Mourning Becomes Electra (RKO Radio). The eye glides like a skiff across the black, lurching waters of a New England harbor. The sound track blares the black, lurching music of the chantey, Shenandoah. And on the screen the dreadful, faintly ludicrous enginery of Eugene O'Neill's tragedy of incest lurches, and begins.
The Mannons were the first family of a small New England seaport of 1865. Through the body of their Freudian existence, O'Neill has rammed the misfitting dramatic skeleton of the Greek trilogy, Oresteia.
An unfaithful wife murders her husband, just home from the war, whereupon her daughter, who has always loved father as immoderately as she has loathed mother, persuades brother to murder mother's lover. When mother hears of this event (from her son's cruel lips), she shoots herself. Her monstrously affectionate children then suffer a monstrous expiation. Demented by remorse and ingrown desire, the son shoots himself in order to join mother. Daughter determines to "live alone with the dead, and keep their secrets, and let them hound me, until the curse is paid out and the last Mannon is let die!"
Mourning Becomes Electra (produced on Broadway in 1931) was never a great playlet alone a great Greek play. But it is a play that hankers after greatness (and Greekness) like a schoolgirl with a crush on a bust of Aeschylus. By attempting to dramatize the Oedipus complex on a framework of Greek drama, O'Neill produced a travesty of Freudian thought and something like a parody of Greek tragedy.
Nonetheless, O'Neill is one of the finest theatrical craftsmen of his day, and Electra has a gnashing vitality. The cinemadaption is, as Playwright O'Neill himself concedes, "magnificent." The rough edges of the incestuous theme have been ground smooth in the dialogue without losing a jot of theatrical shock. The Grecian mood, though it echoes rather tinnily through the New England characters, reverberates grandly on the super-loud sound track, in what O'Neill calls the "sumptuous simplicity" of the Mannon mansion, in the classic drape of the costumes, in the still, pure lighting of the picture.
The film also boasts some fine performances, notably Rosalind Russell as the cold-blooded daughter and Katina Paxinou as the hot-blooded mother.* Michael Redgrave, as the unweaned son, illumines a tortuous, hazily written role with great imagination. Raymond Massey, as the statue-warm father, acts with variety and sensitivity. Leo Genn may not be the romantic Adam that O'Neill had in mind, but he is still entirely plausible. There are several minor quibbles but only one broad complaint to be lodged with the moviemakers. The film is far too long (2 hrs. 59 min.).
All praise and blame for a daring effort belong to Dudley Nichols. O'Neill, an old friend, would not permit the film to be made unless Nichols produced, directed and wrote the script. All credit for risking $2,250,000 in the venture belongs to RKO, which may have some trouble getting its money back. As one critic put it: "Average moviegoers are going to talk back to this picture."