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Foster Child Who Needs a Caring Father

Foster Child Who Needs a Caring Father

NR | 1h 25 min | Drama | 1948

Novelist Ruth Moore often wrote of families whose fates were tied to Maine’s shores: its waters, its boats, its horizons, distant yet beckoning. Fittingly, Henry King’s screen adaptation of Moore’s novel “Spoonhandle” opens with text that reassures audiences that all outdoor shots were filmed in Maine.

King’s film is a coming-of-age story about pre-teen “state kid,” orphan Donny Mitchell (Dean Stockwell) and his yearning for acceptance and self-acceptance.

Welfare Board staffer Ann Freeman (Jean Peters) pauses plans to marry Hod Stillwell (Dana Andrews) on discovering that he’s set on becoming a fisherman. Haunted by the death at sea of Thatcher, her friend Molly’s husband, Ann isn’t ready to spend a lifetime worrying about Stillwell out at sea. Molly Thatcher tells Ann, “Ain’t a woman in this town that ain’t lost a husband or boy or someone.”

(L–R) Hod Stillwell (Dana Andrews), Mary McKay (Ann Revere), Donny Mitchell (Dean Stockwell), and welfare board staffer Ann Freeman (Jean Peters), in “Deep Waters.” (20th Century Fox)

Meanwhile, Donny, despite having lost both his father and uncle to an unruly sea, stays under its spell. So, with her welfare hat on, Ann asks friend Mary McKay (Ann Revere) to care for Donny. Perhaps Mary’s disciplinarian ways will restrain him from drifting into deviance while he’s still impressionable. But Donny, watching Hod and his seafood-business partner out on their boat with lobsters and fish, is drawn to the sea, seemingly irrevocably.

Donny flirts with risk, adventure, danger; stealing a boat or a camera or a lobster, or simply playing truant. He risks a lot, in return for what he’s after: respect and freedom. Slowly, he graduates from feeling entitled to these ideals to earning them. He figures that his skills, handy around a house or a boat, are all he needs to succeed, with or without a business partner. But he no longer has caring parents, who could impart the right values to make his success meaningful.

Hod tries to fill that space, teaching that only a work-ethic that avoids shortcuts respects the work-ethic of others: “Do you think it’s right for somebody else to pay for your mistakes? Would you want a partner that didn’t pay his debts?”

Andrews is exceptional as the hyper-masculine but caring man, Peters as the hyper-feminine but equally caring woman, and Stockwell as the boy struggling to accept himself because he can’t believe that others accept him. Together, they show how coastal townsmen think that women warning their men off the sea don’t care about them, and how townswomen are warning their men precisely because they care.

Family Values, Mature Fatherhood 

King’s scenes of a sea storm, a birthday party, a courtroom, and a welfare board office spotlight the family; these are shores of sorts to which individuals can return for solace and strength, even if they must venture solo now and then, for work, for play, for fulfilment.

(L–R) Hod Stillwell (Dana Andrews), Ann Freeman (Jean Peters), and Joe Sanger (Cesar Romero), in “Deep Waters.” (20th Century Fox)

Ann discovers that all Donny needs is “love, guidance from someone he trusts.” But how to trust someone who’s not there for you tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year? What in Hod’s masculinity makes him a good father?

Hod doesn’t allow his individuality to degenerate into individualism. He has his own island, his own house, his own boat, but he’s unselfish. He’s sympathetic toward his business partner’s fixation with farming, rather than fishing. Hod’s the one asking the women, Ann and Mary, to be more sensitive to Donny’s pride in working on his own, earning on his own, and to be more patient with Donny’s restlessness. He’s the one wanting to adopt Donny.

Simultaneously, Hod begs for balance. Letting Donny leave his shore for a while, he seems to say, is the surest path to, eventually, savoring the sight of him returning. Giving Donny a degree of supervised freedom is wiser than unthinkingly stifling him. Later, Ann admits that there seemed to be something so “deep-rooted, so strong and compelling about this calling for the sea that it was useless to fight against it.”

Ruth Moore, April 1956. This year is the 120th anniversary of the novelist’s birth. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

King contrasts the masculine instinct of embracing risk, adventure, and danger with the feminine instinct of embracing security, stability, and safety; women and men harbor both, to varying extents. But people won’t get (or stay) married, or rear children, if they swear only by instinct, or by what comes naturally.

King’s saying that adulthood only implies maturity, it doesn’t assure it. Mature adulthood demands that, like boats, we aim for beckoning horizons, but stay disciplined enough to return to our shores, anchored enough to respect our piers and ports. Without shores to stand on or set out from, we’re more likely to sink than sail. We may seem like adults, but we’ll seldom be mature.

“Deep Waters” (MovieStillsDB)

You can watch “Deep Waters” on YouTube.

‘Deep Waters’
Director: Henry King
Starring: Dana Andrews, Dean Stockwell, Jean Peters
Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Release Date: July 22, 1948
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

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