The Favourite Sister: Jean Simmons as Barbara Leslie in Until they Sail

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During the whole month of August, TCM has a special event called “Summer Under the Stars”: one day, one star. Movies starring this star are broadcast on the channel from the morning until the night. Unfortunately, I don’t have TCM on my television… but that doesn’t prevent me to participate to the 2016 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Kristen from the inspirational blog Journeys in Classic Film. For this blogathon, each participant chooses a topic related to one star on the schedule. Today, on August 30, TCM is honouring Jean Simmons’s career. As she is an actress I absolutely adore, I had to choose her as a topic for my entry. I will more precisely talk about her performance and her character in the underrated 1957’s Until they Sail.
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Promotional banner for Jean Simmons day on TCM
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Until they Sail isn’t Robert Wise’s most well-known film, but it remains a secret hidden gem and proves, once again, his versatility as a movie director. I mean, the man could direct every type of movies: science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still), noirs (Born to Kill), dramas (Until they sail), musicals (West Side Story, The Sound of Music), horror (The Haunting), etc. I believe, he and Michael Curtiz were among the most versatile movie directors in Hollywood.
But let’s get back to our main movie. Until they Sail certainly has a stellar cast, not only including Jean Simmons, but also Joan Fontaine (Jean and Joan in the same film: that’s just idealistic for me!), Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Sandra Dee (in her first feature), Charles Drake and Wally Cassell.
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All the actors are brilliant, but today, we’ll focus on the angelic Jean Simmons.
Until They Sail takes place in Christchurch, New-Zealand during the World War II. The men from the town have left to go fight on the front. Barbara Leslie Forbes (Jean Simmons) and her sisters Anne (Joan Fontaine), Delia (Piper Laurie) and Evelyn (Sandra Dee) are on their own having previously lost their parents and having a brother, Kit, left with the army. The city is now a women’s one and seems quite empty with this absence of male figures. But the Leslie sisters manage as best they can to continue their life normally. However, Delia, who has just been married and is unhappy with it, moves to Wellington to work in the navy. The fear of the war is always felt in the sisters’ hearts, especially when they are thinking about what may happen to their relative, especially to Kit and Barbara’s husband, Mark. This lack of men doesn’t last long when American marines arrive to Christchurch. Anne will meet Capt. Richard Bates (Charles Drake) and will fall in love with him, and Barbara will make the acquaintance of Capt. Jack Harding (Paul Newman) during a visit to her sister in Wellington. They’ll soon realise that love in wartime is not an easy thing to manage.
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Until they Sail was based on a story by James A. Michener and written by Robert Anderson. The movie is not known as the most famous one for any of the actors and unfortunately wasn’t a commercial success on its release. However, it can be considered a worthy one and deserves more recognition. Any fan of Simmons/Fontaine/Dee/Laurie or Newman has to make sure not to miss it. It’s a movie that makes you think. For once, it shows you how the civilians, mostly women, used to live during the war. We never see the men on the front. If we see soldiers, it will always be on the civilian side where there’s no battle. The battle that is presented to us here, is the temptation by the women not to feel too lonely and try to live as normally as possible.
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Jean Simmons and Joan Fontaine are the two main reasons why I first watched this film. They are two actresses I simply adore. So, the idea of seeing them in the same film was nothing but very appealing to me. And I was not disappointed! I also love Paul Newman, and it allowed me to discover the forever sweet Sandra Dee and Pipe Laurie, who also turns out to be a fine actress (more often remember for the role of the crazy mother in Brian de Palma’s Carrie).
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Joan Fontaine and Jean Simmons playing with young Sandra Dee on the set of the film
In the movie, it’s Jean Simmons who has the leading role. The film is mainly focused on her and the story is seen through her eyes. All the four sisters have an interesting personality: Anne is the serious one, Evelyn is the sweet and innocent one, Delia is the rebellious one and Barbara is the wise one.
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A sweet picture of the four sisters
Barbara is the first sister to be introduced to us. What we first hear are her thoughts. Jean Simmons’s voice is one I could recognize everywhere. It’s clear, melodious and well articulated. She certainly had one of the loveliest voices in Hollywood. Actually, her voice makes me think of Audrey Hepburn’s one. We can notice something quite special during the film about this voice: even when Barbara is emotive, she manages to speak as clearly as possible. I honestly think Jean Simmons would have made an awesome diction teacher!
Barbara is a real friend for her sisters. She is compassionate and probably is the one who thinks the more about her sisters. She tries to understand their problems and help them the best she can by giving them wise advice. She comforts them, share her goodwill with them and sometimes tries too hard to understand what is impossible to understand.
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Even if she’s not the older sister (Anne is), it’s easy to say that she kind of play the role of the strong mother.
The problem is, Barbara doesn’t think enough about herself. She has too much to handle concerning her sisters and neglect herself. Of course, she can count on them too, but her fear of losing her strength insists her to stay aside. She worries about everybody, her sisters, the faith of the men who are at war and forget to be happy. Concerning that, the real inspiration would be Evelyn who, despite the fact of being conscious of the events, still manages to enjoy herself in the moroseness of Christchurch.
Barbara doesn’t easily get angry, but when she does, the main reason is “the war”. She is angry because of the war (which is totally understandable). She’s also an honest person, but will never tell the truth to someone in a way to hurt them. She is too kind for that. She’s calm, but she can explode. Is she resisting too much? In a memorable scene, she gives a passionate kiss to Capt. Jack Harding. This moment is intense and it looks like Barbara is releasing herself from something. Maybe she’s looking for someone she can count on to forget her loneliness. In a previous scene, she looks at her sister Anne and Capt. Richard Bate kissing each other. Her melancholic look makes us guess she’d like to have someone for her too, and that she’s probably missing her husband who is on the front. We certainly feel sorry for her.
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Barbara often looks serious, sad and lost in her thoughts. We guess she’s suffering from a high feeling of loneliness. She often has this melancholic look in her face and we wonder what she’s thinking about. However, she can be happy too, and that’s how Jean Simmons shows us her facility of moving from one emotion to another. She can move from sadness to joy in no time. Those moments of joy allow us to admire Jean Simmons’s smile who is one of the most glorious smiles ever.
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Jean Simmons is an actress who never needed to overact to make us understand what her character is feeling and to reach us. She’s an actress who can express a lot of things only with her gaze and subtle facial expressions. There’s this moment  [spoiler] when her character Babara announces the death of brother Kit to her sister Delia. [end of spoiler] Here, she simply breaks our heart, but she doesn’t have to do much for it. It’s just the way her eyes are looking at Delia and the way she chooses to speak. This is not that much felt in the tone of her voice, but more in the rhythm of her talk. The way she simply says “Delia, Kit’s dead” is enough to make us understand the feeling of sadness that is omnipresent in the house.
She’ll also make us have tears in her eyes in this scene when she [spoiler] receives a telegram announcing the death of her husband Mark. She doesn’t even look at the letter, but simply goes away quietly in her bedroom while her sisters are looking at her and feeling sorry for her. Then, one she is alone, she bursts into tears. We don’t see Jean’s face at this moment, but only hear her cries and that’s enough for us to understand her suffering. [End of spoiler]
Jean Simmons certainly was a very natural actress and also managed to make a great teamwork with every actor of the cast. We are looking forward to the moments with her and Paul Newman as they are those where Barbara kind of expresses her true side, the weaknesses she tries to hide to her sisters so they’ll see her as a strong person. Those moments between the two actors are not exactly love scenes like the ones we see in typical classic Hollywood films. There’s something kind of “modern” and more realistic about them. It’s not a Cinderella story. She gets along well with him, but on what level?
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Jean and Paul having fun on the set of the film
Jean Simmons is often a synonym of tenderness and this is pretty well expressed in this film by the way she behaves, the way she talks and the words she chooses to express herself. Her tenderness shines through the final moment of the film and her wisdom, in her final lines:
“As they say, to understand is to forgive. Or is it, to understand is not to forgive? I can never remember. “
This simply represents perfectly the nature of Barbara Leslie.
Until they Sail is a film that deserves more recognition. It has a fabulous cast and the story is sad, but beautiful in its own rights. If you haven’t seen it yet, I first invite you to watch the trailer:
I want to thank Kristen for once again having hosted this amazing blogathon! Make sure to take a look at the other entries:
And to those who have the chance to have TCM, consider the luck you have to watch Jean Simmons films all day lol.
See you!
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Jean leaving MGM studios where the movie was shot. A true star!
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3 thoughts on “The Favourite Sister: Jean Simmons as Barbara Leslie in Until they Sail

  1. thanks again for writing about a lesser known film, Virginie!! I haven’t seen it- thanks for the spoiler alerts :). With such a good cast Its definitely a must see !!

    Liked by 1 person

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