Some of the greatest films of the 1950s were concerned with the lives of “small people,” lonely people, people whose youth and hopes for the future have faded or are fading. Often enough, these stories are set in small towns, or are explored through the lense of some local event whose results change the characters’ lives irrevocably.
Tennessee Williams and William Inge appear to have made their respective careers by writing plays on these subjects, but the movies made from their works do not comprise the whole of the genre, which extended from the late 1940s through the early 6os and is arguably tied to film noir. It is undeniable, however, that the focus on last chances, past disappointments, and a longing for a better future which characterize their protagonists–as well as the sometimes gloomy and always bittersweet endings of these films–is matched by all the films which fall in this category.
While film noir has been “discovered” by film critics (and later exploited by canny film vendors when the world of movies became entertwined with the consumerist world of DVDs), the films examining the lives of average people through relatively straightforward drama have never been classed together or even compared to any significant extent. It is perhaps for this reason that such interesting and worthwhile films as Spring Reunion (1957) receive so little notice.
But before we talk about the film, it is worthwhile to note that films of this kind cannot be simply relegated to the category of melodrama, even though several classic examples of the kind do wallow rather extensively in events which rarely if ever occur in the lives of the viewers (at least so we hope). The themes around which the events are centered or which the movies address are timeless, and the focus on the actions taken by particular characters when faced with problems intrinsic to the human condition places films of this kind–especially the good ones–in the realm of character study rather than melodrama (as opposed to the kind of film made by Douglas Sirk, wherein melodrama is generally favored over intimate character portrait).
Spring Reunion (1957) was Betty Hutton’s final film, and some critics believe that it also contains her best performance, which may very well be true. In her portrayal of 33-year-old Maggie Brewster, who looks forward to the spring reunion which her high school is holding 15 years after graduation, Hutton gives a moving and realistic performance. She is ably supported by the great Dana Andrews, who as Fred Davis is able to convey beneath the remnants of his character’s high-school dash and romance the emptiness of a man whose professional and romantic achievements have not been in line with his youthful hopes.
The plot device of the high school reunion serves admirably to bring to the fore the contrast between what the characters hoped and what they have become. It is always hard to build a convincing portrayal of a character when much of that character has to be conveyed through dialogue and spoken memories; usually films which need to do this utilize flashbacks to show the characters in their younger or better days. But Spring Reunion resists the urge to do so, and is in fact a much better film because of it. Andrews and Hutton are able to take the script–which is often surprisingly good–and elevate it by the sincerity of their performances. Sadly enough, it is possible that their own off-screen lives at this point helped them to understand and communicate the pathos of dead dreams and uncertain futures–both their careers were winding down rapidly, Andrews was years away from his final victory in his fight against alcoholism, and Hutton was struggling with a multitude of problems. But in this film they manage to take two characters who once were the brightest of their class and show how that intelligence and ambition are still alive and desperately kicking beneath the yoke of their drab lives.
Hutton’s character, Maggie, works as a realtor in her father’s office, and is the focus of his attention to a rather alarming degree. (Some of the foreign posters for this film picked up on this aspect of the film to such an extent that they renamed the film to highlight it.) Her social life is almost non-existent, hence her excitement over the high school reunion; it appears that her only other social activities consist of babysitting for her married friends once in a while.
When Fred Davis (Andrews) returns to town, he shows immediate interest in Maggie, but although she agrees to spend some time with him after the reunion dance she is remains wary, due to his high school reputation as a philanderer and her own rather exaggerated sensitivity about her position.
A subplot concerns the lively Barna, played by Jean Hagen, who comes from out-of-town to the reunion determined to enjoy her brief time away from her husband and four children. This dangerous resolution leads her to veer close to perdition, which comes in the rather tubby form of the former high school athletic champion, Jack Frazer (Gordon Jones); but she is saved by her good sense in the end.
One of the strengths of the film is that it understands how strangely nostalgia for the past can distort the present. Jack Frazer’s appeal for Barna seems to be due rather to how she remembers him from high school than to his present appearance; the embarrassing show put on by some alumni during the reunion is clearly an attempt to recapture a school spirit that is now out of place; and the exaggerated expectations Maggie had for the event are a sign that her high school days have been wreathed with a hazy glory by contrast with the years which followed.
The relationship between Maggie and her parents is a complex one, and although the film’s brevity does not allow for much development, it does permit several interesting glimpses and some poignant moments. The mention of a son killed in the Second World War hovers over this part of the film, and partially explains the devotion of both parents to their daughter. There is also a latent statement in the film about the nature of family and the importance of eventual independence which adds to the movie’s stature and elevates it above some of the cliches used in the plot.
Spring Reunion is by no means a perfect film. Many of the secondary characters are kept on the level of caricature, while the film is not above using several rather obvious gags and situations for a guaranteed laugh. Furthermore, the plot veers dangerously close to melodrama at several crucial points, although the constraints of the story’s time frame may be partly responsible for this. But its statements about loneliness, nostalgia, and fear ring true, while Hutton and Andrews and Hagen make their characters into likeable and believable people, people for whom we want a happy ending and for whom we become perfectly willing to swallow a few cliches along the way.