Monday, May 15, 2023

Happy as the Grass Was Green (1973)

          Long on humanistic sociocultural messaging and short on cinematic polish, Happy as the Grass Was Green—subsequently retitled Hazel’s People—uses tensions stemming from antiwar activism as a device for exploring the gulf between an isolated Mennonite community in Pennsylvania and the larger world beyond the community’s borders. Working from a novel by Merle Good, writer-director Charles Davis—a journeyman Irish actor who periodically worked behind the camera—finds a clumsy way into the story. After a murkily described confrontation between activists and cops during which a young man from the Mennonite community was killed, the dead man’s brother and a non-Mennonite friend travel to Pennsylvania for the funeral. Once there, the non-Mennonite friend, longhaired rebel Eric (Graham Beckel), becomes infatuated with the simple life—and with Hazel (Rachel Thomas), the pretty and willful daughter of a Mennonite family. Eric extends his stay in Pennsylvania indefinitely as he learns about the community, finds solace in Christianity, and contemplates making a permanent home with the Mennonites.
          To characterize the plot machinations that complicate Eric’s journey as trite would be to undervalue the sincerity of this enterprise. Happy as the Grass Was Green suffers from bland technical execution and dull pacing and uneven acting, but it’s plain everyone involved tried to convey truthfulness. Apparently only three actors—Beckel, Pat Hingle, and Geraldine Page—came from outside the Mennonite community, so it’s noteworthy that the narrative trains a critical eye on its subject matter. Some characters are depicted as cruel and judgmental and petty, while others are shown exploiting illegal immigrants for cheap labor. So even though the picture ultimately venerates the Mennonites as pious indviduals who center compassion and work in their lives, Happy as the Grass Was Green does not echo the sanctimonious proseltyzing one too often encounters in bad Christian films of the ’70s. As a dramatic experience, Happy as the Grass Was Green underwhelms, but as an attempt at what might be deemed religious anthropology, it’s admirable. That said, one wishes Davis had featured Page more prominently since she is so much more skilled than her fellow cast members, with all due respect to Hingle’s comforting avuncular quality and to Beckel’s earnestness.

Happy as the Grass Was Green: FUNKY


Polish Fixer said...

This movie is such a classic!

Barry Miller said...

Belongs on any serious list of lost and obscure 1970's American films that deserve significant rediscovery and reappraisal into the unique qualities of their historicity within that specific decade's unprecedented sociopolitical criticism of all established authority structures and traditional institutions.