Sep 7, 2018

On DVD: Pier Angeli in Fred Zinnemann's Teresa (1951)

Though she never emerged as a major star, the Italian-born Pier Angeli made a mark on Hollywood with a persona that combined serene self-assurance and melancholy. Here in her Hollywood debut, she plays the titular role of Teresa (1951), a post-WWII drama about Philip (John Ericson), a baby-faced soldier who courts and marries the young Italian, who then comes to America with him after the war. While the story is for the most part about his struggles during and after his military service, the ads for the film feature Angeli, and for good reason. She is the heart and blazing star of this intimate production now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Teresa begins in the midst of World War II, where Philip is so overwhelmed by fear that he cannot fulfill his duties as a soldier. He is mentored by the more seasoned Sergeant Dobbs, played by Ralph Meeker with more depth than his lines offer on the page. He makes you want to ditch Philip and see what untold tales linger behind those knowing eyes.

Philip meets Teresa, a tender-hearted local villager, and quickly charms her and her family. They are married after the war and following a brief separation, are reunited in America. There they find new worries as Philip’s mother (Patricia Collinge) cannot endure her baby boy marrying, and a foreigner no less. She tortures Teresa with criticism while her weary husband (Richard Bishop) and friendly daughter (Peggy Ann Garner) run interference as best they can.

The screenplay is by Rebel Without a Cause (1955) scribe Stewart Stern, and much like in that film, the characters here are approached with sympathy and acceptance for their flaws. Their weaknesses are made clear, but so is their loneliness and vulnerability.

Collinge is a monstrous mother. It’s clear that her smothering is the root of Philip’s troubles and yet Stern takes you into her broken heart. She has destroyed her family, but not out of malice. Her fears have taken over and she is as much a victim as anyone.

Teresa was John Ericson’s first film for MGM. It is one of a handful of features he would make for the studio before decamping to television for the bulk of his career. He manages to draw some gentle appeal out of an often aggravating character, though you do sometimes wonder if Teresa made the right decision.

It is Angeli who brings life to Teresa though. Still a teenager, she has the emotional grounding and fresh-faced allure that Ingrid Bergman exuded in her early films. In direct contrast to Philip, her Teresa is wise beyond her years, innocent, but aware enough that leering soldiers are to be avoided and that her overprotective brother need not worry so much about her. Unlike Philip, her mother has allowed her to mature and the war has taken care of the rest. 

It’s a performance that should have led to a bigger career. Watching Angeli glow her way through the simplest of scenes inspires longing for more of her magic. It is a bittersweet taste of what could have been.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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