More than Stanley Kramer's other ventures into celluloid theatre, Member of the Wedding illustrates the difficulty of transferring a play from stage to film. Subservient to words on the stage, visual effects take precedence on the screen. Carson McCullers' story of a motherless adolescent who feels herself an "I person" among "we people" is one of great delicacy, but through the literal eye of the camera, which focuses as intently on an ice-box as on the actors, many of the nuances are lost. And with the camera's greater scope, the restrictions of a single set become very apparent. Director Fred Zinnemann, who used his medium superbly in High Noon with sweeping shots of empty streets and barren railroad track, has in Member of the Wedding simply filmed a play. Despite the brilliant performances of Julie Harris and Ethel Waters, the result seems curiously static and two-dimensional.
As though eager to remind you of its versatility, the camera occasionally wanders out of the kitchen where the action takes place, into other rooms or into the garden, but its travels add nothing to the play. The film version, however, brings the play two dividends: notable music by Alex North and, more important, searching close-up shots of the principals, Showing the great properties of the movie medium, the close-ups endow the scene in which Miss Waters sings a comforting hymn with a beauty which only the camera could capture. Yet even the close-ups sometimes betray the script, making, lines aimed at the balcony of a play house seem unnecessary and over-wrought.
With the performances of Miss Harris and Miss Waters, however, Member of the Wedding can not help being an unusually compelling film. If the camera belies the heroine's adolescence, nothing in Miss Harris' portrayal does. Her tomboyish vibrance in fury and heart-break is so genuine that you forget entirely that the role is a tour de force by an actress twice the age of the character she's portraying. Triumphing over the stereotype of the colored Earth Mother, Miss Waters is a Mammy with more than a hospitable lap. Her portrait of the cook, Bernice, is a rich, full personality with the compassion and placid wisdom of experience. These two performers make the film a moving drama. But at the same time, Member of the Wedding shows clearly that for all the versatility of the camera, something is lost when a screen-play is simply a play on the screen.
With the feature is a colorful and imaginative British cartoon, Fantasy on London, lampooning the derbyed, umbrella-bearing commuter. There is also a newsreel with a commentary about vengeance and the "Kremlin Criminals" which shows the hate machine in a rather appalling high gear.