I slaked my curiosity about “The Young Cassidy,” a 1965 biopic about Sean O’Casey (1880-1964), based on his memoir Mirror in My House, that John Ford began, but that was finished by Jack Cardiff (who had directed the far superior adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s autobiographical Sons and Lovers with Dean Stockwell, Wendy Hiller, and Trevor Howard in 1960–and went on to direct one of the most deadly boring movies ever made, “Girl on a Motorcycle” with Marianne Faithful and Alain Delon in 1968).
The cast included three of my favorite British actresses ever: Julie Christie, Edith Evans, and Maggie Smith. Alas, Christie and Evans have little screen time and Smith is not very compelling between her first and her last scene. Mostly, though the problem is that Australian actor Rod Taylor could not carry a picture, particularly a movie about a writer (the Irish part was not the problem, at least in my estimation). Showing authors writing is a recurrent difficulty for movie biopics. It’s easier to show them not writing. (My favorite example is Jane Fonda, playing Lillian Hellman in “Julia,” throwing her typewriter out a window.) Taylor writes and types dutifully, and a bit of the 1926 riot-stimulating premiere at the Abbey Theater of “The Plough and the Stars” is included. (BTW, John Ford directed an adaptation of that play in 1936–with Barbara Stanwyck leading the cast! Scenes were reshot by the studio and O’Casey’s analysis of that movie provided me the title here)
That Taylor was an American movie star is a puzzlement. He had leading roles in a number of big-budget pictures during the early 1960s — The Birds, Fate Is the Hunter, Sunday in New York, The Time Machine, The VIPs (also paired with Maggie Smith), Hotel, The Glass-Bottom Boat — and was the heavy in Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” before being a regular on “Falcon Crest” during the late-1980s.
Taylor is not bad in the title role, and I blame the script (by John Whiting) more than the actor for the failure to illuminate why the hero writes, what he wants to say. “There are things to be written in this country by brutal, drunken working men like me” is a start, but viewers who don’t know O’Casey’s work are left wondering “What things?” His film home does not look like a slum dwelling, and Rod Taylor never looked less than well-fed! The movie also leaves one wondering about the writer’s politics (in general and in regard to “terrorism” — that is, violence against non-military persons — in particular). Just as no real poverty is shown in the movie, there is nothing of colonial oppression shown (just boring scenes of prospective rebels drilling out in the hills).
The movie shows William Butler Yeats (1865-1939, played by Michael Redgrave) defending “The Plough and the Stars” both to the other directors of the Abbey Theater and in a passionate speech about art when the premiere of “Plough” stopped. It also shows Cassidy/Casey departing by ship at the end, eliding that Yeats rejected O’Casey’s “The Silver Tassie” for the Abbey (where O’Casey’s first three plays had premiered) in 1929. O’Casey severed his ties with the Abbey, and left for England where he spent the rest of his life.
The exterior scenes, both urban and pastoral, look good. Cardiff had been a great cinematographer (especially for the Archers–“Red Shoes” and “Black Narcissus”) before becoming a mediocre director — though John Ford was also no slouch in the visual composition department.
Ford prepared the production, which Cardiff supposedly followed. Ford only directed the post-riot coupling of Sean and Daisy (Christie). He told Peter Bogdanovich that he had planned to end the film with Daisy coming up and praising “Plough” on the night of its riotous premiere.
The sentimentality about a hard-working, self-sacrificing Irish mother (played as well as possible by Flora Robson) smacks of Ford’s weakness for sentimentality, though there is little of the sentimentalizing of alcoholism (or at least complicity of it) that is present in other Ford films.