A father’s eulogy for a woman who died too young might not seem like ideal source material for a screen drama, but William Allen White’s celebration of his daughter, Mary, was unusual in many regards. Written in the White family’s hometown of Emporia, Kansas, in 1921, the eulogy was less a lament about the brutality of fate and more a tribute to an inspirational spirit. Moreover, the piece gave Mary White a measure of immortality because the eulogy earned a Pulitzer Prize for William, a progressive newspaperman who was friendly with many of the great minds of his day.
As written for the screen by Caryl Ledner and directed by Jud Taylor, Mary White boasts depth and resonance—in addition to conveying an impression of what made Mary special, thereby telling an eternal story about the promise of youth, the movie positions Mary as a proto-feminist who became acquainted with and modeled herself after suffragette Jane Addams. As such, Mary White isn’t just some sepia-toned example of sentimental Americana. It’s a lyrical and rigorous character study well suited to the Ms. Magazine era.
The movie opens with a theatrical gesture, because William (Ed Flanders) speaks directly to camera while setting the scene. Next, the picture transitions to a series of illustrative vignettes. These culminate in Mary’s death during a horseback-riding accident—a sad irony, given her expertise in the saddle. Thereafter, Mary White weaves through flashbacks depicting Mary’s eventful adolescence. She debates with her parents about her plans for the future, challenging even their forward-thinking attitudes with her view that women should not have limits placed upon them by society. She agitates to end segregation at her school, learning hard lessons about how activism impacts people. She disrupts a KKK rally. She takes an illuminating trip to New York City with her father, forcing him to recognize that despite her youth, she aspires to being considered an equal.
While Flanders’ effortless way of conveying charm, intelligence, and morality anchors Mary White, Kathleen Beller’s performance in the title role is crucial. This is arguably her best-ever work, especially since most of her other ’70s and ’80s roles played up her voluptuous figure instead of her dramatic abilities. Mary White also benefits from a fine supporting cast—including Diana Douglas, Fionnula Flanagan, Tim Matheson, and Donald Moffat—as well as rich cinematography by Bill Butler and a score by Leonard Rosenman that evokes Aaron Copland’s rousing melodies.
Mary White: GROOVY