Let's see... We enjoy period costume dramas. We love cinematic disaster. We adore Miss Lana Turner. What would happen if all three things converged in one movie?? Oh, they did.. in 1947's Green Dolphin Street! If you are unfamiliar with Green Dolphin Street, you probably aren't alone as it is not one of Hollywood's most heavily-remembered classics, but that isn't to say that it isn't expensive, eye-filling and more than a little bit entertaining!
The movie was born of a (fairly short-lived) contest that MGM once held each year, awarding one novel a hefty cash prize for being the most comfortably adaptable to cinema screens. The English author of the book, Elizabeth Goudge, had penned (and would continue to compose) many short stories, novels and children's books when her “Green Dolphin Country” was published in 1944. Changed to “Green Dolphin Street” for the U.S. and for the film, it was one of only two of the MGM prize-winners to actually come to fruition as a movie (the other being Raintree County in 1957, from a 1948 novel.) Her works, including this one, often had an element of spiritual catharsis.
The story begins in a small village along the English Channel where well-to-do Edmund Gwenn and his wife Gladys Cooper are raising their two lovely daughters Lana Turner and Donna Reed. (The girls have the vaguely similar names of Marianne and Marguerite, respectively.)
The village is situated close to an imposing convent, set high atop an isolated, towering cliff which can only be reached during low tide. The Reverend Mother (Dame May Whitty) receives notice that a former resident of the village is about to return home after long being away and this news sends her scurrying to see Cooper in order to prepare her.
The one returning home is a heavy-drinking doctor, Frank Morgan, once the great love of Cooper's life who was deemed not suitable for a lady of her station. He had left the village rather than stay and watch as she was paired with the wealthy, but unimpressive-looking, Gwenn. Now a widower returning decades later with a handsome son (Richard Hart), his presence threatens to upset the happy balance that Cooper has achieved with her husband Gwenn.
Cooper wishes to go to see Morgan and ask that he downplay their prior romance for appearance's sake, but before she can get there, her own two daughters trot across the street (Green Dolphin St., of course!) to make their presence known. Turner, the more headstrong and ambitious of the two, wastes no time in pointing out Hart's deficiencies, while the more demure Reed simply looks on fondly.
Cooper does get to speak to Morgan and he gallantly agrees to act as if they are no more than friendly old neighbors and acquaintances. Before long, Hart is squiring the two young ladies around, leading to something of a love triangle in which Hart has eyes for Reed, but both Turner and Reed are attracted to him.
Meanwhile, a local resident and woodcarver (Van Heflin) is a long-time secret admirer of Turner's and occasionally arranges for little bouquets of flowers to be given to her. This doesn't exactly thrill the lady he's been involved with on a carnal basis, who threatens to go to her brother and air her complaints.
One evening, Heflin shows up at Morgan's house for aid to a badly cut arm. Hart and Morgan get him patched up, but when Morgan says he must report the injury to the police, Heflin implores him not to do so. The man he tangled with (his jilted girlfriend's protective brother) is dead, in self defense, but nonetheless dead. He goes off to seek work on the Green Dolphin, a ship that's docked in the nearby harbor. Meanwhile, Hart continues to spend time with the two pretty sisters.
Though his heart belongs to Reed, Hart keeps accidentally winding up in one-on-one dates with Turner because he can't tell one from another when they are standing in their bedroom window across the street and up one flight! He is fond enough of Turner, who is dazzlingly beautiful and forward-thinking, but far prefers the delicate, sweet-natured Reed.
After a spontaneous and delightful day on board the Green Dolphin, which Turner considers a sign, since Hart lives on Green Dolphin St., she declares that Hart needs to enlist in the navy. This is in order to make a gentleman out of him and to make him worthy of the hand of a true lady in marriage. Already far more outspoken and free-thinking than most young women of her era, she goes about coercing her father Gwenn into footing the bill for Hart's seafaring enlistment and education, all the while knowing it will lead to her own marriage to the man.
Hart heads off for the first leg of his lengthy stint as a navy man and after a considerable amount of time has passed, comes back home for a visit. Turner arranges to have him to her house for dinner and decks herself out in another showy gown. Unfortunately, before they can even sit down, Morgan's housekeeper (Moyna MacGill) comes bursting in to say that Morgan has had a seizure. Soon after, Morgan expires, leaving Hart practically alone in the world.
All along, Hart's heart has to belonged to Reed and he asks her to wait for him as he continues his lengthy odyssey as a sailor and, ultimately, an officer in the navy. While in China, he goes to a murky, smoky vendor and buys a necklace for Reed from a Eurasian girl. He pays a fellow sailor to make certain that it is shipped on the next departing boat along with a note for Reed, expressing his love for her and his intentions of marriage.
Despite this, he returns to the store for some rice wine (and God knows what else) with the seductive young proprietress. After a cozy nestle outside the back of her shop for a sip of the stuff, he next reawakens on a filthy street with his hand lying in a trench where villagers are dumping their liquid waste! His uniform is mostly gone, as is all his money, and he's nursing one hell of a hangover. The worse news is that his ship is gone and now he is considered a deserter!
He's fortunate that the Green Dolphin happens to be in port. (Small world, ain't it??) He stows away on board and eventually heads to New Zealand. Once there, he is supposed to go to work for a missionary, as arranged by the Green Dolphin's captain, but instead he heads to the local watering hole where he is reunited with Heflin, now an accepted local resident, friendly with the Maori tribespeople. The two of them join up to work Heflin's curry business deep in the woods.
Back home, Turner and Reed believe Hart to be dead after his Chinese drugging, disappearance and apparent desertion. One day, a letter comes to the house from Hart, causing Turner to faint dead away (but fortunately right into her key light!) Once sufficiently recovered, the letter is read by Cooper and, in it, Hart proposes marriage... to TURNER! Turner is practically licking her chops about this while Reed is crestfallen.
It turns out that Hart, having written the letter while in a drunken stupor, wrote down the wrong name. (I guess this is sort of the 19th century version of shouting out the wrong partner's name during sex?) He has no idea that he's even done it until the Green Dolphin (natch!) pulls into port and there on the deck is Turner, not Reed. Heflin has to convince him to suck it up and marry her rather than send her back on another six month sea voyage.
Hart and Turner are married and Turner establishes a near-instant dislike for Heflin, completely unaware that he had once been her ardent secret admirer and must now witness his best friend being wed to her. She insists that they head directly to Heflin and Hart's compound, now a lumber camp thanks to their newest venture, where she can set up house.
She unpacks all the doilies and bric-a-brac (and dresses!) that she brought with her while her servant girl (Linda Christian) has to put it all away. Turner is no small-thinker and has a head for business, too, quite a shocking thing for her day. She believes that that river is the key to success in the lumber business and that they could increase their profits tremendously by using a barge to transport their timber rather than the traditional trails on land.
Back home, Reed is about to experience the very worst day of her life. Cooper has fallen ill and is about to die. In a truly wondrous scene, she calls Gwenn and Reed close to her so that she can express her true feelings to them about the life they've shared.
No sooner has Cooper passed on until MacGill presents Reed with a letter from Hart, which Reed can't bring herself to read. MacGill proceeds to read it aloud, revealing that Turner is pregnant and due to give birth to the couple's first child. This would be enough of a blow in the wake of her beloved mother's death, but the bad news is not over. Her father Gwenn has too passed on at the side of his deceased wife!
This is positively more than she can take and she darts out of the house and walks, walks, walks to the shoreline of the convent where she collapses in the sand. Awoken when the tide begins to rush back in, she finds that she is cut off and cannot get back home. She darts into a cave once used by pirates in order to resist being thrashed by the incoming water.
This cave, shown previously when Hart was exploring the area, has a near-vertical tunnel that stretches up and up and up to the top of the mount where the convent is situated. Reed, in a simultaneously gripping and corny sequence, perilously, grittily makes this climb, scuffing her hands, tearing her dress and wearily pulling herself to the light at the end of the tunnel (get it?)
Once there, she crawls to a rarely-used door and knocks until she collapses. Reverend Mother Whittty takes her in, patches her up and tries to console her, giving her a small religious book that she treasures and which she believes will help Reed to cope and to find her way.
In New Zealand, we see the pregnant (but not visibly so) Turner receiving a gift from Heflin, a hand-carved cradle with a little seahorse on the front (not a dolphin?) She is miserable that her marriage doesn't seem to be working despite her love of Hart and all her best efforts. Heflin, of course, still loves her himself, but won't let on this fact to her.
Hart sets out on a barge that is loaded down with timber and Turner begs him to stay and let Heflin take it to port instead. He explains that it is his place to transport the beams and reassures her that she has been an ideal wife to him.
Turner is next shown needle-pointing near the cradle Heflin made and listening to the Maori workers labor to cut down and mill the nearby trees. Suddenly, though, there is silence and she acts Christian to find out what is happening.
Christian doesn't even make it out of the house before a violent earthquake occurs! The walls shake as she and Turner are tossed around, ultimately thrown to the floor where Turner tries to find shelter under a table while screaming her head off continuously.
The earthquake continues, shaking loose gigantic trees that keep falling over. Howling natives run here and there, but nearly always wind up directly in the path of an enormous, toppling tree!
The effects here are the best seen to that point since San Francisco (1936) and it's exciting to see the land coming apart, with the occasional tribesman falling in, as Heflin races to Turner's aid and has to carry her across unsteady ground that is bubbling up with gases and debris. He and Christian finally get the pregnant, unconscious Turner to safety.
Mother nature is far from through with these folks, however. In another well-staged sequence, a craggy cliff miles away from Heflin begins to give way, spewing a raging torrent of water through a newly-formed crevasse and causing a flash flood.
Hart is drifting down the river when he hears the sounds of the ocean, yet he is nowhere near the ocean yet! He turns to see a gigantic surge of water coming down the river behind him and is powerless to do anything about it. His and the other accompanying boats are tossed about like toys, with everything lost in the bargain.
Once again, Turner has no way of knowing if Hart is alive or dead, though he turns up alive again. She has since had the baby, a girl, and just after introducing father to daughter, has to be given more bad news. The Green Dolphin has been destroyed by a tidal wave, its kindly captain along with it. (Sadly, this event was filmed, in an elaborate shipwreck scene, but cut from the film before its release. This lobby card below depicts part of it.)
Now, with their compound and business destroyed, Hart and Heflin rebuild their homes in a more traditional manner and begin to reestablish themselves. However, in another serious turn of events, the Maoris have begun an uprising. Heflin wants to get Turner and her daughter out of the area, but she insists that a barricade wall be built and that they stand their ground. This turns out to be a great mis-judgement as the natives tear through the wall and capture Hart, Turner and the little girl!
The threesome is being held in a dark, dirty hut as the tribespeople chant and assemble with torches, ready to kill. Fortunately, Heflin has enough pull still, thanks to his years of friendliness and consideration of the Maoris, to come inside the settlement and escort the bedraggled family to safety once more.
Now Hart and Turner have decided to go into the sheep/wool business in another locale, but this time Heflin opts out, preferring to seek his own fortune and quit playing fifth wheel to the couple's relationship.
This new venture is a success and Turner is now shown in resplendent clothing and with beautiful jewelry and hairstyles. (When Lana Turner went brunette in the 1950s, I thought it was easily her most unattractive period ever, but this light brown shade is surprisingly flattering and she is often close to her most beautiful in this movie.)
Even though they are financially secure in the extreme and even reasonably happy, Turner wants to go home, to Green Dolphin St., and see her sister Reed. It seems Reed has determined to enter the convent and is now a novitiate! Hart agrees to leave their hard-won home and go back to where it all began.
Back at the family home, Turner is dealt a devastating blow when her daughter unearths the necklace that Hart had once sent to Reed, along with a note proclaiming his love and his intent to marry her. Just when she thought that they'd achieved a level of happiness and contentment, she is forced to face the fact that her husband had never intended to marry her at all!
The seemingly impossible convent,by the way, was inspired by a real-life place, a monastery called Mont Saint-Michel, located in Normandy.
here already to the dazzlingly craggy and fascinating Ms. Cooper. Despite often portraying gorgon mothers to Bette Davis and others, she could also be called upon to display great sensitivity and caring in roles like this one. Though pushing sixty at the time of filming Dolphin, she is occasionally lit in such a way that one can see remnants of the face that was once dubbed the most beautiful in all England. Cooper had been Oscar nominated for 1942's Now, Voyager (losing to Teresa Wright in Mrs. Miniver), 1943's The Song of Bernadette (losing to Katina Paxinou in For Whom the Bell Tolls) and 1964's My Fair Lady (losing to Lila Kedrova in Zorba the Greek.) She died of pneumonia in 1971 at the age of eighty-two.