The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: Ah, Wilderness!

Eric Linden as Richard Miller and Helen Flint as Belle in Ah, Wilderness! (1935)

Ah, Wilderness! is a bit of an anomaly in the Eugene O’Neill canon, in that it’s a comedy. It is, in fact, his only full length comedy. Coming after the 5-hour Strange Interlude and (right after) the play cycle Mourning Becomes Electra, it’s positively short at around 2 hours.

Hollywood adapted it twice, first under its original name in 1935 (only two years after the play appeared on Broadway), and then as a 1948 musical called Summer Holiday, both of which starred Mickey Rooney, though in different roles. As curious as I am to see an O’Neill play turned into a musical, we’re gonna stick with the straight adaptation here, as well as one from the Broadway Theatre Archive from 1976. IMDB also lists a TV movie from 1959, but that version seems impossible to come by.

First, the 1935 version is very good, with luxury casting (as seems to be the case with many O’Neill adaptations for film) . Not only do we get a young Mickey Rooney as Tommy (the younger brother of main protagonist Richard, played by Eric Linden), but we also get the great Lionel Barrymore as Nat, the patriarch of the Miller family. And while some of his mannerisms give him away as the same person who played Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life, that’s the only thing these portrayals have in common.

O’Neill’s characterizations in his previous plays were rich, complex portrayals (especially Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra), but his characterizations in this play may be his most complex of all, since he’s writing about people in somewhat normal circumstances, rather than the mythological world of Greek myth, or the romanticized world of the sailor, or the highly melodramatic world of madness, adultery, and abortions. Despite not having tragic lives, these characters are fully fleshed out (which the acting only serves to highlight) and if Linden’s portrayal seems a little too earnest and wide-eyed, it matches the idealist character he’s playing, and helps set him apart from the more grounded individuals around him. I should point out, however, that the early part of the movie isn’t in the play, which means that Richard isn’t as prominent in the play as he is in the movie.

And the play (and movie) are funny! While the play starts in the house of the Millers, the movie starts at a high school dance, where Richard (Miller) is dancing with his high school sweetheart, Muriel (a wonderful Cecilia Parker). Muriel’s father, Mr. McComber (Charles Grapewin) is very strict with her, so she leaves the dance early and won’t let Richard kiss her goodnight. This and other actions (including a letter she writes telling him to never see her again) leads to Richard getting drunk and hanging out with the showgirl Belle (Helen Flint), which he regrets the day after. There’s eventually a happy resolution for him and a less happy resolution for his Uncle Sid (Wallace Beery, who gets top billing here), who pines for Aunt Lily (Aline MacMahon), but can’t seem to give up drink for her, and she won’t agree to marry him until he does.

But the real star here is O’Neill’s (and director Clarence Brown’s) ability to recreate a town and its inhabitants in turn-of-the-(20th) century Connecticut around the Fourth of July holiday, without the tragedy and darkness that is a feature of the rest of his work. People who think O’Neill is too depressing will be pleasantly surprised with this work, which paints a fond, but not overly sentimental, view of this town and its inhabitants in the year 1906.

Highlights include a graduation ceremony plagued by off-key singing, awful monologues, and squeaking instrumentalists (a scene which isn’t in the play), a dinner sequence in which Sid and Nat come home drunk, and the resolution, where – in a particularly tender moment – Nat and his wife Essie (Spring Byington) are reminded of a night early on in their marriage, when they – like Richard – were young and in love, leading Nat to say, “Well, Spring isn’t everything, is it, Essie? There’s a lot to be said for Autumn. That’s got beauty, too. And Winter—if you’re together” (132). Like most of his mature work, O’Neill knew how to end his plays.

The 1976 version follows the play exactly, which means less Richard, much less Muriel (though she gets a whole scene with Richard near the end of the play), and a few scenes that aren’t in the movie, including some due to censorship (Belle explicitly asks Richard to get a room for them, Nat stammers through a speech to Richard about the birds and the bees). The most noticeable addition is when Essie (the great Geraldine Fitzgerald) and Nat (William Swetland, also fantastic) are talking about punishing Richard, and Essie, who before this has criticized Richard for reading books that would corrupt him and has talked poorly of Muriel, now says, ” He’s got an exceptional brain, that boy has! He’s proved it by the way he like to read all those deep plays and books and poetry” and how he “could do worse” than Muriel — a sudden change that is so in character with how people behave in real life that I found myself chuckling (122).

The movie seems light and rivolous (until those ending lines of O’Neill’s), whereas this adaptation (like the play) goes deeper into its characters. All the family members also act more like a family, even if I prefer Wallace Beery to John Braden (as Sid) and wish Richard Backus (as Richard Miller) was as good as passing for a teenager as he is sullen (the Muriel of Swoosie Kurtz is much more believable as a teenager–even though she’s a year older that Backus). Older brother Arthur is played well in both versions (Frank Albertson for 1935, Victor Garber for 1976), as is his classmate Wint Selby (Edward Nugent and Sean P. Griffin, respectively). Younger sister Mildred (Christina Whitmore), on the other hand, gets a larger role than her movie counterpart (Bonita Granville), while Anthony Petrillo (as younger brother Tommy) doesn’t really compare to Mickey Rooney – though this does make him blend in more as a family member. You also get Hal Holbrook introducing the entire thing.

Ironically, Arvin Brown directed this version (as Artistic Director of the Long Wharf Theater) but there’s no connection between him and Clarence Brown that I could find. Both Browns are great directors – Clarence for movies, Arlen for plays – and each version plays to their strengths: visuals and style for Clarence, ensemble work and pacing for Arlen. And while the 1976 version narrowly beats out the 1935 version for its faithfulness and deeper dive into human nature, both films are well worth seeking out.

Works Cited

O’Neill, Eugene. The Later Plays of Eugene O’Neill. New York: The Modern Library, 1967.