This post contains minor spoilers for Mourning Becomes Electra (1947).
A caretaker gives a small group of townspeople an unofficial tour of a grand, empty home. The family who lives in the house is absent in the flesh, but their presence couldn’t be more apparent. Their portraits leer at the visitors from their frames, and their names are on everyone’s tongue. Gossip abounds, and the stories are scandalous. Naturally, the visitors want more, but if the caretaker knows any more, he isn’t divulging it.
And so begins 1947’s Mourning Becomes Electra, a sprawling Civil War-era retelling of the myth of Orestes. If you know a little bit about the myth, you know the crazy story that will be told in this film, based on a 1931 play of the same name by Eugene O’Neill. If not, suffice to say that you might be in for a bit of a shock. The Oedipal and Electra Complexes, adultery, murder, and suicide all make appearances in this complicated story, which is told in three acts: “Homecoming,” “The Hunted,” and “The Haunted.” If those titles don’t send a chill through your spine, I don’t know what will.
The action concerns the complicated dynamics of the prestigious Mannon family. Patriarch Ezra is an aging war general. His wife Christine doesn’t love him anymore and has never loved their grown daughter Lavinia, but she absolutely – and creepily – dotes upon their soldier son Orin. Although this already is a far from rosy picture, it only gets worse. The fireworks begin with the lifelong conflict between the venomous Christine and the bitter Lavinia, whose bad relationship only intensifies when Ezra and Orin return from the Civil War.
Given all the bleak material in the film, the cast performs admirably. Leading is the talented Rosalind Russell as Lavinia. More known for her comedic roles in films like His Girl Friday (1940), Russell nevertheless performs well with the heavy drama of Mourning Becomes Electra and very nearly won an Oscar for it. Michael Redgrave plays Orin and does a credible job creating the character’s complicated emotional spiral, also securing an Oscar nomination for his efforts. As patriarch Ezra, Raymond Massey has the right stately presence, and his scenes with Russell are marvelous. And as Christine, the Greek-accented Katina Paxinou appears to actually be spitting out venom in every scene she’s in. But this isn’t a problem; rather, it helps elevate the film to full dramatic heights.
The drama in Mourning Becomes Electra is some of the most intense, psychological, and downright bleak I’ve ever seen on film. But the direction by Dudley Nichols at times is overwrought and rambling, and the score can be intrusive. And it is a long film, clocking at nearly three hours. Some people may not want to spend such a long time with such depressing characters. Some might be up for it if there was inspirational payoff at the end, but trust me: the ending of the film is in line with the grim nature permeating the film. Despite its flaws and the bleakness of the tone, I found myself enraptured by the film. If you are up for a heavy few hours – or just want to see comedy queen Russell showing dramatic range – give Mourning Becomes Electra a chance. I can’t exactly say you won’t regret it, but I can say you’ll at least be intrigued by this complicated family.