) Evie for Postmaster Frank (Charles Drake).

When it comes to Harry, though, Evie's heart holds the reins. Yes, she lets herself fall for Harry when he tells her he has a wife, which sets her up for heartbreak, but she's playing off his signals, because let's face it, he doesn't act married at all (he isn't yet!). Evie can also see Harry for who he really is and who he wants to be, which no one else seems to notice, not even his future wife. For both of them, despite the difference in personalities, it's a connection that begets neither to think too much about Harry's situation.

 

Throughout all of this, Page does a fine job keeping the character's emotions in check, both with Harry and other men, until late in the movie. Though Evie likes Harry, she plays it calm and cool on the outside even when Harry lies to her to pall around with Miss Lovelace early on and cancels plans with her to spend time with Patrick. In Harry's defense in the latter situation, he did leave a note for her at the front desk that she didn't receive, and while satisfied with his excuse, she's naturally hesitant to make more plans with him - plus he mentions that wife word again, who Evie still thinks is fake - but she takes a chance. This time, Harry promises to skip the evening train if she'll look at the apartment he leased with him. Secretly happy he asked, Evie agrees, but only if she makes her next convention session, since she missed an earlier one while waiting for him. Harry concedes, and luckily he shows up this time. (I mean, who could really resist Glenn Ford's adorably sheepish smile?).

It should be easy to fly under the radar with all these people around, right?

While Bridie is clearly rather clueless when it comes to the world outside her own, one thing she's surprisingly experienced and confident in is her dealings with men, which just so happens to account for most of the people she comes in contact with. In a telling scene early on, all the townsmen express worry as she prepares to leave her home behind, but she pointedly tells each one that they know she can take care of herself. Wink wink. Given her confidence in the arena, it's particularly amusing when she objects to using her charms against her will when Miller asks her to detain Baynes while he and his partners attempt to break a prisoner out of jail. Baynes is English, which means Bridie automatically loathes him, so why does she have to do it? Well, unfortunately the "beautiful decoy is the only thing that hasn't been mechanized," Miller explains, so into her lap the assignment falls. Bridie's attempt at desperately trying to fight off her hatred of the British while she has to flirt with Baynes (who just so happens to be writing a paper on Cromwell, Bridie's personal nemesis, which is a running gag) is a riot, and Kerr's performance amusingly oscillates between innocence and no nonsense; one minute she wants to bite his head off and the next she's pleading with him to stay.

This is the tough part of being a spy: flirting with the enemy.

Baynes is sufficiently baffled (but for some reason undaunted) by Bridie's hot and cold attitude - we know the reasoning behind her actions but he doesn't, and yet, he sticks around! Even when she keeps telling him to go away! What a guy! Howard, performing in one of his first films, makes Baynes endearingly persistent and tolerant where Kerr's Bridie is not. Two more dissimilar people couldn't get together if they tried; clearly, their relationship won't be a smooth one, but it will guarantee some laughs.

 

As the story progresses, the stakes get inevitably higher. Spies get caught, Bridie finds herself on her own, Baynes keeps showing up, and oh, she's been identified, which means the cops are hot on her trail (their ineptitude slows things down a bit, but still).

Evie and Harry share a meal and a memory at the restaurant next to his new apartment. Where his future family will live.

It's only in the third act, while touring the apartment, that Evie caves. Harry shows her a picture of Patrick and Phyllis, referring to her for the first time by name, and Evie realizes all his stories were true. He really is married (well, almost), yet he's standing in the empty apartment - soon to be his new family's home - with her and wondering why she's upset. Men! Clearly, Harry hasn't been able to see through his own romantic confusion that he's led Evie on quite spectacularly.

Evie realizes it's all real...

Putting my new-found Geraldine Page obsession aside for a moment, I must say that Glenn Ford’s portrayal of Harry affords the actor a smaller, yet still emotionally charged background to work with. In his biography of his father, Glenn Ford: A Life, Peter Ford spoke to director Mann years later, who remembered Ford as being very "shy" but "someone who knew how to get the job done and give you exactly what you needed" (218). And give he certainly did. Though employing a more relaxed acting style than Page's embellished, thorough technique, Ford ably embodied Harry with internal tension similar to Page's Evie, and both actor's approaches suited their characters well.

 

Right off the bat, we get a good sense of what Harry's bachelor lifestyle looked like; he's lonely but easily fills his free time gallivanting around with women in every city he plants his foot in. With a permanent home base on the horizon, Harry figures those rendezvous couldn't hold up (though Mitchell gives him the option), so he best settle his love life down as well. If only he - and the situation - could be that simple.

 

For a man like Harry, going from bachelor to husband AND father to an 18 year old – not 13, which he was expecting from the picture Phyllis gave him (it's the best picture of her, that's why she likes it) – is a lot to take on, but interestingly, he doesn't seem to mind...at first. Minutes into his new paternal role, Patrick comes at Harry with girl problems, scaring Harry right back into his roaming ways and into the arms of Miss Loveland, complete with the same greeting card pickup line he used on Phyllis, to different effect of course.

 

Conveniently, it's Harry's fraternity ring turned around that serves as his wedding reminder, and his marital status shifts accordingly from woman to woman. The mindless Miss Loveland doesn't receive the version of the story in which he is already married, as Evie does, but then again, Miss Loveland oozes sex appeal, which easily tempts Harry to do stupid things like registering both of them at a hotel across the street for a night as fake husband and wife. All Harry's secretive tactics to get this woman upstairs with him fail spectacularly when it turns out that Miss Loveland knows the entire staff there. You can guess why.

Harry's got a grip on that 'wedding ring' with Evie...

...but remembers it's just a fraternity ring with Miss Loveland (Barbara Nichols)...

...and the ring's promise materializes in the form of Patrick (Michael Anderson, Jr.), seeking girl help from his future father.

Though he's in transition, Harry's wandering ways are not so easy to tame, but when he gets to know Evie, things start to change. Evie's different from his other women - she wants more than what Mitchell and Miss Loveland provide Harry - and despite his brush-offs, she's neither scorned nor dazed by Harry's actions, though interestingly enough, he is: "It shocks me, and I'd be very pleased if you liked me enough to be shocked too," he tells Evie, as he challenges her to give him hell about running off with Miss Loveland (mixed signals much?). To his surprise, she doesn't: "A Postmaster's public image is one of detachment. See what they teach us at these conventions?" 

 

Evie's reactions add to Harry's astonishment in more ways than one as she keeps defying any notion of her he previously held. It soon becomes obvious to Harry that he wants what Evie is looking for, but it takes Phyllis to crash the party for him to recognize it. Seconds after his future wife opens her mouth, Harry realizes that the two women are equally as open in their desires, though they happen to be polar opposites: where Evie yearns for a true chance at love and companionship, Phyllis just needs a break - she's been there, done the entertaining, mothering, and cleaning, and now she simply wants to let others take care of it all.

SURPRISE! Phyllis (Angela Lansbury) barrels into NY like a tornado. A hilarious tornado.

Patrick's re-appearance at the end only confirms what Harry's just learned: both mother and son expect Harry to be an insta-father and husband, but Harry gives them a dose of reality: "You don't just say I'm your father and make it true, and Phyllis you don't just say I'm your husband and make it true. I can't say that you're my family. It doesn't work that way." Normal people understand that, but it seems that all along Phyllis and Patrick were looking for a son and mother, respectively, roles they hadn't played for each other before, and it's only in this short reunion with Phyllis and Patrick after his time spent with Evie that Harry fully sees it: Phyllis and Patrick want everything (by doing nothing), and all Evie wants to do is something.

Harry's brain: "Is this trainwreck really what I want?"

Put simply, Dear Heart is joy to behold. From the story to the performances (have I mentioned Geraldine Page recently?), I was instantly drawn in to the movie's quirky, humorous, heartfelt world, and I'm pretty sure I smiled throughout the whole thing. The film engaged me so much that I couldn't stop thinking about it, which led me to rave/obsess about it to everyone I came in contact with - seriously, ask my friends.

 

Considering this black and white romance was made 50 years ago, I was quite surprised how well the film plays today. Naturally, certain character details and dialogue are dated, but we get the picture: from Mitchell tempting Harry by saying they should still get together for lunch (and lunch is different from noon hour, during which one eats) and Patrick's utter confusion at the switched gender roles in his relationship, to Evie's strong grasp at her independence and what she wants out of life, Dear Heart deals with ideas that films still focus on today. Modern Harry might use coarser language and contemporary Evie would probably wear less clothing, but the root of the romance remains the same - at its heart, Dear Heart is about just that.

 

As a quick aside, a recent screening of the film on TCM spurned a group discussion using the #TCMParty hashtag on Twitter. Though I couldn't watch the film live, I thoroughly enjoyed following along with everyone's tweets and observations. Several viewers mentioned that this was their first time watching the movie, and though some comments naturally pointed out the film's modern day flaws and cultural antiquities, by the end several viewers proclaimed how surprised they were that they liked the film so much. It warmed my heart to see so much love for what has become one of my favorite movies. 

It doesn't get much cuter than this. 

How to melt your heart:

The wonderful Warner Archive Collection recently released this film on DVD for the first time ever. I found out about the release a few days after I first saw Dear Heart and went through a chaotic-must-own-this-movie-this-instant spree that directed me to the movie's depressing Amazon.com page, where the lowest price for a NEW copy - on VHS! - was $199.87 (used started at the bargain price of $87.99). In my desperate attempt for a copy of this film, I was sadly tempted by those VHS prices, but thankfully WAC stepped in to save my bank account and sanity.

 

Note: The biography of Glenn Ford I cited, Glenn Ford: A Life, was a hard back version. Consequently, the citations may be different than the paperback edition.

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