Our Rating: ★★★☆☆
L Factor Gender Bender
Short Take: A tomboy grows up in the South.
Alternate Titles:
Year: 1952
Duration: 93 min
Language: USA/English
MPAA: Not Rated
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Writer: Carson McCullers, Edna Anhalt
Starring: Ethel Waters, Julie Harris, Brandon De Wilde


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Member of the Wedding“It happened that green and crazy summer. It was a summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and she was a member of nothing in the world. And she was afraid.”

In 1945, Carson McCullers published The Member of the Wedding, a novel about Frankie, a lonely twelve year old tomboy. The themes of loneliness, not belonging and girls who didn’t fit in were common themes for McCullers, who had great success with her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Frankie wishes people could “change back and forth from boys to girls.” This mirrors McCullers, who was rather androgynous and had relationships with women throughout her life.

After working on the stage adaptation with Tennessee Williams, The Member of the Wedding opened on Broadway in 1950. The three key actors from the play appear here in the film version – Julie Harris (Frankie), Ethel Waters (Berenice) and Brandon De Wilde (John Henry).

Harris was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, and De Wilde won a Golden Globe for Best Juvenile Actor. The film takes place almost entirely in the kitchen of Frankie’s Georgia home, where Berenice is the African-American maid taking care of the motherless Frankie and her younger cousin John Henry. Frankie is rough and tumble, with short cropped hair and bare feet, and she is spurned by the other girls in the neighborhood.

She just doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere, going through that tough growing-up period. When her older brother Jarvis (Arthur Franz) returns home from the Army to get married, Frankie imagines she will leave with the couple to start a new life somewhere else. Her heartbreak is very real.

Watching this film, it is very apparent that it was previously a stage play. Harris (Knots Landing) dominates the screen in the way one must do in the theater, but here, she comes off as a bit crazy (even for a gothic Southerner). It is also difficult for Harris to pass as 12, when the actress is 26. Interestingly though, when the movie came out in 1952, some thought a boy was playing the role, and she did receive the Oscar nomination.

Ethel Waters is a calming presence as Berenice, and De Wilde almost steals the show at John Henry, who is a bit queer himself, strutting around the kitchen in Berenice’s heels and donning women’s clothes.

If you are interested in Southern Gothic literature, or want to see a slice of Southern life film from an earlier time (including racial roles), you may want to check this one out. If not, it can be somewhat difficult to watch. (AB)