Do not believe the poster of this 1952 film. Do not. Wait ‘Till the Sun Shines, Nellie, isn’t the pleasant, bubbly, Technicolor singfest that is promised, although the song with all its nostalgic sentiment is there. Its appearances, however, evoke sadness and regret, much like old family photos tend to.
The action begins in the 1890s aboard a train chugging to Chicago, carrying Ben Harper (David Wayne) and Nellie (Jean Peters). They’re newlyweds, and he’s fancy, flirting, and explains how fans don’t provide relief from the heat; they allow you to smooch in public, offering a giggling Nellie an example. Ben is a barber on his way to conquer the world. If this was a musical, it would be time for a sprightly duet.
110 miles from Chicago, Ben gets out and takes a confused Nellie with him. They exit onto a darkened railway platform with the improbable name of Sevillinois above it.
Ben proudly tells Nellie this is home. Nellie’s confusion quickly shifts into anger. What about Chicago? He assures Nellie they’ll get there eventually. The barbershop and rear apartment are only rented. It’ll work out, you’ll see.
No sooner do they kiss and make up before Ed Jordan (Hugh Marlowe), the hardware king of Sevillinois, arrives to gleefully demand a shave. What Ed wants, Ed gets.
The honeymoon has to wait while Ben takes care of his first customer, offering the velvet touch, his artful style of shaving.
When Ed realizes Ben and Nellie are newlyweds, he apologizes and leaves, but he’ll be back. Since Marlowe played the guy in The Day the Earth Stood Still who betrayed Klaatu to the authorities “so he could be a hero,” we know no good will come from him. Nor, a sullen Nellie muses to herself, will Sevillinois.
Ben barely eats Nellie’s first breakfast before a crowd looks in at the barbershop, ready for a shave and a haircut, and a quartet is even singing. The town can’t wait for Ben to start.
Ben is happy to go to work, less so when Nellie walks by to go shopping, because a woman must never enter a barbershop. But they fit into Sevillinois. Ben joins the volunteer fire department. He plays trombone in the town band. Nellie tepidly enters the community, and throughout the film, the background of Sevillinois changes behind the characters, making the window to Ben’s barbershop almost like a TV screen marking the town’s transformation from a one-horse town to one of many horses. Vacant lots get filled by buildings that rise, story after story, paved streets, more wagons, then Model Ts, and newer automobiles.
What about Sevillinois? Its name shows a lack of imagination. It’s a Seville that didn’t quite make it before Illinois gobbled it up. A name submerged, like countless people, by the Midwest, life, lies, and the continuity of human nature.
Ben’s success in town makes him spring a second surprise on Nellie. He’s gotten her a house. It’s large, attractive, and, yes, rented. They’re still getting primed for Chicago.
Ben is always the good citizen and barber; no Figaro here. He and Nellie have children: Ben Jr. and a daughter.
Ed Jordan later makes a pass at Nellie. Her rouge is on Ed’s face, angering Eadie, the hardware king’s wife. Nellie is embarrassed, but Sevillinois is a give-and-take kind of place. She isn’t socially ostracized, since the pillars of the community are open and accepting. Ben always talks to the mayor, and one sees social equality and lack of ostentation in this community. As a town, Sevillinois works. But it ain’t Chicago.
When Trooper, a recently discharged black cavalryman, comes to Ben looking for a job, Ben and Sevillinois take him on without hesitation, and he becomes a welcome addition to Ben’s expanding barbershop, matching the growing community we see through its window.
The film, based on the novel I Hear Them Sing by Ferdinand Meyer, emphasizes over and over a quiet but no less serious struggle between the communal life of this small town and the stresses and duties it places on the individual.
Meyer was an open-minded Leftist. He was a confidant of Bertold Brecht, always emphasizing to Brecht (with little success) that he should humanize his characters and make his scripts approachable to American audiences. But Meyer was the one man Brecht trusted to be the first reader for his works.
The movie examines the communal world very effectively, and we don’t see the usual disdain for small-town America present in so many stories. The film spans the late 19th century to 1945, the heyday of the American small town. The crisis in the film comes in 1898, when the Spanish-American war starts. Ben, ever the good citizen and communal man, volunteers. He is sent to a militia camp in Georgia where he and the other volunteers do squads right, squads left, and basically hang around, which is what the majority of volunteers did in that “splendid little war.”
Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders only made it to the front because they abandoned their horses and hijacked a train getting them to the boat for Cuba, screwing over the New York regiment that was supposed to board. Like Grenada in 1982, the splendid little war was a screwed-up little war.
Back on the home front, Nellie has been poking around. She discovers Ben has lied to her: the shop and house aren’t rented. Ben bought both pieces of property, never intending to leave Sevillinois. Nellie snaps when she reads the burial plots Ben has purchased for them: “He’s going to bury me here!”
She decides to go to Chicago with Ed, who’s making a business trip. He’s uneasy, unsure if Nellie is leaving Ben. He wants something on the side, not a clean break with his life and Sevillinois, but Nellie’s anger and excitement force him to take her. “If you’re going to do something, you do,” she says, ready to board the train.
The train itself is almost a character in the film. Its whistle always beckons and announces destinations out of sight of the barbershop, as it did to so many Americans then, reminding the lonely and restless of a world beyond.
The train wrecks and kills Nellie and Ed. Ben is immediately discharged, and will always be haunted wondering if Nellie was unfaithful, or merely desperate for Chicago.
He rages and almost thinks of suicide, but Trooper pulls him back, as do the townspeople in their careful but supportive way. Ben has a duty to his children. He has Sevillinois. He continues, but without the earnestness he once had.
Ben, now an eligible bachelor, reluctantly courts a woman. But the night he comes to her door, there’s a fire. He drops the bouquet and joins his fellow firemen, discovering his own shop is ablaze. It’s a short, but poignant scene — Ben will never marry again. He’s already married to Sevillinois.
The shop is gutted, but people tell him it will be rebuilt better. The mayor promises better firefighting equipment and building codes. Again, Ben’s personal loss is overtaken by communal needs and duty. After all, they need Ben. That’s never in doubt. A man may suffer, but the community goes on.
Ben goes on, too. His grown-up son, Benny (Tommy Morton), has a daughter. Benny is groomed to take his place in the barbershop, as Ben has proudly painted “Ben Halper and Son” on the window.
But Benny is a dancer who wants to make it big in Chicago. He has none of Ben’s seriousness or civicmindedness, but is filled with Nellie’s zest for living.
He also can dance, and since this is a 1952 movie, Morton can really dance and sing, as does his partner Bessie (Joyce MacKenzie), Ed Jordan’s daughter. This is a red flag for Ben, but also is a Shakespearean moment, as in The Winter’s Tale: the young generation overcomes the tensions and anger of their parents. Bessie hated Nellie, but couldn’t really get rid of her. Even dead, Nellie’s hopes live on in the young.
Ben goes to Chicago to see Benny and Bessie perform. It’s the only time in the movie Ben goes there, and it’s to bring Benny back. He admits the boy is a good dancer. Benny and Bessie do a song and dance, and wouldn’t you know it, they sing the movie’s title. Were this the happy movie poster, it would be the feel-good moment in the film, but the song and his memories of Nellie are just too painful for Ben. Backstage, he insists Benny return home.
Benny says no. Anyway, it’s 1917, and he just joined the army, and Bessie is expecting. Ben grumpily takes her in.
War provides another crisis when Benny is missing in action. The mayor understands Ben’s frantic concern, and gets a Congressman he knows to inquire about Benny. This takes place in a busy scene where Ben awaits the phone call, Bessie is in labor upstairs, and Ben’s daughter is necking with her boyfriend on the porch. A frowning Ben flips on the porch light. Enough of that.
It ends happily. A granddaughter is delivered, and Benny is wounded, but safe.
War intrudes upon Ben in unfortunate ways. The Spanish-American war led to him losing Nellie. The War to End All Wars brings back a crippled Benny, whose dancing career is over. At least he’ll be able to work beside Ben in the shop, but Benny has other plans.
In Chicago, he was befriended by a war buddy, and they talk of machine-gunning the Hun and doing a good job of it. Benny met Mike Kava, a gangster in Chicago, and Benny is collecting protection money for the boss. After all, what is a soldier but muscle for the government? Benny does what he does best in Chicago.
Benny invites Kava to town. Chicago comes to Sevillinois instead of the other way around, symbolic of how Prohibition, a noble cause greatly loved by small-town America, inadvertently created organized crime and corruption that ate away at the solid values of middle America.
Ben dislikes Kava, and when he shaves him, the velvet touch turns to sandpaper. Benny makes a hurried phone call. A rival gang has come to Sevillinois to wipe out Kava while he’s in the barbershop, and Ben has to tell Kava. He doesn’t, and instead gets Trooper and a fellow barber to hide in the back.
Ben once again withholds information, and this also proves tragic. Benny rushes into the shop and tries to spirit Kava out just as a car pulls up and machine guns chatter. Kava, his henchmen, and Benny are dead.
It’s a terrible tragedy for Ben, but socially, one less mobster is a good thing.
A grieving Ben has no choice but to rebuild his life, living for Bessie and his granddaughter — Nellie.
It’s 1945, and Ben is woken from a nap in the barber chair by his granddaughter. Ben mutters “Nellie” — his granddaughter, or the long-lost wife he has tried to forget but never can? It’s a big day for Sevillinois, the fifty-year celebration. The townspeople tell everyone that if they want to know about the town’s history, to ask Ben.
But when woken, Ben has little to say. He sadly looks at Nellie, realizing time’s passage. It recalls an earlier scene when he has to go on living after Benny’s death. He looks around the streets, and the movie’s title song fades slowly back to the earlier Sevillinois with horses, handlebar mustaches, and all those hopes. It’s a sad, poignant moment, and recalls the original title I Heard Them Singing. Singing reminds Ben that he has had his life, but also has been part of a community. I thought of Louisa May Alcott’s poem:
I slept, and dreamed that life was beauty
I woke, and found that life was duty
Was thy dream then a shadowy lie?
Toil on, sad heart, courageously,
And thou shall find thy dream to be
A noonday light and truth to thee.
Ben has been dutiful, and his own secretiveness meant beauty was denied to him except in moments — as happens to a great many of us. In the end, he is roused from the barber chair to march in the parade; a 1945 world filled with cheering crowds and GIs, the end of a war that began a new, imperial America, a suburban one of consumerism and globalism that would slowly empty towns like Sevillinois. But Ben doesn’t think about this. Instinctively, he grabs his trombone. He and the last three members of the old band lead the parade, the quartet blasted out by the full marching band behind him along with a happy crowd ready to gulp up the old-timers. He is submerged into life.
Nellie is a small but impressive film about the relationship between the individual and the community. It is very much the world of Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, contrasting the individual wants of Carol Kennicott against those of Gopher Prairie. In Lewis’ book, the major tensions come when Carol tries to insert modern, urban mores upon its citizens, who try them one time, enjoy it, then go back to ways they’re happy with.
Nellie is a kind of naive Carol, and although killed off, her spirit floats throughout the film and haunts Ben, not the least because it lives on in Benny, then in Ben’s granddaughter Nellie, much as something of our descendants lives on in us. The continuity of family and people made this a very enjoyable film.
Ben seems thick-headed in concealing things from Nellie, but this subterfuge is an American trait. Men supposedly wiser than Ben didn’t tell us the truth about Vietnam, those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, odd little questions about the twin towers on 9/11, and a dozen more cases of withheld information — for our own good, of course. In that case, maybe we’re all Nellies.
I admired David Wayne as Ben. He wasn’t a leading man kind of actor, and was perfect in playing the solid Midwestern type very well. His performance reminded me of the cartoonist Charles Schultz of Peanuts fame. Schultz’s father was a barber, and when Schultz came home from WWII, he entered the barbershop in uniform as his father was servicing a customer, sat down, and waited until his father finished the man before greeting him. Is this cold? Perhaps, but also a sample of Midwestern proprieties, where you do the job, then have fun. Wayne caught this part of Ben’s temperament very well, and only occasionally does Ben feel remorse over how his actions may have alienated Nellie. He’s tight-lipped, like that kind of man is.
The movie recalled a lot of American literature; not only Lewis, but also Thornton Wilder, whose Our Town examined small-town life and how the communal and cosmic become intertwined. It also recalls Murnau’s classic film Sunrise, contrasting rural peace with dubious urban delights. This can be sad, but as George Orwell said, most people see life as a defeat.
The film did well at the box office. It was a time of filmmaking that discussed and depicted middle American values until the 1960s came and totally derided them.
A lot of complaints have come from viewers that the remaining prints are too dark and muddied. It isn’t shot in bright colors, but it’s a film of the muted and dark tones that are the corners of our realities and expectations.
The contrast of communal and individual needs is almost Brechtian, showing the small-town life that Chicago eventually conquered. Today, though, most of us would be much happier in Sevillinois than a Chicago that gobbles us up in taxes, overregulation, political incoherence, and thorny diversity.
No sunshine there.
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