"It [the Member of the Wedding] has always been my favorite picture, perhaps because it is not entirely my own." ~ Fred Zinnemann, A Life in the Movies: An Autobiography
The cinematic work of Fred Zinnemann yielded a plethora of classic films. He directed many different genres: thrillers, Westerns, psychological dramas, and war films. Fred Zinnemann became known for making films that contained strong emotional realism and authentic feeling. Zinnemann would win two Academy Awards for directing the movies From Here to Eternity and A Man for All Seasons. Both were stories about a protagonist feeling himself morally right, taking a strong stand against an opposition who often had the higher ground legally or physically. Like his favorite protagonists, Zinnemann would often find himself at odds with the powers in Hollywood who did not always appreciate the messages he often hid, sometimes very superficially hidden, inside his movies. For example, it is only recently that critics have come to read his High Noon where one aged man takes a solo stand against a group of unruly bandits alone after his fellow villagers abandoned him in his time of need so that they may hide from the imposing opposition as a not-so subtle indictment of the Communist Witch Hunt in Hollywood during the late 1940s and early 1950s. In his 1952 film The Member of the Wedding, many of the key features of Fred Zinnemann's present themselves, making it the ideal example of the Zinnemann film.
Stylistically, Zinnemann became renowned for his socially realistic approach to storytelling. According to Dr. John Schultheiss, the movies of Fred Zinnemann "are characterized by an unconventional astringency, a documentary visual style, and an objective tone which is defiantly anti-romantic" (48). The intent of such films was to create something as close to real life as was possible in a fictional story. This is achieved by taking away the glitz and glamour of the so-called Hollywood picture and employing documentary-style filmmaking to a powerful story. The effect is that what is on the screen is more human and far less artificial than the other Tinseltown fare. Like the real world, the stories Zinnemann would make would often end unhappily which is what added to his label as an outsider. In 1930, he met Robert Flaherty who, he stated, would become a huge influence on the young filmmaker. Flaherty would teach him two lessons:
The first, and ultimately the more important, is the need for the movie artist to be as independent as possible from the people who control the financing of a film. There's not much point in undertaking a project if the director merely executes the ideas of others. Pardoxically, the other lesson Flaherty taught him -- albeit unwittingly -- is to know how to accommodate the contributions of others without allowing them to corrupt one's artistic integrity (Schultheiss 49).
He refused to yield to the demands of the Hollywood movie studios who only wanted stories that would make money. This offered him so much personal freedom but also found him struggling to cooperate with the powers that be and struggling to find funding for some of his projects. The Member of the Wedding was, in Zinnemann's words, "a resounding flop declared by the establishment to be fit only for art-house cinema" (Gianetti 104). When a director's movies do not make money, it is difficult to get backers for the next one.
Money is a key theme in the work of Fred Zinnemann. It not only affected how he could make movies, but would appear in the films themselves. This is one of the reasons that Zinnemann's characters, even the romantic ones, could never be wholly lost in each other. "People never live on love in Zinnemann's movies, for one of his major preoccupations is with who pays the bills. He's concerned with the cost of love as well as its value" (Schultheiss 50). With at least one foot in the real world, the characters must be cognizant of their financial status. In The Member of the Wedding, the characters are all of a low class Southern variety. They have little funds and can only imagine some of the finer things in life. According to Zinnemann, it is lack of money that makes a lot of the other evils in life, like racism. "In The Member of the Wedding, racism is shown to be essentially economic in its basis" (Schultheiss 50). Anger at having so little makes a person look for someone to blame outside of themselves for their predicament. The easiest target for such anger is to find a scapegoat who is in some way different from the self; usually the quickest form to find differentiation is in a person's skin color.
Each person fights their individual battle, living lives of quiet desperation. Fred Zinnemann's characters were all fully-fleshed, three-dimensional beings made the more real by the traumatic events in their lives and in their all too human responses to these tragedies. A trademark of Zinnemann's films was a morally strong protagonist who became backed into a corner and forced to stand up for their ethical beliefs despite strong opposition. These were not the macho action stars that modern cinemas think on when the term hero is applied. Rather, these men and women were otherwise unremarkable people, average Joes who were forced into deeds of heroism by situations bigger than they were. In what became known as the "Zinnemann heroine," the director had a habit of creating strong female protagonists who were as complex and as psychologically intricate as their male counterparts. One such example is the 12-year-old Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding. Even a child like Frankie is not spared from the real world. She is already a deprived child with no maternal figure save for the family housekeeper. When she screams at her brother, "Take me! Take me!" The feeling is palpable that she is not only asking to go on this trip with him and his new bride but for someone to take responsibility of her and, in so doing, free her. Summarizing this heart-wrenching scene, Dr. Schultheiss writes:
In the background we can see the lower bodies of the bewildered wedding guests surrounding her. Suddenly two strong arms reach down and help her up. We don't need to guess whose arms reach into frame: only Bernice can understand the child's anguish. Zinnemann's movies are filled with such rituals of humiliation (51).
Frankie's struggle is to find a place of acceptance in a world that constantly rejects her. The sad statement of fact is that, there is no place for the Frankies of the world and that in order to fit in to society she will have to become more of her adult alter ego F. Jasmine with all the potential negatives that go with it. Carson McCullers who wrote the original novel and then adapted it herself into the Broadway play on which the film was based told Zinnemann that Frankie's story was about "the great American disease, loneliness" (Gianetti 105). She is imprisoned in her small life and in her kitchen and will be so unto eternity, even after she moves away. The Member of the Wedding is predominantly a story of being trapped by situations beyond one's control. Critic Louis Gianetti said, "The movie doesn't deal with literal imprisonment, but with various forms of symbolic entrapment. The housekeeper Bernice and the other black characters are trapped by their race in a sleepy Georgia town during the early 1940s" (105-106). Everyone in this little Georgia town is trapped, whether they be trapped because of gender, because of financial detriments, or because of race.
What makes The Member of the Wedding a tragedy, beyond the sadness of the events…