“A man who does not drink wine? This is hard cheese to swallow.”

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Regarding THE HAPPY TIME [Richard Fleisher, 1952], a Stanley Kramer production, five aspects stand out.

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1) It’s the sort of movie that repeatedly thwarts your expectations by not being a musical. The characters are happy-go-lucky stereotypes who bustle around the sets picking up children, grabbing things from each other’s hands, slamming doors and switching their conversations from placid to exasperated at the drop of a music cue. In fact, the main character, Jacques Bonnard [Charles Boyer] is a professional violinist at the local theater, accompanying films as well as whatever’s on the vaudeville stage.

Having just bailed out of Let’s Be Happy [Henry Levin, 1957], I was wary of another saccharine local-color musical, this time with themes of 1920s nostalgia and French [-Canadian] stereotypes instead of pastoral nostalgia and Scottish stereotypes. Even having never heard of the original Broadway play or the 1968 musical based on it, I was sure this was going to be a musical. There’s a song over the opening credits, sung by Boyer himself, interrupted by Boyer’s own introductory narration. But as it turns out, that’s the only song in the movie. And you’ll be tired of it by the end.

Even in the vaudeville theatre what we see is not a song but some gymnastics and a magic act, giving rise to the main plot [magician’s assistant Mignonette flees her cruel master, becomes maid in the Bonnard household, excites jealousy / rivalry / wistfulness among three Bonnard brothers, grandfather, and 14-year-old Bibi]. Also the realism of the locations and the actors is several million percent above that of Let’s Be Happy, which has so many painted backdrops that even though it’s in color you start thinking that tables and chairs, staircases, butlers, etc. are part of the backdrop.

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2) The French stereotypes are not unbearable. The conflict between this French family and the Anglophone city is a bit interesting, especially in Bibi’s struggles with his school administration. They call him “BON-erd” instead of “bo-NAR”. Louis Jourdan’s Pepe Le Pew character Uncle Desmond comes close to unbearable, but he’s so charming, and gets the benefit of having been built up sight-unseen over the first half hour [he’s a salesman with a girl in every port from Kamloops to Moncton to Rouyn-Noranda]. The only real sadness in the movie comes from his fraudulent promises to Mignonette of a new life in “the house at the Gatineau”.

I enjoyed how stilted the dialogue is [tightly adapted from the play], continually reminding us that these are Frenchmen who are speaking English but are really speaking French. Anything to get away from standard Hollywood phrasings. And very rarely are random French words thrown into English sentences.

  • Well, Bibi, it is that Peggy wishes to be your girl.
  • My girl? Look! [indicates bruises] Black and blue!
  • It is how American women show affection. I have been in Detroit.

A big thank you to memorist Robert Fontaine, stage adaptor Samuel A. Taylor, and screenplay adaptor Earl Felton for writing “Look!” and “American women” in these exchanges instead of “Regarde!” and “les dames Americaines”.

Bobby Driscoll as Bibi, apple-cheeked shaver; Gene Collins as Jimmy, who’s about to say “You give me a pain”; Marlene Cameron as Peggy.

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3) One of the French stereotypes is something that is actually found in movies about every ethnic group, exemplified by Uncle Desmond’s edict that “A Bonnard never disappoints a pretty girl”. Quelle chivalrie! What about non-pretty girls? Go hide your head in a bag somewhere. To be fair, Bibi’s love interest [Marlene Cameron] is quite the average looker, even when she gets dolled up at the end of the movie, and he is admonished for not noticing and reciprocating her love.

This Bonnard family motto is distressingly common in entertainment [e.g. Water For Elephants‘s classic syllogism “You’re a beautiful woman. You deserve a beautiful life.” — the only line of dialogue included in some of that film’s trailers].

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4) Former Treasure Island star Bobby Driscoll was 15 when he played Bibi. Marlene Cameron was 17 when she played Peggy. Gene Collins was 20 when he played the school bully, and he had aged about twelve years since playing the sick kid in The Babe Ruth Story four years earlier. He could plausibly be a small man of just about any age. He’s frightening.

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5) The character of Uncle Louis [Kurt Kasznar] merits analysis. He drinks wine all day, is inclined to flights of romantic and artistic fancy, and drives his wife to tears of frustration with his laziness and his insistence that others must share his placid joviality. Nowadays this is a personality type we would not associate with alcoholism — rather, with being a “stoner”. Yet even though the stereotype of the lazy friendly marijuana user is well over 40 years old, it’s associated with youth. Today, an overweight stoner whose wife needs to work all day and all night on the sewing machine to support his teenage daughter would be a much more pathetic figure than Uncle Louis, the equivalent wine stoner of yesteryear.

What happened to the stereotype of the drunkard as as well-meaning, lazy bohemian type? If I see a new movie with a character who drinks booze by the gallon, I expect his wife to be driven to tears of frustration by his mood swings or his violent temper or his physical decline, not by his head-in-the-clouds attitude and lack of ambition.

Kurt Kasznar as Louis Bonnard, wine stoner; Jeanette Nolan as Felice Bonnard, dressmaker; Ann Faber as Yvonne Bonnard, unkempt belle.

  • You’re the cork in my cognac. I must go now.
  • You must listen to me now. Do you hear? Arrange your ears and listen! You have a daughter. Recall to yourself, you have a daughter. An angel from heaven, a pearl among women. And yet this sweet child, this tender blossom, cannot get a husband. Pourquoi?
  • Pourquoi?
  • Pourquoi! Her father drinks wine from a water cooler!
  • [to Felice] Calm your bile. [to Yvonne] Do not fret, my golden pigeon, you will yet strike a man blind with your beauty.

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The Happy Time is on YouTube in what appears to be its entirety, thanks to Louis Jourdan superfan “Kuchlenz“.

Mixed Bag: Criminal minds


Hot Millions [Eric Till, 1968]

Is it true what Wikipedia says? I hope it is. I hope the only good interior footage of the Beatles’ short-lived Apple boutique — the only footage of it actually in use, the shopgirls and customers — has Bob Newhart in it. That would be fantastic. That’s the store where Newhart’s uptight American computer nerd chooses to treat Maggie Smith’s klutzy cockney spinster during her brief attempt to vamp him, in this oddly touching caper comedy.

Rarely does something call to mind A Fish Called Wanda, a film that the word “triumph” seems to describe, though a triumph of I’m not sure what . This comes close, with a caper plot that is really a very simple plan, a very unrealistic plan, and one that the characters frequently ignore, but not for random jokes, more like random moments of heart. Instead of rapid banter, the funny lines are Peter Ustinov’s W.C. Fields-esque asides and other characters’ bemused responses. Enjoy Newhart’s nerd-resentment, Malden’s Texan bravado, and Smith’s airheadery. To compensate for all these slow talkers, the editing is odd. Longish, witty conversations end with a sour note, like every character is unsatisfied with what just happened. Quick-cut montages, like when Ustinov is traveling around Europe setting up fake companies, or when Maggie Smith is getting fired from jobs, are really, really quick-cut. You’ll see an unhurried 20-second cut to establish that a montage is occurring, and the rest of the cuts are like half a second each, and then you’re back to another long conversation and gradually figure out what the heck that montage was about.

Then, as in A Fish Called Wanda, you have very sweet love scenes. Not sex scenes, but, like, people falling in love. These move slowly. We’re led to believe that Maggie Smith’s character can only do one thing competently, play the flute, and her life is aimless and hesitant because she isn’t the sort of person who gets a job doing that. Some scenes that are intended to be uproarious [like when she’s taken her dress off to change the typewriter ribbon] just don’t have the timing to make them anything other than gentle depictions of likeable people. This is especially true in the scenes with the absent-minded genuine computer expert whom Ustinov cons and impersonates. What a nice guy. When the setting shifts to the tropics it starts to seem like one of those soulless Tony Curtis comedies of the period, and hurries to the final scene [over which the credits roll], which returns us to the satisfying pleasantness that makes up most of the movie.

Elsewhere, Karl Malden’s character is the rare movie titan of industry who is unpretentious and thinks his company is doing good work, and even knows something about what the company does. I don’t know how much we can credit the director for this [Eric Till was making his first feature film, and has had a long career mostly in TV, mostly in Canadian TV even], but Till does make us feel fond of Ustinov’s character. Who is, after all, a non-charming, secretive con artist who has very dubious reasons for exploiting people the way he does.

It’s been lamented that Ustinov’s post-Topkapi roles largely came from how “audiences wanted him to be just a funny, foreign fat man”. All I can say is that if Peter Sellers was in this film instead of Ustinov it would have been hard to stand. This is just the sort of role Sellers used to play, and he would have brought such a superior attitude to all the comic exchanges that you’d be reduced to rooting for Bob Newhart and thinking Maggie Smith is certifiably mentally challenged instead of just inattentive to detail. 35 years later Ustinov was Friedrich III of Saxony in Till’s Luther [starring Joseph Fiennes].

”It happened because my favorite director is Eric Till, with whom I worked in the past, and in fact I got an Oscar nomination as a scriptwriter — in collaboration with somebody I never met, and have not met to this day — for a film called ‘Hot Millions,’ which Eric Till directed,” Sir Peter said, referring to the 1968 film in which he also starred. ”I figure he’s the best director I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with several famous ones. He, at the age of 70, suddenly thought of me, at the age of 82, and thought I might be a good Friedrich the Wise.

”I didn’t have anything against it, except that I can hardly walk,” he said. ”But we coped with that because I leaned on things and staggered through the film in some measure. We saw eye to eye about everything, including the lack of a scene in the script, which went in eventually, in which Friedrich meets Luther. It makes it very feeble if he just looks through windows and says, ‘That’s the fellow Luther, down there — no, no, the one on the left.’ And then we were attacked by the theological advisers, who said, ‘There’s no record of them ever having met.’ I said, ‘There’s no record of most people ever having met.’ ”

See The Frog’s Eyebrows for lots more Hot Millions stills.

Straight Time [Ulu Grosbard, 1978]

Jenny: "You did great on your intelligence test." Max: "Yeah, well, you know, I could have told you that."

Ulu Grosbard hasn’t directed many films, but when he does, they’re believable, believable, believable. The camera doesn’t pay attention to anything but the actors, always following them, just a step ahead of their trajectory, in the TV-drama way. No clutter, nothing showy. Grosbard is mostly a theater director and seems to take quiet pride in how the props aren’t there to be an impressive tableau, they’re all things that might be useful to the actors. YouTube user uhhuhhim has uploaded a bunch of scenes from 1995’s Georgia, another Grosbard exemplar of directing that serves the acting. Here’s a domestic scene.

The cast of Straight Time is a roster of people who would become iconic in late middle age or older. Sandy Baron seems about 25 years younger than he did in 1984’s Birdy or his most famous role in the nineties. M. Emmet Walsh seems about 15 years younger than he did in 1984’s Blood Simple. Harry Dean Stanton seems the same age as in 1984’s Repo Man, but he has a youthful Eric-Idle-in-1970 haircut. Gary Busey embodies the guy who never follows things through and resents those who do, in a more lazy than crazy role. Jake Busey, age 6, is adorable and we worry about him. As Busey’s wife, Kathy Bates [a very rare youthful film appearance for her] is a woman who’s embraced a tragic role in life, calling to mind Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy. The one actor I hadn’t heard of, Theresa Russell, has the thoughtful husky voice, long flat hair, serene self-assurance and free-spirited [but under control] approach to relationships that call to mind Scarlett Johansson in In Good Company.  Her character makes weird choices, but seems to know what she’s doing.

Although it’s closely based on a book by noted Los Angeles criminal Eddie Bunker, the movie could really be set in Wichita or Buffalo. Cinematographer Owen Roizman [Three Days of the Condor, The French Connection, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Network] finds no beauty in the L.A. landscape, except maybe the desert vistas that no character wants to venture into. He shows Stanton’s beautiful suburban neighborhood and gleaming swimming pool in that ironic, down-with-superficiality way that makes us know Stanton’s going to whisper “Get me out of here.”

Some people get irritated by Dustin Hoffman, and what could be seen as his attempt to find the perfect pitch for his character and then play that one note throughout the movie. It sometimes seems like he’s being unhelpful to other actors, carrying on with this solo virtuosity. If you’re of the anti-Hoffman persuasion this film will not wow you [His character is Max Dembo. Max mumbles, has mood swings that he keeps to himself until he does something inexplicable, is a hard worker, and has a nice little smile], but to everyone else I can’t help but recommend it. In fact, it goes on the list of best Sidney Lumet films, no matter who directed it.

You know how at the beginning of Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle seems like a born loser starved of love, and you can’t stand the people who won’t give him a helping hand? Straight Time does that better. You know how Dog Day Afternoon has a trio of robbers each with a fatal flaw? Compare the dynamic in Straight Time‘s jewel heist. You know how  Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead has a doomed jewel heist? This one is carried out by guys who aren’t morons. You know the famous sequence in Sexy Beast when Ben Kingsley is recruiting Ray Winstone? Hoffman recruits Harry Dean Stanton away from his suburban lethargy to a new desperate endeavor, in an almost comforting way. They’re friends who love and admire but don’t trust each other. Like Sonny Wortzik’s plan, Max’s plan would go off perfectly, with no risk, unless something unlucky happens. How unlucky is he?

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution [Herbert Ross, 1976]

My memory of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution the novel is of a fairly flat adventure, what you’d expect from a Sherlock Holmes story informed by the mind-opening movements of the sixties and seventies, and with nuanced villains instead of a Rosicrucian cabal of transnational conspirators. In reality it’s far more of a study of Holmes’s addiction and compulsions. I just skipped those parts of the book as a teenager, I’m afraid, and  missed out on Sigmund Freud’s psychological revelations about Holmes’s childhood, an early instance of the “troubled backstory that justifies someone who no longer seems like a sympathetic character to our enlightened eyes” motif found in Batman Begins and Tim Burton’s Willy Wonka.

Now the movie, wow, well, the movie, coming right on the book’s heels, is a whole itinerary of fascinating points of interest, without adding up to a story with any suspense. It has some of the most charming period-styled credits you’ll see. It has a sandy-haired Sherlock Holmes [Nicol Williamson] who looks a great deal like Leslie Howard. It has an unrecognizable Robert Duvall as Watson, sounding like one of Terry Jones’s prim and pompous Monty Python stockbrokers. It has a very recognizable Alan Arkin as Sigmund Freud — that great voice is suited for the Freud accent. Even better, it has Alan Arkin, as Sigmund Freud, playing court tennis, in one of the most lovingly-painstakingly-crafted historical reconstructions outside Peter Weir’s Master and Commander.

It has other actors whose ludicrous Teutonic accents I was sure would turn out to be fake. It has an old-timey train combat climax that doesn’t match The Great Train Robbery or Emperor of the North Pole, but is likewise lovingly done. It reminds us that Holmes had not one but two Victorian superpowers — being able to read someone’s mind based on basic demographic knowledge, and access to a bloodhound. It has Sir Laurence Olivier as the world’s meekest man, Professor Moriarty. It has Sherlock Holmes tormented by reptilian visions out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Even when healthy and unable to isolate himself, Holmes spends most of his time silently analyzing his inner turmoil, with brief bursts of detectiving inspired by his contempt for others. Which is what he did in the stories, but now it’s a process of healing.

Big Trouble [John Cassavetes, 1986]

The obvious response to Cassavetes’s bemusing final film Big Trouble [written by Andrew Bergman] seems like the correct one: he made it worth watching. The script gives us a bunch of characters that it would be almost impossible to make believable or relatable, but somehow we care. The film is edited in the style of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and contains a bunch of noisy caricatures, but the actors believe in it. Everything said by Valerie Curtin’s character amounts to “Alan Arkin, I am a harpy who makes your life a living hell. I need a better lifestyle. Your family needs money.” but you perceive the subtle gradations of her motivating impulses, as many as Curtin can display.

Alan Arkin and Peter Falk reprise their rapport from The In-Laws [also written by Andrew Bergman]. Beverly DeAngelo plays an ditzy version of the trophy wife/life-insurance beneficiary in Fletch [also written by Andrew Bergman]. Dialogue in the style of The Great Outdoors or the Dangerfield-Pesci exchanges in Easy Money is presented with true respect for the characters who utter it, with exceptions for the madcap Arkin-Falk-DeAngelo relationship. The wacky bright color scheme isn’t typical of the time [compare to Fletch — that’s a flashy comedy with a non-flashy look], it’s more a trick to heighten the emotions. The main characters are transplanted from a different age, like The Long Goodbye without the pathos.

It reminds me of The Hudsucker Proxy in how a big budget given to a usually-frugal director manifests in waves of minor characters, like the Chinese laborers, Arkin’s co-workers at the insurance agency, the security guards and cops and rival burglars during the invigorating final break-in sequence. Big Trouble is definitely, let’s say, the equal of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Less mean-spirited, less hilarious, and less predictable. Probably the best 1986 “Big Trouble” movie not to contain this man.

Two more with Terry Moore

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Beneath the 12-Mile Reef [Robert D. Webb, 1953]

The more I think about Beneath the 12-Mile Reef the better it seems. This may be because the overacting is tiring to watch, but leads to warm memories later. The third movie shot in Cinemascope, it simply looks great. Filmed on location, the setting is convincing [though the characters aren’t], and the scenes onboard the boats convey a good geography: home versus far away versus not so far away, open ocean versus inlets, it’s pretty immersive. There are quite long sequences filmed underwater that use the novel wide-screen technology to its fullest, though these don’t take up much of the running time. Edward Cronjager’s seventh and final Oscar nomation was for Beneath‘s cinematography. Here’s an interesting trailer for the film — you’ll note that it’s basically a trailer for Cinemascope.

This is a story about Greek sponge-divers in Tarpon Springs, Florida, and their rivalry with non-diving WASP sponge fishermen [called “the Englishmen” once, and “the Conches” thereafter] in the Florida Keys. If these topics are as foreign to you as they were to me a week ago, this bit of history is a good introduction. How much did this rivalry existed in real life? The two areas are over 200 miles apart.

An obvious response here is to wonder why this groundbreaking technology was employed for an on-location blockbuster about Greek sponge-divers. It’s not based on a novel. Was there a Life magazine article about Greek sponge-divers that had recently captured the nation’s interest? Greek-Armenian-American screenwriter A.I. Bezzarides [Kiss Me DeadlyThey Drive By Night] certainly was not basing it on his own formative years in the orchards of Northern California. Obviously making your characters Greek indicated that they were emotional, spontaneous, lived life to the fullest and so forth. The WASP family, led by Richard Boone, are pretty emotional themselves, but not devil-may-care like our heros. From an interview with Cineaste editor and modern Greek culture expert Dan Georgiadis:

From the 1930s-1950s well over half the Greek American characters are professional gamblers. There is also a theme of Greeks as wrestlers. Broadly, there are many more male characters than female, and the female characters are almost all stereotypical mothers or sisters. From the mid-1950s onward, there begin to be more and more Greek professionals such as attorneys and architects.The first Greek professional identified so far is from a film of the late 1960s…Also there is a kind of minor genre featuring sponge divers of Florida.

To my amazement, there is indeed a minor genre featuring sponge divers, including Greek and Greek-set movies, and others about the Florida gulf coast [Harbor of Missing Men, 16 Fathoms Deep, and at least one “Flipper” episode]. Beneath the 12-Mile Reef certainly limits its female characters to stereotypical mothers and sisters [the father addresses his wife as “wife”, that sort of thing]. The male characters are diverse in their accents if not in their personalities. Future TV star Robert Wagner is cocky young Tony who sounds like any other American. As his father Mike, Mexican-born Gilbert Roland plays Big Chief Red Indian. The ovoid moneylender [Jacques Aubuchon] sounds like Shylock. And as for Uncle Soak [Socrates], the vocal resemblance to Speedy Gonzales is enhanced by his lack of height. I looked up Irish-American actor J. Carrol Naish to see if he specialized in the Speedy Gonzales thing. His roles include “Chico” and “Papa Rico Molina”, but also “Rabbi Arnold Fishel”, “Dr. Igor Markoff”, “Signor Michel O’Sullivan”, Charlie Chan, about a dozen Native Americans, and five years as star of CBS radio’s Life with Luigi, in which he sounds like any other Italian stereotype.

A promotional shot of Robert Wagner for this movie. I swear, it's not a musical.

The opening credits are scored by an overbearing Bernard Herrmann soundtrack including some of the most forceful harp glissandos ever recorded. The music is fun, using weird themes for the underwater scenes including a terrifying trombone for the terrifying octopus. Some might say there’s too much music, like when Uncle Soak is telling everyone to be quiet as a mouse [“every word like bullet!”] as the soundtrack almost drowns him out. More than once I was shocked when the characters didn’t burst into song. Possibly because Robert Wagner looks like a professional dancer straight off the set of West Side Story, and possibly because of the enthusiastic-Greek gesticulating and leaping around. Maybe the startling physical chemistry between Wagner and Terry “Hollywood’s Sexy Tomboy” Moore would be…let’s say, classier…if their flirtation was in the form of song lyrics rather than dialogue. It certainly would make their initial courtship less ridiculous [she runs away from her family with a guy who has a sustained and violent grudge against all of them, literally two minutes after meeting him] if it were in a musical, where everything is heightened and stylized.

Terry Moore’s character is named “Gwyneth Rhys”. She shows the romantic impulsiveness of her Welsh mythic predecessor Blodeuwedd in turning against the all-male family that has dominated her life. I think it’s an intentional Romeo-Juliet parallel that she seems particularly juvenile here, always with either a huge smile or a huge look of concern. Tony seems like the older and experienced guy who sweeps her off her feet, outshining her boring, even-older presumed fiance Arnold Dix [Peter Graves]. Terry Moore was born in 1929, Robert Wagner in 1930, and Graves in 1926, so the dynamic is a bit weird. Richard Boone’s father figure is written very well as he seeks to pacify this situation and the feud with the whole Greek family.

Not only is that Terry Moore, it's her character from "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef".

So, yes, Peter Graves. That’s the only name I recognized from the cast. He’s introduced as if he’s the hero. He’s trying to get her to marry him, she loves him as a brother, he’s boring. His jealousy after she meets Tony leads to violence. Thinking about his character, I think it’s one that would be extremely hard for actors to play nowadays. Arnold is prejudiced against Greeks, as is the Rhys family with whom he spends all his time. He’s the villain. But his racism, even though he directs it toward the hero, is not one of his character flaws [those would be jealousy and short temper].

The whole family thrives within a racist system. The Greeks can dive for sponges in the dangerous waters near Tarpon Springs and Tampa Bay, including the eponymous reef. The Anglos use hook-boats to find sponges more easily in shallow waters [“the glades” here]. Sometimes the Greeks get desperate and fish in the glades, and are met with violent reprisals, death threats, and the theft of their catch, delivered from smiling faces who aren’t so much bullying as restoring order. Arnold has respect for Greeks in theory, he allots them a place in society, but when they aspire to his place in society, he can’t believe what he’s seeing. And then, only after he thinks other people see him as weak, does he respond with violence.

58 years later, and 44 years after In the Heat of the Night, isn’t it rare to see a depiction of a racist character where the very fact of his racism doesn’t mark him as some sort of sociopath?

Come Back, Little Sheba [Daniel Mann, 1952]

I think this is more a staged tableau representing the movie than an actual still from the movie.

The inveterate TCM viewer and DVR recorder will have often seen films in the listings of the sort that would not be appealing on the basis of its stars and story, but becomes intriguing on the basis of being adapted from a prize-winning stage play. “At least there’ll be good dialogue”, you think. Then you start watching, and the arms of sleep beckon when it turns out to all be set in three rooms, and contain 25-minute scenes of people in armchairs talking, and be filmed in uninspiring black-and-white because filming in color would signify lack of maturity. Or it may be a naturalistic story that comes across super-depressing on film — enjoyable on stage because you can take breaks and suspend your belief by noting that these are clearly actors and this is clearly a set, but hard to take in what looks like a real house in a real town.

Come Back, Little Sheba is one of those adaptations, adapted extremely well. The b&w is shiny and crisp and the camera angles are well-chosen, which I wouldn’t say about Long Day’s Journey Into Night or The Male Animal. Warren Low’s editing was Oscar-nominated, when that category was less dominated by epics and thrillers. It has a variety of moods. And having heard Robert Osborne discuss how the original plan was to have Sidney Blackmer reprise his Broadway performance as Doc but get a well-known actress to play Lola [the opposite was done, when no suitable female star was found], I could spend the film wondering what it would be like without Shirley Booth’s iconic mannerisms and Burt Lancaster’s anti-theatrical underplaying.

Adapted faithfully from William Inge’s play, the story is more about dramatizing concepts than suspense or character arc. It follows turning points in a couple lives, but past and future events are just as important, and nobody has a metamorphosis during the couple months we see them. It’s about nostalgia, and voyeurism, and temptation, and addiction. Characters learn about characters. We learn about them. There are two inevitable confrontations. That’s the story.

In 1952 Terry Moore was no longer typecast as the pal of dumb beasts like the horse in The Return of October, the squirrel in The Great Rupert, the giant ape in Mighty Joe Young, and the orange-picking magician in He’s a Cockeyed Wonderbut at 23 and 5’2″ she wasn’t yet being cast as grown women.

"Sure! What's more interesting than nature? And especially our own bodies. And speaking of bodies, there's my friend Turk."

Her character is not that different from Gwyneth Rhys. A chipper young woman, who can maintain a huge smile throughout long conversations, she is beloved by her elders, pursued by two gorgeous men, and unable to think of a reason why she shouldn’t be the girlfriend of both of them. In Beneath the two guys had similar approaches to life – each working hard and standing up for his family against its rival, despite one being a hot-blooded fun-lover and the other being a stoic glowerer. In Come Back, Little Sheba college student Marie has the typical dilemma of long-distance relationship and planning for the future [with a guy named Bruce whom we barely see] versus a fling with charismatic athlete Turk [Richard Jaeckel]. Robert Wagner’s character was always trying to kiss Gwyneth, but he was about as sexually sophisticated as Max Fischer. Turk has literally one thing on his mind, and Jaeckel is very convincing as a young creature of entitlement. Their carefree coeducational college setting foreshadows the concept of the “teenager” that would arise in the mid-fifties.

However, the main setting is Doc and Lola’s house, where Marie rents a room. As Lola, the personification of the word “dowdy”, Shirley Booth seems instantly familiar to me, probably because Estelle Costanza is a parody of her persona [George even says in The Subway that he used to liken his mother to Hazel]. The actress gives Lola a sing-song form of friendliness which implies that she wants other people to truly be happy but she can only pretend to be happy. Somehow she combines a mischievous smile with a total lack of self-esteem. Doc, played by a pale, sunken-eyed, furrow-browed, though barely greying, Burt Lancaster, is accustomed to this passive-aggressive atmosphere, and tries to overcome alcoholism by immersing himself in the satisfaction of routine, then responds to that routine by regretting past choices, since everything he has is less than what he could have had. He says “Alcoholics are mostly disappointed men.”

The healthier and more realistic he gets, the angrier he gets at himself and Lola. She channels her frustration into the harmless search for the titular lost dog rather than talking about things close to home. This flatters her into sort of a saint, but one who’s lost touch with reality. Meanwhile we realize from the start that Doc has gotten the wrong idea of who Marie is, hoping something ideal has arrived in his world to balance it out, and we wait with apprehension for how he reacts to her being a normal person.

The Marie plot is destined for a conventional happy ending, and we hope Doc’s stability resumes when she leaves his house.

  • Lola: I’m pooped.
  • Doc: Honey, don’t use that word. It sounds vulgar.
  • Lola: Well, I hear Marie say it all the time. I thought it was kinda cute.
  • Doc: You don’t hear Marie saying it. Her language is refined.
  • Lola: Well, Turk then. Somebody! [giggles]

In Hollywood, if I might make a ludicrous analogy for a paragraph or two, The Lost Weekend [Billy Wilder, 1945] was to alcoholism what Brokeback Mountain [Ang Lee, 2005] was to homosexuality. It takes a topic that has been covered many times before in a superficial way, and treats it with as much sincerity as humanly possible, being richly rewarded for the effort. And to us in the audience, it’s the signal that when we see even what might be a stereotypical depiction of a drunkard, we aren’t expected to react with laughter or pity. Nuance is now permitted w.r.t. this inflammatory subject matter!

I don’t know about the theater, but it seems relevant that Eugene O’Neill waited until very late in his career to use his wealth of drug and alcohol life experience as material for drama, and didn’t allow any such plays to be performed until The Iceman Cometh in 1946. The plays Come Back, Little Sheba and Clifford Odets’s The Country Girl both date from 1950. In 1954 you have the film of The Country Girl with Bing Crosby, and Lillian Roth’s massively successful memoir I’ll Cry Tomorrow which shortly became a Susan Hayward movie that introduced harshly realistic alcoholism to the show-business rise-and-fall biopic. Then in 1958 was Days of Wine and Roses, the teleplay that was adapted into another acclaimed film in 1962.

One thing Come Back, Little Sheba has in common with Days of Wine and Roses is the valorization of Alcoholics Anonymous. We see AA as a force more reliable than willpower in saving drunks from their impulses, by providing salt-of-the earth friends for the male lead to rely on [Jack Klugman in DWR; Philip Ober and Edwin Max in CBLS] and by giving him an outlet to help other people. Doc only seems motivated when he’s going out at night with Elmo and Ed to the hospital to assist an AA newcomer. He has a new identity as a volunteer.

Sixty years later, we’re always seeing movie and TV characters go to meetings of twelve-step programs, those unusual social forces that combine bureaucratic rigor with intense human encounters and the seemingly anti-modern idea of accepting one’s limitations. It’s shorthand for telling us a character has a problem, she knows she has a problem, and the tension is whether she can control that problem. But we rarely get as full a picture of how daily life is shaped by AA principles.

"They gave me a part in a thing called Beneath the 12 Mile Reef. They said I’d play with Terry Moore, and I liked that fine. So they made me her father.”