Tuesday, November 3, 2015


What would Hollywood do without the South as the all-purpose, go-to metaphor for all things hot, steamy, and neurotic during the sexually and emotionally repressed America of the 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, author Lonnie Coleman’s (Beulah Land) little-known but no-less overheated domestic drama, Hot Spell
Hot Spell is based on Coleman’s unproduced 1951 play Next of Kin (which was subsequently turned into a novel when the film was released). It's 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 memory 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 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


  1. Wow! Like you, I am quite unfamiliar with this, but will be sure to catch it the next time I see it come up. I, again like you, always salivate when I see a movie show up on the schedule with a title like "Desire in the Dust" (a 1960 movie filled with desperation and overheated passions) and the like. As a youth, Shirley Booth held as much interest for me as a crack in the sidewalk, but now I love watching her invested, heartfelt, multi-faceted performances. And I don't know why, but I have a hard time wrapping my mind around Shirley MacLaine having as a love interest Warren Stevens! ?? I just would never have connected those two. Thanks for featuring this. I'll definitely check it out!

    1. Hi Poseidon
      I laughed at your incredulity regarding the oil/vinegar pairing of MacLaine and Warren Stevens...an actor whose face is familiar to me but whose work is not. I laughed because he and MacLaine DON'T fit, but I'd never thought of it before. The oddness of their pairing seems to fit the story, but he looks like such an action film supporting play, not a romantic type.
      I was never in TV soap operas growing up, but these kinds of films always filled the bill for me and it sounds to me like you'd really like this one. Keep an eye out for it on TCM, it really is a little gem, and so much of the period.
      Curiously, I grew up feeling the same about Shirley Booth as you did. She had an odd, grandma charm that was sweet, but I never really got her appeal. Watching her I always was torn between finding her adorable or insufferable.
      My partner, however, is a real Booth fan, and it's through him I came to develop a greater appreciation for her as an actress (to the tune of owning several of her films and the complete Hazel series on DVD).
      I have to Google "Desire in the Dust"...like film noir, southern gothics and swampland soaps all had such similar titles!
      Thanks, Poseidon!

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    2. Hi Gregory
      There really must be a name which describes the theater-trained talents you describe, and I must say, "Washboard Performers" is a gem.
      There seemed a time when the popularity of kitchen-sink dramas allowed for noble roles for ordinary women, and earthy non-glamorous actresses like Stapleton and Dewhurst were in vogue.
      These vehicles gave voice to a sector of American womanhood every bit as frustrated and tortured as those rebels without causes, but , as you point out, the dowdy factor didn't go over too well in a business devoted to seeing women in mostly glamorous (or sexualized) context.

      I'd never thought of it before, but I think Booth would have made a marvelous Big Mamma! I'm going to have to check that exhaustive Tennessee Williams bio I have and see if she was ever considered for any of his projects. I know he loved Maureen Stapleton.

      I have a copy of this film I DVD's from television a few years ago. It would be nice to have it on an official DVD release. I'm not much of an Anthony Quinn fan, but Booth really makes this movie such a pleasure for me.
      Thanks for jarring the memory with Ruth White, a fine actress always off my radar.

    3. Oh, and I haven't seen "About Mrs. Leslie" for years, but I don't have a fond recollection of it. I saw it in my pre-Shirley Booth appreciation days, and thought it was too soapy, and as a kid I found it hard to wrap my mind around "Hazel" being a woman with a sordid past.

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    5. put me in the category of those who forget Jean Stapleton did any serious acting. You can tell by the way I obliterated the "Jean" in your comment and replaced it with "Maureen".
      Thanks for the Glass Menagerie link- who knew?

  3. "...as a kid I found it hard to wrap my mind around "Hazel" being a woman with a sordid past." Thinking that would probably make watching the show a little more interesting.

    Nothing to say about the movie, but I want to mention how much I love staged promo photos like the one at the bottom of the piece that try to convey the tone of a movie in an image that's not from the story. Another extinct type of movie promotion.

    1. I added that pic at the last minute because it was so campy, yet practically a flip-book image of the entire film. I love those staged promo photos, too. And "Hot Spell" has several I found online, each more pent-up and intense than the last.

  4. Apparently "Hot Spell" is a good deal rarer and hard to find than I thought. While it isn't yet available on DVD, a reader sent me a link showing me that copies of the film are available on iOffer:

  5. Hi Ken,

    So glad it took you until now to cover this study in denial. It was one of those Holy Grail titles I mentioned in reference to The Hireling until about two weeks ago when I came across it freshly posted on YouTube. I instantly stopped what I was doing to watch it before it could vanish as things there can do. I had been aware of it for decades but the only portion I'd seen was a small snippet that was included in the wretched movie Valentine's Day as a film that the retired actress Shirley MacLaine was playing had appeared in when she was younger. It was the only worthwhile part of that terrible movie.

    As for this film I wish I could say I adored it, I wanted to so badly. But even though I liked it and thought most of the acting was wonderful it made me mad too frequently for me to fully embrace it.

    Part of that is my indifference to Anthony Quinn. He's someone I just never have gotten the appeal of while still thinking at times he's a fine actor. But a stud that multiple women go gaga over and make fools of themselves for I just don't see. Add into that the fact that his character is a repellent jackass and it created a big hole in the film for me.

    Usually I adore the young Shirley MacLaine, and the mature one as well, but in many scenes I just wanted to reach through the screen and smack her a good one. I realize that part of that was the mother's fault for infantilizing her but I thought many times her acting was shrill. And why she was mad for the obvious douche that Warren Stevens was playing is a mystery though I suppose the writer was trying to illustrate that she would seek out a man who would treat her just as badly as her father did her mother.

    Of the three children I thought the best performance came from Earl Holliman, it always throws me at first when he turns up in a film-I connect him to TV almost exclusively because when I was a kid that was his primary domain. But his coiled contained work as he dealt with the frustrations thrust upon him is excellent. His attempts to get out from under the thumb of both parents, who each in their own way are dreadful authority figures, were for me some of the most compelling segments of the film.

  6. As you said though the film rests on Shirley Booth’s performance and she is wonderful. Of her onscreen performances I still prefer About Mrs. Leslie by a substantial margin but she makes you feel the desperation and fear of Alma Duval. I thought one of the failings of the film, or maybe it was Quinn’s performance, was its inability to show why she was such a willing doormat for a man who obviously hasn’t loved her for a long time, if ever. Despite that Shirley manages to inject a feeling of pathos into Alma’s futile attempts but her naked obsequiousness is wearing after a while.

    I’ve come late to a familiarity with Shirley Booth’s film work. I was a faithful Hazel watcher when I was young and adored her short-lived series A Touch of Grace where she and J. Pat O’Malley both gave the most beautiful, tender performances but didn’t see any of her small theatrical output until about a decade ago. I’ve seen everything now except her cameo in Main Street to Broadway, another of those Grail titles, and she’s a revelation. It’s a pity her filmography is so slender since in those few pictures she showed such variety, Dolly Levi is worlds away from Lola Delaney, but she really preferred the stage and after being passed over for both Summertime and Desk Set which she created on stage and with the extremely lucrative Hazel she could forsake a medium that didn’t offer her the opportunities she deserved. Much as I love Ruth Hussey in The Philadelphia Story it would have been fascinating to see Shirley recreate her stage performance especially since there is no record of her early work.

    Love the shout out to the divine Eileen Heckart. I wish she had been in more of the film, it came alive in a different way whenever she was on the scene.

    While the film was thick with Sothern Gothic staples, although sadly missing the moss covered plantation, where it did deviate was in its more realistic conclusion and sense of moving in a more meaningful, purposeful direction for all the characters. So while it wasn’t all I had hoped for I would watch it again. Actually with a foreknowledge of how it plays out I think I might have a different takeaway view.

    1. Yay! So glad you got to see the film!
      Thanks a heap for letting everyone know that “Hot Spell” is available (while it lasts!) on YouTube!
      The film is so maddeningly hard-to-find and little more than summarized online, so I especially enjoyed reading someone else’s take on the film. You do a great job of breaking down what elements works and what things you found wanting.
      I hope this contributes to more people seeking it out to make up their own minds about it.

      Also, I’m glad that you mentioned how good Earl Holliman is. I too associate him with TV (not particularly good TV at that) but his performance here and in "The Rainmaker" and even his bit in “Summer & Smoke” remind me what an effective actor he can be.

      I too think it’s too bad that Booth didn't do more film work, especially in the comedy vein. Her timing and delivery are things of beauty.
      Thanks for sharing your “Hot Spell” thoughts, Joel. Seems like you’re back up to speed with these posts!

  7. Dear Ken: Ah--Shirley Booth! She has long been a favorite of mine.

    I saw "Hot Spell" back in the 1980s (probably a late-night viewing on TBS) and my recollections echo what you and others here have said: it's watchable, often moving at times (and the scene with Booth and Heckart that you mention above is a real highlight) but awfully reminiscent of other, better-known works. At the time, it struck me as "Lola Delaney marries Stanley Kowalski." I even recall hearing the music over the opening credits and thinking, "A cut-rate imitation of an Alex North score" (North, one of my favorite film composers, did the scores for "Streetcar Named Desire," "Rose Tattoo," Long Hot Summer," etc etc). Imagine my embarrassment when I then saw in the credits that North himself had actually done the score!

    I loved Booth in "Hazel" when I was growing up (although I would say I liked her better than the show itself) and was dazzled by her depth and emotional range when I first saw "Come Back, Little Sheba." I sought out all of her movies (she only made four feature films, all of which are cited above and all of which were made for producer Hal Wallis at Paramount; I suspect she signed one contract and then never had much interest in making more films).

    But she was considered a leading light on Broadway in the 1950s. Besides "Sheba," which probably was her career peak, she also (as Joel mentioned) starred in "Desk Set" and "Time of the Cuckoo" (which was made into the Katherine Hepburn film "Summertime"). She also starred in three musicals in that decade, including playing Aunt Cissy in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," one of the all-time great underrated Broadway musicals. If you're interested, here's a YouTube clip of her singing "He Had Refinement":


    I too wish we had more of her work preserved, so we could better appreciate her range of talents. From all accounts, though, she was a quiet and unassuming woman, so it's probably remarkable she worked as often as she did. Robert Ryan, her "About Mrs. Leslie" co-star, told a revealing story about her: one day, he saw her walking down the sidewalk to the front gate at Paramount. He reassured her that she probably could drive her car in and actually park on the studio lot, since she was the star of the picture.

    Finally, let us never forget that in 1973 she provided the voice of Mrs. Claus in that holiday perennial TV special, "The Year Without a Santa Claus."

    1. Hi David
      Should anyone ever want for a summary of "Hot Spell," "Lola Delaney marries Stanley Kowalski" is about as precise and concise as it gets!
      Maybe that unmistakable similarity is why it remained a play unproduced. Movies (as we know from today's remake-mania) thrives on wearing trends down into the ground. I don't know how "Hot Spell" performed back in 1958, but given the caliber of talents assembled and the fact that so few people today have even heard of it, I suspect it was considered one of Hollywood's lesser efforts in the southern fried soap sweepstakes.

      Nice to hear you're a fan of Booth (The Year Without Santa Claus reference made me laugh). I have the scores for the musicals Juno, and By the beautiful Sea on my ipod, but I don't believe I've ever heard her in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," so I'll be checking that out. Thanks for the link.
      That's a great anecdote about her, too!
      Thanks, David!

  8. Hello Ken, I never thought about it before but you're right about the southern gothic drama being an obsolete film genre. It's true, those Tennessee Williams type movies have vanished from the silver screen. For a while they seemed to be the very most adult kind of films Hollywood could make.

    Although the family drama of "Hot Spell" seems sad it sounds like a really good idea for a film or a play. I want to see it after having read your excellent review.

    The film has a fine cast. I have never seen Shirley Booth in anything, but if she only made four motion pictures it might not be so strange... Earl Holliman is always dreamy!

    You often review very different kinds of films from different decades. You've got a good mix of adult films and wilder pop movies! It must be nice having a partner who appreciates older films. I can't get mine to watch black and white movies.

    1. Hi Wille
      When i'm venting my usual rage at today's smania for superhero movies, I tend to forget that Hollywood trends are nothing new. It's the industry's habit to take a genre and run it into the ground. I suspect that by the time "Hot Spell" came out, either the public was feeling oversaturated, or drawn to more substantial vehicles.

      I like "Hot Spell" a great deal, but it really is rather light fare. And certainly the screenplay lacks the poetry of a Tennessee Williams.

      My partner and I do share similar tastes in movies. Where we differ is his fondness for foreign films and documentaries. He has a bit of a hard time with my liking beach party movies and those silly 60s comedies like Casino Royale or What's New Pussycat.

      For a young man you sound like you enjoy a broad spectrum of films. One time you should share with us what your least favorite film genres are (if you have any). Thanks for commenting Wille. Should you ever check this movie out, write back!

  9. I've managed finally to see this film, based on your fascinating review, on Youtube; and I have to agree that, as you point out, it's a deja-vu experience in the repressed-passions-break-out-down-South genre. My disappointment with it was that the film wasn't "Southern" enough in its style--it seemed more middle-class Midwestern, mainly because the characters not only didn't speak with Southern accents, but because their issues were the stuff of TV drama, rather than the exotically overheated world of Tennessee Williams; and the dialogue was patly symbolic throughout, even to the 'hot spell' being over at the end. (The thing about Williams's plays is that, after listening to his gorgeous dialogue, everything else sounds so flat and commonplace.) I also wish Mann could have been a little more imaginative in his direction, could have conveyed more the heat of a New Orleans summer (nobody sweats in the film!), or give us more the stifling ambiance of the family's life that Anthony Quinn's character so desperately wants to break away from. As you note, it really all rests on Shirley Booth's performance, she seems almost by herself to create the tensions within the family group and indicate how each character basically wants to break away from HER. It's interesting, as you note, that this short, rather dumpy-looking actress could still star in several major Hollywood movies.I don't know if that's possible in our film culture today.

    I also thought that Eileen Heckart was a delight: great timing, great line readings, and she had the ability to keep surprising me with what she was doing. I used to think of her only in regards to her (very) campy performance in The Bad Seed (which was probably unintentionally so), but after seeing her in this film and in Miracle in the Rain, I've come to admire her as a brilliant actress with great range.

    1. Hi GOM

      I was talking about this film with my partner, and he too thought it was a little odd that so little sense of New Orleans was conveyed (we watched it together na d he even had to be reminded where it took place).
      All the points you mention seem to converge and contribute to the film feeling like a late entry in the southern goth sweepstakes. The point you make about what is missed by the dialog not having the poetry of Williams is well taken.
      And I hadn't thought of it until you mentioned it, but the domestic problem here IS rather tame given the sometimes taboo areas Williams explores.

      As a fan of Eileen Heckart, I've got to check out Miracle in the Rain. I don't know it at all.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this film while they were still so fresh from your first (and likely last) viewing!