Directed by Sydney Pollack
Depression Era Dobson, Mississippi is a small southern town with little work to offer save for a railroad company and the Starr Boarding House. Owen Legate (Robert Redford) arrives quietly in town, taking up residence at the Boarding House on the night it’s crowded in celebration of the landlady, “Mama” Starr (Kate Reid).
There each of the important characters will be present. Many of them work at the railroad company and pine for Mama Starr’s daughter, Alva (Natalie Wood). They quickly suspect Owen because he is so different from them. It’s not only that he is just about the only man in town not actively trying to marry Alva, but that in a town with people barely surviving, he has come not to try and survive. His motives, they correctly reason, have to do with something else. When it turns out that he’s there to layoff railroad employees, their suspicions are proven correct.
This being a sultry melodrama, passions run fiery almost immediately when Alva lays her eyes on Owen. She pursues him pretty aggressively, even after learning his true reasoning for being in town, and in doing so she grows more defiant of everyone else who loathes the man.
It’s Romeo & Juliet-esque, with their romance challenged by the world at large, and things only finally blossom once she visits him where he lives, in New Orleans. By that point, however, she will have legally married one of her many suitors, having been pushed to do so by her mother, a character with understandable core motivations but who becomes an ominous sort of figure like you often see in these young romance stories directed at indignant, idealistic teenagers.
The central idea is that this beautiful, undying love will not be allowed to exist by the world at large. It’s simplistic, but for a melodrama it’s fairly effective, all complete with stoic, passionate main characters and frustrating, selfish, antagonistic side characters. It presents a portrait of love made legendary simply because it’s not allowed to exist, much like how a book could grow in cult popularity over the years because it was once on a banned books list.
Such depictions of romantic relationships is surely aimed at young adult audiences, people who, like Alva, are well aware of what they’re not allowed to have. She’s a character predominantly reacting against her environment, and to truly ‘win’ would be to break free. The limits placed on her could be symbolic for something broader within America (like if the relationship crosses racial/cultural lines), but I don’t think a story like this has such grand ambitions. I’m not actually sure what it’s trying to say, other than sometimes the world can be a cruel place. And who better to buy into that message then teenagers living under their parents’ roof?
Up Next: Big Eyes (2014), JFK (1991), Quiz Show (1994)