‘Friendly Persuasion’: Quakers at war
(“Christmas Movies: The Good, the Bad & the Weird – From Bette Davis & Gary Cooper to Santa Claus & Serial Killers.”) Based on the 1945 collection of short stories/vignettes The Friendly Persuasion, written by Indiana-born Quaker author Jessamyn West (1902–1984) while recovering from a near-fatal bout of tuberculosis, William Wyler’s first color narrative film, Friendly Persuasion (1956), is well worth a look despite an overabundance of cutesiness; an excess of idyllic, phony Americana; and, according to some who have read West’s book, a simplification of key elements found in the pivotal story “The Battle of Finney’s Ford.”
Rowland V. Lee ranch in the San Fernando Valley, are rendered so well thanks in part to the color cinematography of Ellsworth Fredericks and Ted Haworth’s art direction
Set in 1862, the Best Picture Oscar nominee has at its center youthful southern Indiana Quaker Anthony Perkins, who goes to battle against the pillaging Confederate army – the American Civil War was raging nearby – so no one will ever call him a “milksop” again and despite the vehement protests of his pious mother (National Board of Review Best Actress winner Dorothy McGuire).
Will the young Quaker be able to kill another man? If he does, will that make him a man? And will his father (Gary Cooper) join him? If he does, will he become more of a man than he already is? And if he doesn’t, will the actor playing him remain a box office draw?
“I’m not a pacifist, as you know,” West quotes Wyler as saying in To See a Dream. “So that’s not why I am interested in this picture. I’m interested in it in spite of that. … This picture says that salvation isn’t a mass product. It says that you save or lose your soul as an individual.”
Cooper admitted feeling uncomfortable with the character. “There comes a time when the people who see me in a picture expect me to do something,” he told Jessamyn West, as she recalled in To See a Dream, about her experiences during the making of the Hollywood production.
Ultimately, Wyler and the screenwriters (see further below) had Cooper’s Quaker patriarch Birdwell be both peaceful and plucky. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether that comes across as a complex portrayal of the character, or a cowardly, shameless cop out: allaying audiences fears that Cooper had grown soft in his late middle-age while reassuring them that he remained a man true to his beliefs.
Movie Quakers vs. their convictions
Film critic Pauline Kael would later write that in Friendly Persuasion – much like in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon – the Quakers “are there only to violate their convictions.” Even so, Cooper and McGuire deliver capable performances as the pacifist parents who strive to remain true to their religious beliefs.
“He had me spending I don’t know how many hours a day on the set before production, kneading bread,” adding, “he never explained why he did something, he just asked that you do it. It was funny. What director would ask you to knead bread? I guess it put me into a different period of time, with a different way of thinking.” A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler
On a whole other level, veteran Marjorie Main (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for The Egg and I, 1947), her three horny daughters (Edna Skinner, Marjorie Durant, Frances Farwell), and the short-tempered Samantha the Goose are equally effective.
Less so is relative movie newcomer Anthony Perkins (instead of the more appropriate John Kerr) as the young Quaker warrior. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members, however, felt otherwise, as Perkins, who happens to be as much a lead as Cooper or McGuire, was shortlisted in the Oscars’ Best Supporting Actor category.
Glaringly unsuitable is Pat Boone’s totally 1950s rendition of Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster’s sugary, Oscar-nominated song “Friendly Persuasion (Thee I Love).”
 Frank Capra had initially considered Bing Crosby and Jean Arthur for the leads.
William Wyler had wanted Katharine Hepburn for the female lead, but, depending on the source, she was either unavailable or declined the role. The same happened with second choices Vivien Leigh (“too English”) and Ingrid Bergman (Cooper’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Saratoga Trunk co-star and his personal preference).
A whole array of other actresses were considered. Various sources mention Wyler’s ex-wife Margaret Sullavan, Martha Scott, Jane Wyman, Teresa Wright, Mary Martin (“too hard to photograph”), Eva Marie Saint (“too young”), Jane Russell, and others.
Regarding the bosomy star of The Outlaw and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Jessamyn West recalled Wyler asking her: “What do you think of Jane Russell? She’s a very pious girl, I understand. Goes to church, teaches Sunday school, sings hymns.”
And we can advertise her this way,” West replied: “’See Jane Russell with her clothes on.’” West added*:
“Mr. Wyler didn’t laugh out loud at this.
“Stu, when I came out of Mr. Wyler’s office, said, ‘Jane?’
“When I nodded, he shook his head despondently. His opinion of Willy is so high he suffers when he detects that box office rather than art is shaping Mr. Wyler’s thinking.
“’Willy’s out of his mind,’ he said.”
Eleanor Parker and Maureen O’Hara (“who had the fire Eliza needs,” as per Jessamyn West) were reportedly tested before Wyler settled on Best Actress Oscar nominee Dorothy McGuire (Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947) – even though, according to producer Walter Mirisch in his book of memoirs I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, Wyler believed he could have found “someone more interesting.”
Mirisch adds that after McGuire landed the role of the Birdwell matriarch, a “desolate” Wyler called him on the set to complain about the eventual National Board of Review Best Actress winner, “Walter, we made a terrible mistake.”
If Dorothy McGuire and William Wyler didn’t quite get along, McGuire seems to have had a professionally cordial relationship with Jessamyn West.
“Spent the day being a Quaker with Dorothy McGuire,” West wrote in To See a Dream. “And she spent the day being, I expect, very patient with me.”
* The text found in the book version of To See a Dream doesn’t exactly match what’s found in a 1956 Vanity Fair excerpt. Direct quotes about the actresses considered for the role of Eliza Birdwell are found in To See a Dream.
 Grace Kelly is small-town sheriff Gary Cooper’s young Quaker wife in High Noon. She plays a crucial role at the film’s climax.
Blacklisted Oscar winners
 Coincidentally, Anthony Perkins had recently taken over from John Kerr in Robert Anderson’s Broadway hit Tea and Sympathy.
Perkins’ only previous movie gig had been a supporting role as Jean Simmons’ boyfriend in George Cukor’s The Actress (1953).
A made-for-TV adaptation of Friendly Persuasion was aired in 1975. Joseph Sargent directed Richard Kiley, Shirley Knight, Clifton James, and Michael O’Keefe. William P. Wood was credited for the adaptation of both The Friendly Persuasion and its sequel, Except for Thee and Me.
See below TCM’s Gary Cooper pre-Christmas schedule.
 Sources generally state that Friendly Persuasion earned Allied Artists $4 million upon its release, with a total $8 million take as of 1960.
These figures are confusing because not infrequently the reports fail to differentiate between gross (total box office) and net (what the studio earns after exhibitors have taken their cut) figures.
Chances are the $8 million figure (approximately $120–130 million in 2010 dollars), if accurate, reflects Friendly Persuasion‘s total domestic box office gross; $4 million is the amount earned by Allied Artists, which had finally gained access to first-run houses – it opened at Radio City Music Hall – following the United States v. Paramount Pictures Supreme Court decision.
Still, that doesn’t seem to have helped Allied Artists all that much. As reported in Film Bulletin, Friendly Persuasion only began showing “its true boxoffice strength in subsequent runs, after a disappointing performance in most first run situations.”
In all, domestic box office revenues were solid, but since the film itself cost an exorbitant (for the former Monogram) $3–4 million†, the studio sold most of the foreign distribution rights to Loews, Inc. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s parent company). Loews ended up earning a profit ($582,000) despite modest international earnings ($782,000); Allied Artists ended up in the red. Mirisch called it “financial disaster” for the studio.
Another Gary Cooper movie distributed by Allied Artists in North America and, as a result of Friendly Persuasion‘s financial travails, by a Hollywood major (United Artists) elsewhere (except the U.K., held by Associated British), Billy Wilder’s 1957 romantic comedy Love in the Afternoon, was another flop for the studio (but an international hit for United). They were two key reasons for Allied Artists failing to get off the ground.
† Walter Mirisch claims that Friendly Persuasion, initially budgeted at $2 million, “had cost over $4 million to produce.”
Friendly Persuasion movie trailer with Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, and Anthony Perkins. One of TCM’s “Christmas Movies,” this politically charged, period family drama about Quakers and their religious convictions vs. the worldly concepts of duty and manliness took home the Palme d’Or at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival. As an aside, bits from Friendly Persuasion – e.g., the taunting of the non-violent Quakers of Indiana – can also be found in Peter Weir’s Witness, where the peaceful ones are the Amish of Pennsylvania.
TCM Christmas Movies (Dec. 18): Gary Cooper Day
5:00 p.m. Meet John Doe (1941). Cast: Gary Cooper. Barbara Stanwyck. Edward Arnold. Walter Brennan. Director: Frank Capra. B&W. 122 mins.
7:15 p.m. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). Cast: Gary Cooper. Jean Arthur. George Bancroft. Lionel Stander. Director: Frank Capra. B&W. 116 mins.
9:15 p.m. Friendly Persuasion (1956). Cast: Gary Cooper. Dorothy McGuire. Anthony Perkins. Marjorie Main. Richard Eyer. Theodore Newton. Edna Skinner. Marjorie Durant. Frances Farwell. Peter Mark Richman (as Mark Richman). Samantha the Goose. Director: William Wyler. B&W. 138 mins.
11:45 p.m. Along Came Jones (1945). Cast: Gary Cooper. Loretta Young. Dan Duryea. William Demarest. Director: Stuart Heisler. B&W. 90 mins.
1:30 a.m. Task Force (1949). Cast: Gary Cooper. Jane Wyatt. Wayne Morris. Walter Brennan. Director: Delmer Daves. Color. 117 mins.
Turner Classic Movies’ “Christmas Movies” schedule via the TCM website.
TCM Christmas movies’ cast info via the IMDb.
Friendly Persuasion trailer with Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, and Anthony Perkins: Allied Artists.
Dorothy McGuire, Gary Cooper, and Anthony Perkins Friendly Persuasion image: Allied Artists.
“What Do Quakers Believe? Friendly Persuasion & the Lure of Violence + War” last updated in May 2018.