Like a Mechanical Bird: The Peculiar Stoicism of David Wayne (Part Two of Two)

Posted by on March 3rd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One.

Besides Joseph Losey, one filmmaker, to my knowledge, provided David Wayne’s talents and presence with fully ample and honorable space: star stature. I speak of Henry King and the 1952 film Wait ’Til the Sun Shines, Nellie. Wayne, in an interview, named the film as his favorite, adding that it was not a musical (witness to the film’s relative obscurity, notwithstanding a New York premiere at the Roxy theater). As a vehicle for Wayne, it is neither a camp picnic nor a treasure trove of artistic novelty. Its outstanding texture — and grace — is a subdued, almost muted tone (save for a flare of Prohibition gangster violence toward the end). Yet, Wait ’Til the Sun Shines, Nellie remains for both men’s careers, a medallion: its glow tempered, yet constant. It chronicles, in retrospect, the life and modest career from the 20th century’s first decades to the present, (1950s) of a barber in the township of Seviullinois (the name play’s coyness — Figaro: get it? — is regrettable: but mercifully, never belabored). Any potential nostalgia, albeit restrained, is darkened when, no long after the arrival of a girl and boy to the household, the barber’s wife deserts him to elope with a seeming friend. The body of the film involves the barber’s muted grief (after one anguished outburst); his insect-like, taciturn patience in pursuing his trade, and, when his teenaged son falls in love with, and marries, the daughter of the runaway couple (and later dies in World War I) receives the new daughter in law, with tacit grace, into his household.

Except for his broken, tearful entreaty for his children’s trust and love, that their family may survive, though wounded, the barber betrays little emotion throughout the film. When interviewing as handyman a penniless Negro vagabond, he asks, with unceremonious bluntness, if the Negro, who admits to a prison record, was arrested for stealing. It is merely an impartial inquiry: the patient candor in Wayne’s voice is, in its way, an earnest of respect, a respect that his new handyman fully reciprocates. His daughter-in-law, a performer in a traveling stage show, explains, on their first meeting, her equivocal letters to his son: avowing that she did not want her husband to worry. “But,” chides her father in law, “You didn’t care if l worried?” The response elicited (so I interpret) some embarrassed giggles from the audience, when I first saw the film: one is reminded in the comic potential — no hairsplitting! — of a barber, and his pragmatic profession of shearing and shaving. But it paid tribute as well, here, to the barber’s blunt, unadorned humanity, as Wayne rendered; sidestepping with his dancer’s punctilio, any overt condescension: i.e. comic “touches.”

I recall a domestic occasion, representing a few years’ passage, when his daughter, entering her teens, and surrounded by a giggling entourage of peers, requests a haircut that will enhance the glamour of her beanie-capped boyfriend: “so he won’t look like a wet smack.” The father responds with no-nonsense briskness: fully armored in the dignity of his profession (as fathers of those early decades were expected and trusted to be), whipping the beanie from its wearer’s head, and motioning him to the barber’s chair. One is left to infer the deep-laid, perhaps rueful, smile; yet, Wayne’s economy, his consistent deference to the film, and his fellow performers, transmits it. Should one call the barber an “enigma?” Not without dismissing the ceaseless, virtually mute eloquence of Wayne’s interworking with the story, and the keenly, discreetly, yet richly evoked, small town/period setting, with its low-keyed celebration of gracious autonomy, and gallant endurance.

A word for the contribution of Henry King, who deserves many: in commemoration and occasional contrition: this latter, by those who have facilely dismissed him: either in toto, or, nearly as foolishly, his latter (’30s – ’50s) career. Wait ’Til the Sun Shines, Nellie exemplifies, and re-demonstrates, King’s proclivity for celebrating spiritual values in a readily accessible dramatic context; enhanced to a pronounced degree by his eloquent renditions of place: not only locale, but locale as interacting with human exigency; be it struggle, or passionately stoic endurance. Certainly, the Tol’able David confrontation of Richard Barthelmess (David) and Ernest Torrence (Hatfield). Yet, equally, years later, The Song of Bernadette’s opening sequence: when Bernadette’s father (Roman Bohnen) is awakened by her mother (Anne Revere) and sets out through an ashen dawn, seeking another day’s temporary work; or, in the scintillating atmosphere of medieval Italian spring solstice, exhaled by the sets, lighting, and triumphantly roguish performance of Everett Sloane, in Prince of Foxes. Wait ’Til the Sun Shines, Nellie begins its story proper with a homey lap dissolve: a shaving cream dispenser’s white outlet into the light of a honeymoon train speeding through the night; later, the glow of a hotel’s innocently vulgar luxuriance; a sunken bathtub’s mahogany and aluminum trimming.

It is David Wayne’s steady presence, his abstinence from adornment that illuminates the tone and energy of this: his film triumph. His performance apprises us – his possibly under-appreciative audience – that the supposedly mechanical aspect of an actor’s playing can assist in depicting the look and rhythms of a place; and, as here, revivify a segment of our history. Like W.B. Yeats’ golden bird in “Sailing to Byzantium”: telling the Lords and ladies of all that is past, and passing, and to come.

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  1. […] Willingham’s first novel), and comic strips. I’m especially impressed by parts one and two of his majestic “Like a Mechanical Bird: The Peculiar Stoicism of David Wayne,” posted […]