The Voice of the Turtle runs an hour and forty minutes. There’s a split about forty minutes in and, in the second hour, leads Eleanor Parker and Ronald Reagan are playing slightly different characters. Screenwriter John Van Druten adapted his play (with additional dialogue from Charles Hoffman) and had to “clean things up.” The play was very controversial on release in 1943, dealing with affairs and sexual desire and the like; the movie’s sanitized. There’s one shockingly direct mention but it goes by so fast, it’s like it never happened. And then there’s a clothing malfunction scene, which seems risque, but isn’t explored. Maybe it was a big moment in the play and they wanted to keep it?
A faithful adaptation of the play is, frankly, unimaginable with the cast and production of the film. Voice of the Turtle plays like a strange attempt at big budget slapstick. The production values are mostly great. The sets, the backlot street scenes. The frequent projection composites, transporting Reagan and Parker to New York City locations, don’t come off. But Sol Polito’s photography is nice regardless. And Rapper isn’t a bad director. He does really well when Turtle isn’t in its “stage setting,” Parker’s apartment. Once they’re in the apartment, Rapper directs everything like its funny, even when it’s not. Nothing when it shouldn’t be, but the script introduces Parker’s eccentric neatness tendencies (way too late) and Rapper seems to think it’s the best physical comedy ever.
It’s not. It’s not even funny. In the context of the narrative, given how upset Parker is during some of the sequences, it’d be insensitive if Rapper weren’t generally oblivious with how to direct the apartment sequences. Reagan and Parker share sad faces, hugs, kisses, and comic setpieces. Everything comes off contrived, which Reagan and Parker help counteract.
Second-billed Parker is the lead. Reagan only gets one real scene to himself–a walk in front of a projection of Central Park–but neither of them gets much to do. Parker gets more because she’s also got this subplot involving getting a role with a lecherous middle-aged actor and being oblivious. It’s diverting, because Parker playing a solvent but unsuccessful actress is interesting, while her being sad over scummy ex-boyfriend Kent Smith dumping her isn’t interesting. For the first forty, Parker nevers get to lead a scene, she’s always playing backup to Smith, Eve Arden, or Reagan. But the first forty minutes are somehow more successful, just due to lack of ambition. It’s a comedy of errors.
Sure, the errors involve Arden dumping visiting soldier Reagan because a better prospect is in town (Wayne Morris) and Parker getting stuck entertaining him, but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be risque. Arden gives it the right amount of wink and Parker plays along.
Parker’s good. She never has a particularly great moment. The third act is particularly rough, with Reagan getting better stuff to do. Parker just gets to clean. One can only imagine how good she would’ve been in the play.
Reagan’s likable without ever being particularly appealing. He does slightly better with romantic sincerity than he does with the initially jilted booty call. He has no sense of comic timing, which doesn’t end up hurting the film since Rapper doesn’t have any either.
The supporting cast is either fine or negligible enough not to make a difference. Arden’s fine–she’s good in the first twenty, but the script turns her into a caricature (as far as dialogue, maybe not intention) for the last hour. It’s too bad. Morris is a little too absurd. Smith doesn’t have his full part–in the play, he’s married and Parker’s his mistress; in the movie, he’s just a moustached jerk. Still, if he did have more of a part, Smith probably wouldn’t be able to handle it. He’s doltish.
John Emery has an awesome scene. It probably would’ve been great if he and Parker could have implied premarital sex existed, but instead, it’s just fun.
Max Steiner’s score is way too much. He goes overboard trying to give the romance some melodramatic musical flare, amping it up to the point it comes off inappropriate. It’s too much, given how lightly Rapper and the script approach things.
The Voice of the Turtle is charming thanks to its leads and the nice production values. Knowing about the play explains many incongruities, but doesn’t excuse Rapper, Van Druten, and Hoffman’s failures to fix them. With Parker, Reagan, and Arden, it wouldn’t have been hard to produce a solid, innocuous, slight comedy.
Directed by Irving Rapper; screenplay by John Van Druten and Charles Hoffman, based on the play by Van Druten; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by Rudi Fehr; music by Max Steiner; produced by Hoffman; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Eleanor Parker (Sally Middleton), Ronald Reagan (Sergeant Bill Page), Eve Arden (Olive Lashbrooke), Kent Smith (Kenneth Bartlett), Wayne Morris (Comm. Ned Burling), John Emery (George Harrington), and John Holland (Henry Atherton).