Those in search of a trivia question about Hollywood could not possibly hope to top the following: "Which actress, the ex-wife of an American president, was buried in a nun's habit?" The actress of course was Jane Wyman. When very young, Wyman suffered the loss of her father, a day laborer, and was then abandoned by her impoverished mother, and placed in the care of foster parents. By all accounts, her new parents were cold and harsh disciplinarians, and her childhood was quite miserable.
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Some have speculated that Wyman's marriage to Ronald Reagan ended in divorce because Reagan was overly-devoted to politics. Nonetheless, Wyman remained loyal in her own way, and never spoke publicly about President Reagan or her divorce to her dying day. Late in life, Wyman became a lay member of a Dominican order, and after her death, she was buried in a nun's habit. While an actress, Wyman refused to accept any movie role that taught the wrong moral lesson; and she often complained that "there are just too many sick movies" in Hollywood.
It is only fitting that her greatest and most believable screen role was that of a woman who rescues her fiance from alcoholism through superhuman loyalty and devotion. Given that the movie was made in black and white in the 1940s, one might expect a movie that is melodramatic and maudlin. But by the end of this uncompromisingly realistic film, even the most jaded viewer is left shaken by the power of alcohol to destroy human lives.
Each viewer brings his own ideas, or rather prejudices, about the alcoholic to the movie. Many people think the alcoholic deserves his hard fate. At best, a drunk is sneaky and unreliable; at worst he or she is dangerous. It is difficult to empathize with someone onscreen whom we would willingly cast off in real life.
It is poignant to see the scholarly and gentlemanly character played by Ray Milland go from a gifted young writer to a loathsome drunk. He goes from denial and lying to binge drinking, blackouts, and finally purse-snatching to support his habit. After a stay in a stinking, disease-filled alcoholic ward where he has a horrifying bout with the DTs, Milland enters a last ditch, life-and-death battle against the bottle.
Although the movie is careful to distance itself from Prohibition and the Temperance Movement, it is still a forceful indictment of the liquor industry. It is interesting to note that the movie was entitled "The Poison" when it ran overseas. Indeed, the movie shows once and for all that alcohol is no more than rat poison for humans, peddled by people who are little more than gangsters and racketeers.
The great emotional power of the movie comes from its skillful characterizations. The character played by the lovely, button-nosed Jane Wyman, Helen St. James, is intriguing. Despite all advice, she remains faithful to the one she loves. The viewer is left wondering just when Helen will finally realize that an alcoholic is unworthy of her love. Ray Milland does indeed bring Helen to the breaking point, but in the end, love is found to be more powerful than booze. Confronted with Helen's steadfastness and loyalty, the viewer is left a bit ashamed at his own prejudices and hard-heartedness towards those addicted to alcohol.
It is indeed a mystery why Christians have abandoned the crusade against alcohol. In the 1930s, the Catholic Church and most Protestant denominations took a forceful stand against booze. Shortly after the end of Prohibition, Cardinal Manning wrote, "The alcohol industry is an open wound from which our nation may very well bleed to death." He was right. Had we taken a firm stand against alcohol, we would have fewer problems with drugs today. But America relented, and the toll taken by alcohol in ruined lives and crime is simply staggering.
The movie may be purchased from Amazon.com