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Courtship & On Valentine's Day — 2 movies based on early Horton Foote plays
By Elyse Sommer
The playwright's seemingly endless supply of small town Texas stories dates back to listening to his father's reminiscences about the customers of his haberdashery. Foote Junior's ability to transform his father's recollections into interesting and alive oral histories of small lives filled with joys, but also the tragedies that destroy some but are survived by others. Though deceptively simple these play scripts were also running commentaries on the changes in American culture and the need for people in a small, conventional town like Harrison to come to grips with .
The focus on the men and women of the fictional version of Wharton, Texas where Foote grew up served as a unifying thread for the cycle that spanneds four decades under the umbrella title of The Orphans' Home Cycle. While each play worked on its own, it was also a piece in a large human tapestry which was solidified by incorporating a chapter from the life history of Foote Senior's stand-in, Howard Robideux.
Another unifying presence in Foote's work has been his daughter, actress Hallie Foote. She has been a steady interpreter of the characters who people her father's plays. The way she's mastered every nuance of movement and speech has been an invaluable contribution to her father's legacy. Fortunately, Ms. Foote stars in both Courtship and On Valentines Day, written and produced on stage in 1975 and 1980 respectively and filmed in the mid-1980s (1918, which was part of that trilogy, was also filmed but, though listed at Amazon is no longer available ).
If you're looking for a fast-paced, action packed diversion, neither of these films is for you. Mr. Foote's stuck to his own pace and his story telling was more character than action driven. Neither film relies on slick movie making technology but relies on you to allow yourself to just pay attention and let yourself drift back to a time and place and way of life that no longer exists. With the Hallie Foote as the central character and a splendid supportinf cast both films provide a wonderfully escape from the crazy world we live in.
Like all the plays in the elegy to Foote's home town, family members and neighbors, each of these films stands on its own as a one-act play. But since the same actors play the principal characters in each, it's easy to see Courtship as Act One, with That Valentine Day its natural Act Two since it's a follow up to the decision of Hallie Foote's Elizabeth Vaughn about what she plans to do about the young man she's been seeing despite her father's objections.
Scenarios for Courtship and On Valentine's DayThe time frame for Courtship is 1915, and most of its hour and twenty-five minutes plays out inside and on the front porch of the prosperous Vaughn family's hme. It's a happy enough home, but this is a time when the father in a family ruled the roost, with his wife still addressing him only by his surname and standing by all his decisions. This is indeed the case with Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn (Michael Higgins and Rochelle Oliver).
Mr. Vaughn is not a brute or harsh disciplinarian. In fact, he's paid for his children to be college educated. Twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth (Foote) and her younger sister Laura (Amanda Plummer) obviously have plenty of handsome frocks and comfortable lives. Therefore, while their young brother, Mathew Broderick who doesn't show up until the second play, the girls are loving and obedient.
Well, pretty much so. Not being allowed to go to the dances that are the rage with all the town's young people, and Mr. Vaughn apparently unlikely to approve of any suitors, does trigger Elizabeth's urge to get away from this affectionate but restrictive dictatorship.
Thus, even though she dutifully plays the piano for her visiting aunts, she has also become friends with a handsome newcomer to town—Horace Robedaux (William Converse-Roberts) . The plot thickens about as much as any Foote plot can, when Papa meets Howard. It's clear that Howard's courtship will sink or swim, depending on whether Elizabeth's yen for independence and the young man is powerful enough for her to risk losing her family. (Mrs. Vaughn unsurprisingly supports her husband).
The conflict between Elizabeth and her father plays out without shouting and intense emotional display. In fact it's almost background music for the conversations between Elizabeth and Howard that fill us in on his background which Foote explored more fully in his epic cycle about Howard and members of his family. If you pay careful attention to the sisters' interactions, you'll see Elizabeth's independent streak going from a cautious simmer to a determined boil.
As is typical of all Foote's work, talked about but unseen events among the Vaughn girls' friends bring in the undercurrents shaking up those seemingly untouched by more distant social upheavals. Mr. Foote doesm't sugarcoat just how restrictive life in what some nostalgically think of as the good old days were, but neither does he go all out to make any of these people anything other than human.
On Valentine's Day actually plays on Christmas Eve and the title refers to the day Elizabeth defied her father to marry Howard Robedaux. Howard is now the proprietor of a haberdashery shop and a proper Harrison man. Though he and Elizabeth are still living in a boarding house they'll probably have enough money to buy a house soon after the child they're expecting is born.
As Elizabeth followed through on her belief that Howard was the right man for her, so her father followed through on treating this as the end of her being part of the Vaughn family circle.
Naturally, since Mr. Vaughn is a smart and essentially loving despot, it's not escaped him that Howard was indeed a worthy young man. He and his wife have missed their daughter— and the coming baby and Christmas are a perfect opportunity for a reunion.
While a reunion does turn out to be the turning point of the Vaughn family comflict, what makes this somewhat longer film (1 hour and 40 minutes) so potently and typically Foote is the way it plays out without big emotional displays or speeches. However, Mr. Vaughn does take Howard aside to assure him that he has come to like and admire him. In fact, Howard is a lot more admirable and compatible family member than his own son who's just flunked out of boarding school . The ne'er do well 'Brother, not seen in Courtship appears briefly but is prominently billed nowadays because the now more famous Matthew Broderick plays him. On Valentine's Day, even more than Courtship, gains its power mostly from scenes involving their fellow townspeople. Among the more memorable characters we meet is the town's richest man, George Tyler (Steven Hill). The town humors his "going off" with tragic consequences. A delightful Jeanne McCarthy plays Bessie the naive girl next door who loves to spend time with Elizabeth. Like Elizabeth's conversations with her sister in ourtship, some of the back and forth with Bessie illustrate Foote's dialogue at it's most poignant. For example, Elizabeth's response when Bessie asks how old she'll be in fifty years: "Seventy-four, 'and Horace 77. . . .and my baby will be 49." No wonder Elizabeth bursts into tears at this off-hand question's sums up how fleeting life is.
Bottom Line: Why These Stage to Screen Adaptations Are Indeed Online Viewing GemsThough both films have the same cast, Courtship was directed by Howard Cummings and On Valentine's Day by Ken Harrison. Both have created exquisitely atmospheric productions that are true to Mr. Foote's character-driven, attention-must-be-paid style of storytelling. They've directed their designers to create a visual fluidity between the just a few years apart plays.
Instead of cinematic wizardry every detail, whether furnishings or costumes, is painstakingly true to life just before World War I brought drastic changes to every corner of America. Mr Cummings opened Courtship by submerging active images of the Vaughn family's pleasant life style in a strange but beautiful green background, while Mr. Harrison opted for sepia portraits of the Robedeux family saga in the making i to introduce On Valentine's Day.
The result in each case is a film that's still very much a play even though we're watching it on our home screen.
Hallie Foote is the star of both plays but William Converse-Roberts, as her ,husband, Horace, and Rochelle Oliver and Michael Higgins as her parents, are no second bananas. In fact, they top themselves when they reprise their Courtship roles in On Valentine's Day. Matthew Broderick makes the most of his fairly small part.
I'd love to see a filmed version of the entire Orphan's Home Cycle — also a nother live production like the one I was fortunate enough to see at the Signature Theater in 2009 (CurtainUp review Orphan's Home Cycle Part 1, Part 2, part3 ). But until we're back to a life where art in all its forms can thrive and live again these two movies are indeed gems I'm delighted to have found.
For more about Horton Foote's life and work, and links to other works by him that we've reviewed, see our chapter on him in our . Playwrights Album
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