Member of the Wedding, The (1952)

Member of the Wedding, The (1952)

“We go around trying first one thing, then another. Yet we’re still caught, just the same.”

A housekeeper (Ethel Waters) cares for a sickly young boy (Brandon de Wilde) and his 12-year-old cousin Frankie (Julie Harris), who wants nothing more than to join in the excitement and romance of her brother’s (Arthur Franz) marriage to his fiancee (Nancy Gates).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African-Americans
  • Coming of Age
  • Deep South
  • Fred Zinnemann Films
  • Julie Harris Films
  • Play Adaptation

Carson McCullers adapted her own 1946 novel into a Broadway play, which was then turned into this screen adaptation, directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring much of the original cast. It’s notable both for the poignant screenplay — Frankie’s high-pitch coming-of-age angst is beautifully captured — and for 26-year-old Harris’s performance as a gangly 12 year old, which some considered a challenging translation to the scrutiny of the camera (though I think she remains sufficiently believable). However, what struck me most upon recent viewing is the richness of Waters’ role and performance; as noted in TCM’s excerpt from Donald Bogle’s book Blacks in American Film & Television: An Illustrated Encyclopedia:

“… there is more here of black lives in disarray and in control than in most films of the period: it’s hard to think of any other movie of that time in which black actors had a chance to relate so tenderly and sensitively with one another.”

While “some viewers may be put off by the fact that [Waters’] character Berenice expends most of her energies and wisdom on two white children”, she is a rich and full character in her own right, given a complicated past and a challenging current context — as well as the movie’s final image and words.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ethel Waters as Bernice
  • Julie Harris as Frankie
  • Fine direction and cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for the strong lead performances — especially Waters’.


  • Noteworthy Performance(s)


One thought on “Member of the Wedding, The (1952)

  1. Agreed – a once-must for the performances, but also for McCullers’ unique (for the period) depiction of black characters as well as that very awkward time known as early adolescence.

    When I first saw this – many years ago – I had the sense that Harris, overall, was playing her role ‘too big’, as though she hadn’t been told by Zinnemann that there was a difference between playing for a Broadway stage and playing things to a film camera.

    But, watching the film again just now (it’s been awhile), I don’t think Harris is doing too much; I think it’s the awkwardness of her character that (only sometimes) results in her being carried away by her emotion. ~so that it *seems* to be a little larger than it needs to be. But that’s part of what being young (and esp. a young teen) is.

    Basically this is a quiet tale of quiet loneliness. It has a few elements that would return years later in the film version of McCullers’ ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ (which Peary bizarrely overlooked in his Film Fanatic guide but which is a must-see).

    The three main actors are all quite memorable for a number of reasons but, yes… I think Waters is best of all; she does *so much* with what she’s been given. Her rendition of ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’ is a particular standout.

    A special nod to Alex North for his fine film score.

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