Thursday, November 19, 2015


*Spoiler alert. This essay gives away key plot points

Much like the way Elmer Fudd seems compelled to use words teeming with the very Ls and Rs he can’t pronounce (his Owivia DeHaviwand being a particular favorite); Hollywood during the Production Code era (1934-1968) just couldn’t keep away from “adult”-themed projects it had no reasonable hope of adequately interpreting.

Dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman had her first major theatrical success in 1934 with the banned-in-Boston stage hit, The Children’s Hour. A shocking-for-its-time play in which the two headmistresses of a fancy girls’ boarding school have their careers and lives ruined by the spread of a malicious rumor of their being illicit lovers in a lesbian relationship. 

When William Wyler first adapted Hellman's play for the screen in 1936, the play’s scandalous reputation was such that not only was a title change mandated (The Children’s Hour became These Three), but the "lie with the ounce of truth" was changed from the whisper of lesbianism to the more socially palatable rumor of heteronormative adultery. Instead of an accusation of being in love with each other, the two women were now accused of (yawn) being in love with the same man. And lest one think this a Hollywood cop-out of the highest order, know that it was Lillian Hellman herself who approved and adapted the screenplay of this version for the screen.

Hellman's almost word-for-word-faithful adaptation of her play for Wyler confirmed her oft-repeated claim that The Children’s Hour was not really about lesbianism so much as the pernicious power of a lie. "The bigger the lie, the better," Hellman affirmed. A point of view she would gain a great deal of first-hand experience with when, in 1952 she was blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee; and later in 1979, charged with falsifying the details of her memoir, Pentimento. (Author Mary McCarthy [The Group] on Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'!")

Mademoiselle de Maupin by Theophile Gautier
A salacious seed is planted when the schoolgirls read the scandalous 1834 French novel in
which a woman disguises herself as a man and has affairs with both sexes

In 1960, in an effort to rectify the compromises he felt imposed upon him by MGM and the Hays Code in 1936, William Wyler returned to The Children's Hour vowing to make a more faithful version of the play. Taking advantage of the permissive atmosphere of the times, Wyler even went so far as to say he’d be willing to release his film without the MPAA seal of approval if need be. (Many newspapers at the time refused to carry ads for films lacking the Production Code seal. Similarly, many theaters wouldn’t exhibit non-approved films.)

Whether it was Wyler’s pronouncement that his remake was to be “A clean film with a highly moral story!”, or the casting of ladylike Audrey Hepburn as the fem half of the whispered-about duo (Wyler:“We don’t want bosoms in this!”), but studio heads relented and The Children’s Hour was green-lit for production. Provided of course that the word “lesbian” never be uttered, and that there would be no demonstrative sexual contact of any sort. Yep, certainly sounds like those 1936 compromises were put to rest by 1961. 
Audrey Hepburn as Karen Wright
Shirley MacLaine as Martha Dobie
James Garner as Joe Cardin
Fay Bainter as Amelia Tilford
Miriam Hopkins as Lily Mortar
Coy as it seems today, The Children’s Hour was written at a time when it was illegal to even make mention of homosexuality in a Broadway play. The show’s ultimate success somehow surmounted public moral outrage, allowing for it to become one of the first Broadway plays to feature a homosexual character. Similar honors went to Wyler’s 1961 film adaptation, with Shirley MacLaine being one of the first major stars to play a gay character in a motion picture. Albeit just barely. Change was obviously in the air in 1961 as several other homosexual-themed films arrived in theaters within months of The Children’s Hour’s release: Dirk Bogarde’s Victim, Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent, and Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey with Brit fave Murray Melvin making his film debut as a gay teen.  
The Hateful, 12-year-old
Making her film debut, Karen Balkin as Mary Tilford
Karen Wright (Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (MacLaine) are two college chums now partnered in the ownership and running of a girls’ boarding school. After years of struggle, the school, catering to the adolescent daughters of well-to-do families, appears at last to be up on its feet. So much so that Karen, engaged for the last two years to local doctor, Joe Cardin (Garner), at last feels free to marry. A decision which doesn’t seem to set well with Martha, who outwardly expresses her displeasure as simply the fear that marriage and motherhood will lead to Karen’s abandonment of the school.

The pair’s heated discussions and platonic entreaties of love and loyalty on the topic are overhead and misinterpreted by Mary Tilford (Bakin), a troublemaking student whose compulsive lying and disobedience has made her the frequent object of discipline. In spiteful retaliation for one such upbraiding, Mary tells her grandmother (Bainter) that Miss Wright and Miss Dobie are lovers, and that she has seen them kissing and engaging in all manner of nocturnal hanky panky.
Before long, the lie concocted merely to avoid the consequences of a rule infraction mushrooms into a scandal which closes the school and makes a shamble of the lives of three innocent people.
These Three
Given the director, it comes as no surprise that The Children’s Hour is a handsome, well-crafted and finely-acted film of almost irresistible watchability (like All About Eve, The Children’s Hour is one of those movies impossible to channel surf past, no matter how far along into the story I catch it). I don't know if there is such a thing as a "William Wyler movie" as he has always struck me as one of those industry professionals devoid of an identifiable style, yet noted for consistently quality work.
All I know is William Wyler movies occupy a lot of space on my DVD shelves: Roman Holiday, The Heiress, The Little Foxes, Funny Girl, The Letter, and of course, The Children’s Hour; a film whose every frame supports his reputation for vivid storytelling and extracting superior performances from his cast. The Children's Hour was the no-win recipient of five Academy Award nominations (supporting actress, cinematography, costume, art direction, sound).
Children Will Listen
For all its technical distinction (the lighting, editing, and shot compositions are really something to be applauded) and the high-drama content of its plot (as stated, the film is compellingly watchable), it's still difficult for me not to feel as though The Children's Hour suffers a bit from Wyler's very obvious efforts to deliver a “clean” and “highly moral” film about a sensational subject. In his well-intentioned desire to grant the story the solemnity and respect I'm sure he felt was its due; Wyler falls prey to adopting a tone of such unyielding good taste and decorum that it feels at times almost airless. The result is that The Children’s Hour vacillates between stagy soap opera and melodrama precisely during the moments calling for the raw intimacy of a genuine display of emotion.
At these times The Children’s Hour reminds me of that character Mary Tyler Moore played in Ordinary People - it becomes a film determined not to draw attention to itself by making a scene.
Veronica Cartwright as Rosalie Wells
one of the best criers in the business

It is incredible that educated people living in an urban American community today would react as violently and cruelly to a questionable innuendo as they are made to do in this film.”  - Bosley Crowther's New York Times review of The Children’s Hour March 1962

Obviously, movie critic Bosley Crowther needed to get out more. In the face of homophobia and bigotry, incredulity like Crowther’s is deceptive in that it has the surface appearance of giving people credit for being more civilized and intelligent than a film like this would suggest. But in reality, to ignore that lives are ruined every day in America by the very same rootless bigotry and baseless homophobia The Children’s Hour dramatizes, is merely a privileged means of refuting and denying the suffering that is the day-to-day reality for many homosexuals even today.

One of the contributing factors to my not having even seen The Children’s Hour until recently is because most everything I’d read about the film in past years corroborated Mr. Crowther’s position. I avoided The Children’s Hour because I assumed it was going to be another dated Hollywood exercise in homosexual self-loathing masked as liberal discourse.
When I finally did see the film, I was happily surprised at how dated the surface trappings were, but how timeless the message. Remove the old-fashioned acting, starchy language, and that 60s censorship straitjacket (à la Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) necessitating characters verbally dance all around an issue without ever saying it plainly; and you’ve got a story that could happen today. Trade the boarding school for a Boy Scout troop – substitute Muslim for homosexuality…the particulars of theme (ignorance is deaf to truth) and what Lillian Hellman sought to convey remains (sadly) contemporary and unchanged.
Careless Whisper
In this her last film, Fay Bainter garnered The Children's Hour's sole acting Oscar nomination, and deservedly so. She is really dynamic in every scene. In the role that won Bonita Granville an Oscar nomination in 1936,  Karen Balkin (who sometimes bears an unfortunate resemblance to Charles Laughton) gives an outsized performance that wouldn't be out of place in a comedy like The Trouble With Angels. Still, you can't say she's not fiendishly effective. She makes The Bad Seed's Rhoda Penmark look like Shirley Temple

If The Children’s Hour has a credibility problem at all, it lies not in its depiction of the swiftness with which the community condemns the women on baseless innuendo (these days, inciting the public to overreact to unsubstantiated hate-mongering has practically become an official GOP political platform); but in anybody not being able to see through little Mary’s broad-as-a-barn-door lying and bullying tactics. Barring this, I think The Children’s Hour presents one of the screen’s more accurate and cutting indictments of hysterical bigotry.
The ever-likable (pronounce that any way you wish) James Garner is solid as always,
but isn't called upon to do much more than stand around looking all heterosexual and stuff

I have no idea how 1961 audiences responded to Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine appearing in this “daring” film, but these days when a straight actor takes on a gay role, the public practically awards them a medal of bravery. Everyone, gay and straight alike, carries on as though the actor had just crawled through the foxholes of war-torn Iwo Jima with an orphan on their back.
Nevertheless, back in 1961 it had to have been a big deal for two such big stars to appear in a film with a lesbian theme. But, and not to diminish the risk-taking of either actress, Hepburn had just played a prostitute (or Hollywood’s idea of a prostitute) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and was eager to shed her ingénue image, while MacLaine had a bohemian “kook” reputation (yes, even as far back as that) which lent itself to character roles (aka, women outside the mainstream). And politically speaking, it certainly didn’t hurt that both women were at the time married with children. One source I read speculated on the unlikely chance of an unmarried actress at the time taking on either role.
Audrey Hepburn, who got her start and an Academy Award in Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953), is a favorite, and her performance here, while not particularly showy, is one of the strongest of her early career. Obviously cast (at least in part) for her lack of an overtly sexual screen persona and her image's adherence to traditional notions of femininity, one can only imagine how provocative The Children's Hour would have been (something Wyler wasn't interested in, it seems) had she been cast in MacLaine’s role.
Miriam Hopkins, who actually did play the MacLaine role in These Three opposite Merle Oberon and Joel McCrea in 1936, is a hammy delight as Martha's affected, self-dramatizing aunt.

Playing an overly-theatrical B-level stage actress, Miriam Hopkins is seen here clutching the mementos of her career. In this instance a glamour portrait which is actually a publicity pic of Hopkins from the 1936 film, Becky Sharp.   

As someone commented in an earlier post for the movie Hot Spell, Shirley MacLaine can come off a little shrill in scenes requiring displays of anxiety or excitability. But like many gifted comic actors, she can really deliver the dramatic goods when playing hostility and pique. In a film which codifies lesbianism as simply an absence of glamour, MacLaine is really very good and (this is where the film in its own small way is rather progressive) and grants her sympathetic character a depth and humanity devoid of caricature. She resorts to no gimmicks or tricks to signify Martha's latent homosexuality, playing the role honestly and without artifice. In recent interviews about The Children’s Hour, MacLaine likes to relate how Wyler got cold feet during the making of the film, resulting in several non-explicit scenes of Martha showing her affection for Karen (brushing Hepburn’s hair, ironing her clothes, and cooking) ending up on the cutting room floor.
I’m not altogether sure how the inclusion those sequences would have helped a film whose big dramatic payoff is an 11th hour “self-realization” scene (which for my money MacLaine pulls off very well in spite of it being a tad overwritten). Besides, such demonstrativeness to me would appear redundant given how well she already successfully conveys her deep love for Hepburn’s character through a dozen subtle looks and gestures.

The Children’s Hour has always been controversial for the part it played in kickstarting the tired movie trope of the doomed/suicidal homosexual; a worn cliché born of warped morality and show business savvy. In most cases, the introduction of gay characters in films tended to be either for sensation or a glib, short-cut bid towards demonstrating sophistication. From the start, studios and censors gleaned that the death of a gay character in the final reel not only satisfied the movie mandate requiring “sinners” pay for their transgressions, but presented, at fadeout, a symbolic “return to normalcy” designed to reassure audiences and send them on their way, secure in their faith in the the enduring indomitability of the status quo. 
Problematic as the ending of The Children’s Hour is for many (MacLaine’s character hangs herself), anecdotally I’ve always felt it presented a situation more complex than mere homophobic self-loathing. In the scene precipitating her suicide, Karen comes out to Karen at precisely the same moment she comes out to herself. She falls apart in a stream of consciousness monologue in which she tries to sort out her feelings about herself amidst paralyzing confusion and guilt over the role her lack of self-awareness may or may not have played in the destruction of so many lives. Including her own.

It's arguable and certainly up for debate whether Martha's self-disgust ("Oh I feel so damn sick and dirty I can't stand it anymore!") is wholly related to her discovery of her true sexual identity, and not, at least in part, also attributable to genuine guilt-based self-recrimination. A result of feeling that her outbursts and displays of bad tempter (born of repression) were the catalyst for a chain of events resulting in the severest harm coming to the one individual she most loved.
So while there's no denying Martha's suicide is a severe response to her suffering from a particularly acute case of "gaynst" (gay-angst); it can also be said (non-politically) to be a the kind of final, selfless act of love her character intends it to be. Which is to say that within the confines of the narrative (the last we see of Martha alive, she's not brooding intently upon herself, she's looking lovingly at Karen from a window) Martha's love is such that she seeks to "liberate" Karen by letting her go.
Of course, she could have achieved the same thing by merely hopping on a train (which Martha actually does at the end of These Three), but as I said earlier, this is Hollywood, and it would be several more years before the movies would grant any gay character a happy ending (no pun intended).

A production still of  the libel suit courtroom sequence that was deleted from the final film. 

The theatrical trailer for William Wyler's These Three (1936)

In this clip from the 1996 documentary, The Celluloid Closet, Shirley MacLaine talks about making The Children's Hour.

The Children's Hour had its title changed in the UK
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


I remember very well all the excitement surrounding the 1975 release of Barry Lyndon; director Stanley Kubrick’s highly anticipated follow-up to A Clockwork Orange. Four years had elapsed since Kubrick’s stylized vision of an all-too-imaginable future opened to controversy and equal parts critical acclaim / antipathy, and Barry Lyndon ‒ shrouded in secrecy, costing $11-million, two-years-in-the-making, 3-hours long, and starring the eyebrow-raising choice of actor Ryan O’Neal in the lead ‒ augured no less.

Arriving on a wave of publicity crested by a lengthy Time magazine cover story declaring it “Kubrick’s Grandest Gamble,” Barry Lyndon was hyped as a painstakingly detailed 18th century epic adapted from the little-known 19th century novel: The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair). Shot in Ireland, England, and Germany over the course of a 300-day shooting schedule, next to nothing was known of the film’s storyline, save for it being a kind of inverse Pilgrim’s Progress chronicling the rise and fall of a handsome Irish rake. What was instead proffered at the forefront of all publicity, eclipsing references to either the actors’ performances or the general dramatic appeal of the story itself, was the fact that it was a Stanley Kubrick film.

Like Hitchcock, Kubrick and his reputation as an innovative perfectionist were the real stars of the film. In fact, the single most-discussed element about Barry Lyndon beyond the cult of worship surrounding Kubrick himself was the film’s sumptuous cinematography. Much was made of how Kubrick & Co. eschewed the traditional use of artificial lighting to create a period-perfect look through the near-exclusive application of candles and natural night. Advance word was that it was Kubrick’s masterpiece; an epic historical spectacle with art house aesthetics.
Ryan O'Neal as Redmond Barry
Marisa Berenson as Lady Lyndon
Murray Melvin as Reverend Samuel Runt
Patrick Magee as The Chevalier du Balibari
Leon Vitali as Lord Bullington 
Barry Lyndon opened on Christmas Day at San Francisco’s Northpoint Theater, advance buzz suggesting an event more than a motion picture. With all this buildup, you’d think I’d be chomping at the bit to see Barry Lyndon when it opened.
Not exactly.
While I loved Barry Lyndon’s Saul Bass-designed poster art (below), and was impressed by what little I’d seen in the way of movie stills, none of that translated into an interest in actually seeing the film itself.
Part of this is attributable to my not being much of a Kubrick enthusiast at the time. As a film buff, I knew I was “supposed” to like him, but being that in 1971 I was too young to see A Clockwork Orange, and only had an edited, commercial-interrupted TV broadcast of Lolita and a scratchy college campus print of 2001: A Space Odyssey to base an opinion on; I can’t say Kubrick was a director who loomed very large for me as a teen.

But the main reason for my disinterest was my (then) overall aversion to epic costume dramas in general. Sure, the Julie Christie factor was enough to entice me into seeing Far From The Madding Crowd and Doctor Zhivago, but for the most part I was of the opinion that any movie asking me to sit still longer than two and a half hours had better be a musical. Barry Lyndon looked to me like it was either going to be a somber, picturesque snooze like Lawrence of Arabia, or (based on how often the words “scoundrel” and “rascal” popped up in reviews) one of those tediously bawdy romps like Tom Jones or Lock Up Your Daughters. No thanks.
Barry Lyndon's lush spectacle is the deceptively sentimental backdrop for a tale whose events
and characters are themselves a subversive commentary on classic romantic tradition

So I didn’t see Barry Lyndon when it premiered that December, and I’m not sure I’d have seen it at all were not for my older sister who was attending an art school at the time where it was something of an art history mandate for students to check out Barry Lyndon for its cinematography redolent of the paintings of 18th century artists like John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough. 
Like everyone else, my sister raved about the film’s visual splendor, but her going back to see Barry Lyndon two more times persuasively backed up her assertion of it being an irresistibly entertaining film. Something I’d yet to come across in any of the reviews I’d read. Hailing it as the perfect costume picture for people who didn’t like costume pictures (that would be me), she sold me on the film by alluding to Kubrick’s success - intentional or not - in fashioning an epic heroic romantic drama devoid of either a hero or romance. A film whose lush spectacle is the deceptively sentimental backdrop for a tale whose events and characters are a subversive commentary on classic Romance tradition.

I saw Barry Lyndon the next day.

That was 40 years ago. And since then I’ve seen all but three of Stanley Kubrick’s movies (Fear & Desire, Killer’s Kiss, & Paths of Glory), but my opinion of Barry Lyndon then hasn’t changed: it’s my absolute favorite of all his films.
Nominated for 7 Oscars, Barry Lyndon won 4
Cinematography, Costume, Art Direction, and Musical Score 

Film critic Andrew Sarris once described the stylization in Stanley Kubrick’s films as being a form of emotional evasion. I don’t think that was meant as a compliment, but as it pertains to Barry Lyndon, it defines why I this film strikes such a chord with me.
Barry Lyndon begins in 1750 and tells the episodic story of a young, naïve Irish lad (O’Neal) of modest gentry status who aspires to aristocracy. As self-deluding as Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, as social-climbing as Clyde Griffiths, Redmond fancies himself a well-bred man of courage and honor out to claim his rightful position in the world. That his quest calls upon to temporarily assume the roles of gambler, cheat, deserter, spy, and adulterer, prove of little consequence.
Attempting to live his life as though he were the hero of a romantic novel, Redmond’s lack of self-awareness blinds him to the flaws in his character which, while successful in  getting him where he wants, unfailingly stand in the way of getting him what he wants. 
The loss of father figures is a recurring motif in Barry Lyndon.
Here, Redmond comforts longtime friend and protector, Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley)
The combined effect of Kubrick’s distancing camera and Michael Hordern’s subjective, coolly disdainful narration is that the chronicling of Redmond Barry’s ascendancy and decline becomes a doleful implosion of romantic myth. Dramatic irony replaces clichéd sentimentality, and the result is a film both moving and reflective. What looks like emotional evasion might well be a director not finding it necessary to tell the viewer what they should be feeling.
Marie Kean as Barry's headstrong mother

I think Ryan O’Neal gives his best comedy performance in Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973) and the best dramatic performance of his career in Barry Lyndon. To my mind he’s really quite marvelous and I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. (Robert Redford was considered and turned it down. Sparing us from having to put up with a Barry Lyndon sporting the same layered Malibu beach boy shag haircut he’s had in every film he’s ever made.) 
Barry Lyndon rests on our being able to see both the good and bad in Redmond, never being sure from scene to scene if he’s truly as bad or as good as he appears. I don’t know how he pulled it off, but O’Neal captures Redmond’s idealism, cowardice, cruelty, heart, with a depth that brings home the ultimate tragedy of the story. 
Marisa Berenson, cast once again as a woman pursued by a fortune the hunter (Cabaret), has a role that's largely silent, yet her performance I find to be the film's most poignant. A former model, Berenson benefits from precisely the same subtle projection that makes models in fashion magazines appear to convey exactly what the observer seeks to find in their sphinxlike countenances. Certainly I'm moved by the corruption of beauty nuances at the core of her character arc, but I think there's a great deal more to Berenson's performance than being heartstoppingly beautiful in her period finery.

Certain critical buzzwords and phrases always raise red flags for me. Whenever I read that a stage performer “puts on a good show,” I take that to mean a meager talent is attempting to mask their shortcomings behind the bells and whistles of production values. Any fashion trend signified as “fun!” is sure to be a ghastly. So, similarly, whenever movie critics go on and on about how beautifully a film is shot, I can’t help but assume there’s precious little else about it to recommend.

In promoting Barry Lyndon stateside, Warner Bros, hamstrung both by the film’s largely unknown (in the US) cast of British character actors and perhaps an inability to extol the acting virtues of Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson convincingly, centered its entire campaign on the beauty of its cinematography. 
Like many, I took this to suggest Barry Lyndon had nothing to offer beyond its visual grandeur, when in fact it's merely an indication of the limitations inherent in marketing a film that fails to easily fit into a set genre category.
Barry Lyndon is without a doubt one of the most beautiful films ever made, and in 1975 on the big screen, it fairly took my breath away. But over the years I’ve come to better appreciate the film's visual magnificence as something more than just ornamental show. Its images have a poetic quality about them that has taken on a melancholy richness in this day of CGI fabrication. 
When I watch Barry Lyndon today, I’m aware of witnessing the recreation of a time and era that couldn’t be achieved today without digital manipulation. I actually respond emotionally to the fact that what I’m seeing has been painstakingly rendered in the real world. People, not computer-generated clones, occupy the crowded battle scenes; the stately landscapes vistas are actual locations; the immense interiors are authentic.
Even Barry Lyndon’s deliberate pacing and long-held static shots, once a source of much criticism, feel positively rapturous in today’s climate of I-don’t know-what-the-hell-I’m-looking-at rapid-fire editing.
Barry Lyndon's beautiful facade masks many somber truths. There is nothing heroic in death; war is absurd; pain endures; and what happens to us can't help but change us. And not always for the better.

Barry Lyndon didn't do very well during its initial release, but as so often happens when a talented director passes on and film fans are left to contemplate the meager talents still drawing breath; Barry Lyndon it has been reappraised, reassessed, and hailed by many as an overlooked masterpiece.
When those who once dismissed it as boring and sluggish now sing its praises, I try not to look too smug while suppressing a desire to jog their memories.

I won't say it's a romp, a crowd-pleaser, or a movie that'll tug at your heartstrings; but for those open to an epic scaled to human dimensions, Barry Lyndon contains a great deal of humor (mostly ironic), action, and compelling drama. Exceedingly well cast, the film is full of many exceptional actors giving brief but spirited performances. In many ways Barry Lyndon is like Ken Russell with self-control: a feast for the eyes, heaven to listen to (the classical music score is gorgeous), and a cavalcade of brilliant supporting players with fascinating faces.
I'd be reluctant to label Stanley Kubrick a genius, but there's no doubt in my mind he was a true artist.

Stanley Kubrick's long out of circulation first film, Fear & Desire (1953) is 
available in its entirety on YouTube HERE 

"Borey Lyndon"
Kubrick's masterpiece gets the Mad Magazine treatment

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


What would the movies ever do without the South as the go-to metaphor for all things hot, steamy, and neurotic in American culture during the sexually and emotionally repressed 1950s? Hollywood, pandering to post-war propaganda intended to reassure the nation of a return to prosperity and stability, consistently promoted the image of the Midwest and middle-class suburbs as exemplars of familial “normalcy.” To this end, metropolitan cities were represented as cold and impersonal sin-bins, rife with crime and corruption; while the South – where mossy oak trees and people’s accents drooped in languid surrender to the oppressive heat – was a veritable pressure cooker of stifled passions. No wonder the Southern Gothic (a film genre dear to my heart) came to embody the existential frustration, spiritual discontent, and sexual dissatisfaction of an entire nation.

Between 1958 and 1959, Hollywood released no fewer than six southern-fried movie melodramas: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Long Hot Summer, God’s Little Acre, Suddenly Last Summer, The Sound and the Fury, and the focus of this essay, Lonnie Coleman’s (Beulah Land) little-known but no-less overheated domestic drama, Hot Spell

Hot Spell is based on Coleman’s unproduced play, Next of Kin, and was directed by Daniel Mann (Come Back, Little Sheba) from a screenplay by James Poe (Summer & Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Considering its cast and pedigree, I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard of this film, let alone seen it, until relatively recently. 
Hot Spell’s theatrical roots are manifest in the size of its cast (it’s basically a four-character story), the talkiness of its script, and the simplicity of its plot. In the sweltering heat of the eternal summer that is the mainstay of all good Southern Gothics (where a glass of sweet tea is never far from reach), long-suppressed tensions threaten to rupture the gossamer-thin fabric of delusion holding a small New Orleans family together. As frustrations rise to the surface, carefully-constructed illusions begin to crack and blister like paint in the scorching sun.
Shirley Booth as Alma Duval
Anthony Quinn as John Henry "Jack" Duval
Shirley MacLaine as Virginia Duval
Earl Holliman as John Henry "Buddy" Duval, Jr.
Clint Kimbrough as Billy Duval
When the film opens, matronly housewife Alma Duval (Booth) is all aflutter over the 45th birthday party she’s planning for husband, Jack (Quinn); a seductively "wild" Cajun whose restless nature she's found – after 25 years of marriage – impossible to fully domesticate. As we observe her nervous attempts to orchestrate (manipulate?) every conceivable variable to assure a favorable outcome for her efforts, Alma’s fervent preparations betray an air of desperation more than celebration.
Armed with the birthday presents she herself purchased for her adult children to give to their father, Alma visits each at their workplace, dispensing behavioral directives and cheery dialogue prompts with every pre-wrapped gift. Perhaps too metaphorically (not for a fan of heavy-handed 50s Freudianism like myself), each child embodies contrasting, narratively-pertinent character traits, and have jobs reflective of their personalities.

Eldest son, Buddy (Holliman), all self-seriousness and ambition, works at the family employment agency. Recently out of the army, Buddy is headstrong and restless to make a way for himself in the world. Daddy’s-girl and middle-child, Virginia (MacLaine), works at the local 5¢ &10¢ and spends her time lost in fanciful daydreams about her new summer suitor, a pragmatic pre-med student (Warren Stevens). Surrounded all day by valentines, flowers, and perfumes, Virginia is a dreamy romantic. Youngest son, Billy (Kimbrough), is a bookish, sensitive type (coded: gay) who works in a library, and too-keenly feels the tension behind all that remains unspoken in the Duval household. His survival tactic is to escape; first into books, then by going so far as to enlist in the Air Force.

Alma, who refuses to see her offspring as anything but children, charges into these workplace sanctuaries, as heedless of their discomfort as their in-vain efforts to dissuade her from making a big deal out of an event they all know their vain father hardly looks upon as cause for celebration (no one, least of all Jack himself, even remembers the birthday).  It’s Alma’s wish (passive-aggressive insistence, actually) that everyone live the same lie she clings to: to ignore the open-secret of Jack’s mid-life crisis affair with a woman young enough to be his daughter, and just carry on as  if they are still (if indeed they ever were) one big, happy family.
An absorbing drama that benefits significantly from the top-notch performances of its cast, Hot Spell, with its over-familiar central conflict, falls prey to a fate similar to that which befell The Stripper (1963), the screen adaptation of William Inge’s A Loss of Roses; which is to say Hot Spell, in lacking a certain psychological profundity and depth of characterization, feels more like a Playhouse 90 television production than a feature film. But in spite of much of it feeling as though it were culled from earlier, similar sources (most in the Shirley Booth oeuvre) Hot Spell does provide a fairly moving examination of the what the inexorable passing of time portends to a family fighting hard to evade the inevitabilities of growing up, growing older, and growing apart.

The fact that I come from a large Catholic family that never spoke about our emotions (until the 70s when my mother went through EST, after which we spoke of little else) is perhaps the main reasons I love movies like Hot Spell. Call it fantasy projection, but domestic dramas wherein suppressed hostilities and resentments erupt into biliously confrontational exchanges that ultimately prove to be liberatingly cathartic are a favorite of mine. Double if it takes place in the South of the 50s and 60s.
While no one in Hot Spell adopts a Southern accent,and it doesn’t take place in Kansas, the film nevertheless has the stamp of Tennessee Williams and William Inge all over it. 
The Two Shirleys
MacLaine and Booth appeared in The Matchmaker this same year
As is the custom of the genre, Hot Spell is centered around a social event. An event or occasion necessitating the close-knit interaction of characters (usually under circumstances forcing a display of false emotion or sentiment). Hot Spell’s pivotal birthday party, the catalyst for the film’s domestic upheaval, is largely ironic in function, being that a celebration of growing older is particularly ill-suited for Jack and Alma Duval; a couple deeply invested in living in the past.

In a deluded effort to reclaim his lost, wild youth, Jack imbues a thoroughly common extramarital physical attraction with all the romantic gravitas of true love reborn. Alma, no less delusional, lives in an aspic world frozen in time. Feeling acutely the impending loss of her family, Alma pins all her hopes on a longed-for return to the town of New Paris – a state of mind as much as geographical location – idealized in her mind as the place where everyone was happiest.
Come Back, Little New Paris
Caught in the middle: the children (their main offense being their failure to remain so), nurtured as infants to fill a void, weaned in adulthood to be the guardians of their parent’s illusions. There’s more than enough culpability, regret, and incriminations to go around as the Duvals of New Orleans endeavor to weather their personal hot spell of discontent.
Running at a brisk 86 minutes, Hot Spell may be Southern Gothic-lite, but it’s like a Greatest Hits collection of all I hold near about that obsolete film genre.  
Running Wild
Anthony Quinn was already a two-time Oscar winner when he appeared in Hot Spell.
Here with actress Valerie Allen as Ruby, Quinn's restless character longs for a new life in
Florida, "Land of Eternal Youth"

For those keeping score, this was Booth’s second onscreen swipe at playing a dowdy, once-beautiful housewife delusionally fixated on the past. Perhaps it was an intentional move on Booth’s part to revisit a character almost identical to the one she played in 1952s Come Back, Little Sheba (and won an Oscar for), but the effect created is déjà vu to distraction.
Shirley Booth is a remarkable actress, and her performance here ranks among her best. She IS the entire film, as far as I’m concerned, and the nuances of vulnerability she brings to the role (along with a hint of the subtle manipulative strength unique to the very weak) is a tour de force. She single-handedly keeps the film from sinking into a mire of clichés. But I’d be lying if I said that much of it feels like I’d seen it all before. It’s like later career Maggie Smith; she’ always excellent, but she’s always the same. 

Oscar-winner Eileen Heckart (The Bad Seed) steals every scene as Alma's best friend, Fan. The hilarious sequence where she gives Alma lessons in being a Modern Woman is a worth-the-price-of-admission classic.
Fan: "Well what's he gonna say the first time you fish out a cigarette and light up?"
Alma; "He's gonna say, 'Alma, have you gone crazy?'"
Fan: "Yeah, well when he does you just take a drag on the cigarette, blow the smoke in his face and say, 'What's it to ya, lover?'"

1958 was a banner year for Shirley MacLaine, appearing in Hot Spell, Some Came Running (for which she won an Oscar nomination), and the delightful The Matchmaker. As the lovesick daughter, MacLaine isn’t called upon to do anything here that Elinor Donahue didn’t do on TV every week in Father Knows Best, but her easygoing, natural appeal is a major asset to a film as dramatically stagy as Hot Spell
Things heat up between Virginia and Wyatt (Warren Stevens) 

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the same breast-fixated/blonde bombshell era that produced Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, also found room to appreciate the matronly charms of actresses like Shirley Booth and Geraldine Page. These actresses may not have been the pin-up type, but they played middle-aged women who were a still afforded passions, sex drives, and depth. While most of Hollywood was falling over itself looking for the next fetishized male fantasy sex symbol, gay writers like Inge, Williams, and Coleman were creating dimensional roles for real women. 
The often unglamorous women Shirley Booth portrayed were nevertheless
granted a sexuality and impassioned emotional life

Wasn’t it Margo Channing who said, “I detest cheap sentiment”? Well, normally I do, too, but something about Hot Spell always gets the waterworks going come fade-out. That something is Shirley Booth and the breadth of emotions she brings to her almost stock character. It’s a memorable (albeit familiar) performance in a movie that’s far more enjoyable than it should be. A credit to the cast, to be sure.
I don’t know if Hot Spell is available on DVD yet, but it crops up on TCM from time to time and is definitely worth a watch. It’s not likely to make anyone forget Come Back Little Sheba or invite comparisons to O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but it is a fine example of a once-popular dramatic genre, that (based on recent posts for The Stripper, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) I can’t seem to get enough of. 
"I guess the hot spell's over."

 Hot Spell: Margaret Whiting sings this promotional song for the film. Written by Burt Bacharach /Mack David.

Copyright © Ken Anderson