Fifty-one years after her debut film An Unseen Enemy was released, Dorothy Gish starred in her final film: Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal (1963).
The film follows Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tryon), a man who decided at a young age — with some prodding by his parents — that it was his destiny to become a Catholic priest. It begins with his ordination in 1917 and goes on to track all of the hardships that he faces as a priest in his entire career, spanning decades of his life.
Dorothy’s role here is that of Stephen’s mother, Celia.
The film is notable for more than simply its status as the final film of the legendary Dorothy Gish. It’s a massive film, running at nearly three hours and covering many years of Stephen’s life… and the struggles we see him encounter are serious ones. The film touches on the subject matter of abortion, racial discrimination, religious discrimination and war. It also aims to portray both the pitfalls and strengths of organized religion in handling some of the major issues facing the world throughout the 20th century. (Fun fact: according to IMDb, Joseph Ratzinger — aka Benedict XVI, the 265th Catholic Pope — served as the Vatican’s liaison during the film’s production.)
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find this 2.93-hours-long film a bit tedious to watch. Some of the supporting performances are stiff, some of the dialogue seems very contrived and the pace is not nearly as fast as it should be to keep the audience engaged for such a long running time. Some films can run for four hours and feel like they only last a single hour; The Cardinal is not one of them. It feels every minute as long as it is, though the pace does pick up somewhat in the second half.
Worthy of appreciation, though (in addition to the political and historic significance of the story), are the performances of Dorothy Gish and Tom Tryon.
Tryon is well-suited to his role. He has the calm, steady demeanor that one would expect from a compassionate priest. He does as well as he can with the wordy, snail-paced script and does a pretty good job of keeping the audience at least somewhat engaged in the struggles he faces throughout his world-traveling priesthood. He also shows great emotion during the film’s most dramatic scenarios.
Dorothy’s role is pretty small. She doesn’t appear in the majority of the film, but when she does finally pop up on screen, she usually makes an impact. The only time we ever see her is in interaction with her family.
In her earliest scene, for example, her only purpose seems to be to urge Stephen to comfort his sister, who is upset after an argument with another sibling. Even this tiny glimpse of Dorothy as Mrs. Fermoyle is important to the film, though. She asks Stephen to talk to his sister because he’s always been good at comforting her. Through this tiny bit of dialogue we see that Stephen’s parents have always held expectations of him to become a compassionate, helpful man. This expectation likely contributed to his wish to become a priest, and knowing how his parents see him allows us to better understand Stephen.
The expectation that he would always be there to support, comfort and protect his sister comes into play later in the film, when Stephen must decide whether to save the life of his sister or the life of her child. [HERE COMES A SPOILER] He chooses to save the child, because the child’s skull would have had to be crushed during birth otherwise. He doesn’t want his sister to die, but he doesn’t want to break a commandment by causing the death of the child when it was preventable. His sister, if she does not survive, will be dying of natural causes and as such would not weigh on his conscience as much, at least not for religious reasons. After he gives the doctor his decision, we see him attending a birthday party for the child a year or more later. Gish is in attendance as Mrs. Fermoyle, reminding us of those parental expectations; Stephen watches as she and the rest of the family sing to the child, and he then looks mournfully at a photo of his now-deceased sister, obviously struggling over whether he made the right choice. It is one the film’s most emotional moments. [END OF SPOILER]
Though her screen time takes up mere moments in the film’s lengthy running time, Dorothy’s character is incredibly important to the story, not unlike her sister’s role in my other Gish Sisters Blogathon pick, Sweet Liberty — though her screen time here is even smaller than Lillian’s was in that film. Mrs. Fermoyle has a subtle and implicit but very powerful influence on Stephen’s struggles with his faith and his choices throughout his priesthood.
This review of Dorothy’s performance in The Cardinal was written for the Gish Sisters blogathon, which I’m co-hosting along with Movies, Silently. Check out the master list for more wonderful pieces about Lillian and Dorothy by our contributors!
Semi-unrelated tidbit from the media:
While she was filming The Cardinal in Boston, Dorothy received a little write-up in The Harvard Crimson. It isn’t clear whether they directly interviewed her or just pulled bits and pieces from other interviews, and she doesn’t talk about The Cardinal at all, but she does share her thoughts on the state of the film industry in the 1960s. Here’s an excerpt:
“Most present day productions lack the quality of the silent films, Miss Gish believes, because the enormous costs have destroyed the strong community feelings that existed among the people who made old-time movies. In the ’20s, actors and crewmen could always make suggestions to directors, and often these suggestions were used. ‘Lillian and I made our own costumes for Orphans, and Griffith or Billy Bitzer would always listen to our ideas.’
With today’s high-budget films, each day of shooting costs upwards of $5000. There is not time to have such consultations, and the proliferation of techniques insures that few actors get to know the staff workers.
According to Miss Gish the lack of heroic luster of the modern star system is due to type casting. Versatility is no longer appreciated, either by public or industry. ‘Clark Gable and Gary Cooper are two examples of type actors, who played the same part throughout their acting careers.’
The greatness of Alec Guinness, in her opinion the finest modern actor, lies in his ability to completely assume the role he is playing, and not expand the part to fit his own personality.
Miss Gish thinks that such acting lightweights as Sandra Dee and Tuesday Weld are a group of mediocrities; ‘You can’t tell them apart.'”
You can read the full article at The Crimson’s website.