Toys in the Attic (idiom): Euphemism for insanity. Diminished mental capacity. To think or behave in an immature, foolish, or unreasonable manner [See: Bats in the Belfry].
In the tradition of all good Southern Gothics, that genus of deep-fried melodrama made popular by Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and William Inge; Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic is a title from which several meanings can be extracted. Idiomatic (mental illness figures in the storyline); literal (a dysfunctional family’s childhood toys have not been discarded, but remain stored in the attic of their dilapidated home); symbolic (the attic: a place of hidden secrets and childhood preserved. The toys: repressed longings and delicate illusions one is fearful of having shattered); and metaphoric (to avoid reality by means of repression, self-delusion, and clinging possessively to illusions is to choose darkness and isolation).
Hellman’s semi-autobiographical Toys in the Attic was the author/playwright’s last original play following such Broadway successes as The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes, and Candide. Toys in the Attic was produced on Broadway in 1960 starring Jason Robards, Maureen Stapleton, Anne Revere, and Irene Worth; all nominated for Tony Awards, the show itself, nominated for Best Play.
Luckily for me, Lillian Hellman’s play was written with swamps, sweet tea, and sweltering sex to spare, so even Production Code-mandated alterations leave Toys in the Attic with plenty of all that I look to a Southern Gothic for: sexual repression, heated histrionics, inconsistent Southern accents, neurosis, brass beds, rumpled sheets, electric fans, and loads of family secrets.
|Dean Martin as Julian Berniers|
|Geraldine Page as Carrie Berniers|
|Wendy Hiller as Anna Berniers|
|Gene Tierney as Albertine Prine|
|Yvette Mimieux as Lily Prine-Berniers|
|Frank Silvera as Henry Simpson|
Charming, ne’er-do-well Julian Berniers (Martin) has been the doted-on focus of his two spinster sisters his entire life. While Julian chased dream after dream of making a fortune via all manner of half-baked schemes, failed businesses, and gambling binges; practical Anna (Heller) and possessive Carrie (Page) have remained in their hometown of New Orleans, living lives of austere sacrifice, working and maintaining the rundown Victorian home where they all grew up (which none of them really liked).
Devoid of children, suitors, or even friends, Carrie and Anna are each other’s sole companionship and company, their lives a routine of hollow rituals of false intimacy (weekly, each buys the other an unwished-for gift), buoyed by the twin deferred dreams of selling the house and taking a long-talked-about trip to Europe.
But this time things are different. And the difference shatters the very foundation of dysfunction and delusion upon which the Berniers household has been built.
Toys in the Attic (along with that other 1963 release, William Inge’s The Stripper) came at the tail end of Hollywood’s love affair with Midwest melodrama and sweaty tales of the oversexed South. If 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire represented the apogee of the genre’s popularity, it’s safe to say that twelve years hence, the tropes and clichés of Southern psychodrama had begun to wear thin. Toys in the Attic enjoyed success on Broadway, by the time it reached the screen, foreign films had so surpassed American films in both frankness and realism, the mannered theatrically and compound coyness of Southern Gothic was beginning to feel a little passé.
In adapting the play to the screen, Lillian Hellman purists may have balked at the subplots and characterizations sacrificed to screenwriter James Poe whittling Hellman’s 2-hour-plus play down to a taut 90-minutes; but given the over-familiarity of the play’s by-now well-traveled themes of sex, eccentricity, and decay, I’m not certain the film could support a longer running time.
|Wealthy society widow Albertine Prine scandalizes the locals by having her handsome African-American chauffeur as her lover, and is considered "crazy" by the Berniers sisters due to her lack of concern for the opinions of others.|
By 1963, censorship had relaxed enough so that Toys in the Attic didn’t have to completely commit to the kind of avoidance games that neutered 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—the word “incest” is never spoken, but the euphemistic term “sleep with” is bandied about freely. But Poe’s adaptation updates the play from the Depression Era to modern-day New Orleans; minimizes the significance of Tierney’s perceptive character; eliminates all mention of Julian’s bouts of sexual impotence; erases hints of Anna’s latent incestuous feelings for her sister; does the best as it can with an interracial romance (proximity within the frame has to substitute for physical intimacy), and changes the character of Lily from being categorically mentally-ill (giving credence to her fears that her mother [Tierney] paid Julian to marry her) to being merely emotionally immature.
From early trade paper reports attaching the names William Wyler, Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, and Olivia de Havilland to the film, there’s a sense that Toys in the Attic went through a lot of changes before reaching the screen. Likely, some of them budgetary. For a time, it was believed serious dramas should be filmed in black and white, the color adaptions of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke (1961) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)—both starring Geraldine Page—flying in the face of that tradition. By 1963 fewer films were being made in black and white, so it’s not clear if the beautiful black and white cinematography of Toys in the Attic (by Joseph F. Biroc) was inspired by aesthetics or budget. What is known is that television-trained director George Roy Hill (making his second film, his first being the [rare]Tennessee Williams comedy Period of Adjustment in 1962) was used to working fast, cheap, and in black and white.
If the final cast chosen for the film lacked the marquee allure of Wyler’s involvement, they certainly didn’t lack for prestige. Toys in the Attic marked Oscar and Tony nominee Geraldine Page’s third foray into Southern Gothic; Tony nominated and Oscar-winning British actress Wendy Hiller (for Separate Tables) made an ideal match to play Page’s circumspect sister; and Gene Tierney (Oscar-nominee for Leave Her To Heaven, and whose real-life struggles with mental illness brought about her premature retirement in 1955) was in the midst of a welcome comeback following her 1962 appearance in Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962).
But from the time casting was first announced to the film’s release in the summer of 1963, the biggest topic of conversation and critical bone of contention surrounding Toys in the Attic was the casting of actor/entertainer Dean Martin in the role that won Jason Robards a Tony nomination. Martin was no stranger to movies, having appeared in more than 20 features by the time he was cast opposite such theatrical heavyweights as Page and Hiller. It was simply that few had confidence that the lightweight, notoriously easygoing half of the Martin & Lewis comedy team had the range and dramatic chops to tackle this, the most substantial of his rare dramatic screen appearances.
Toys in the Attic was not a success, in fact it was a resounding flop. Critics, citing battle fatigue over the whole clutch-the-pearls-while-I-fan-myself genre, called it a minor Southern Gothic and complained that James Poe’s adaptation undercut the complexity of Heller’s characters and supplanted the play’s pessimistic conclusion with a provisionally “happy” ending. Even George Roy Hill was dissatisfied with the result, calling the film the least successful of his works. And while Page and Hiller emerged with their reputations intact, critical response to Martin’s performance was so harsh he never tackled so sizable a dramatic role again.
|Such Devoted Sisters|
I recently got my hands on a copy (first time seeing it in decades) and was pleased to discover it's even better than I remembered. Sure, it's no The Little Foxes, yet it tells its story with an economy and visual style that perfectly serves its tone of mounting suspense and escalating tensions. It's a dynamic, emotionally rich showcase for the talented cast and a great many Southern Gothic clichés, ultimately managing to enthrall and entertain in spite of its flaws.
|Nan Martin as Charlotte Watkins|
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Much of Toys in the Attic is said to be autobiographical, down to Hellman setting the story in her hometown of New Orleans, basing the character of Julian on her salesman father (who had two clinging sisters), referencing an aunt who had an affair with her African-American chauffer, and, as per the play’s themes of latent incest, drawing upon her own adolescent feelings towards an uncle.
I credit this as the reason why the relationships in Toys in the Attic resonate with so much emotional authenticity for me. Even when the sometimes-overreaching aspects of a melodramatic subplot—involving a land swindle and an emotionally abused wife (Nan Martin) seeking escape—threaten to overwhelm what I found to be most compelling about the film as a whole: the relationship between the three siblings and the threat Lily poses as a clingy interloper in their long-established cycle of dysfunction.
|The selfish, crippling side of love rears its head when the|
always-in-need-of-rescue Julian finds someone who needs him.
Like Julian I am the only boy in my family. While I was never exactly doted on by my four sisters, I remained somehow special and apart from a dynamic they shared amongst themselves; a fact which engendered resentment from some, envy in others. There was no lack of love between us, but the way we were viewed and related to by our parents (I could do no wrong, my sisters fell under strict scrutiny) affected how we viewed and related to each other.
What I most connected with in Toys in the Attic is how it captures the curious way some families can handle the failures of its members with far more generosity and grace than they do the successes. How living with unhappiness (if it means things will remain unchanged) can be a less frightening prospect than taking the kinds of risks that can bring true happiness.
|Confrontations and Confessions|
"When you love you take your chances on being hated by speaking out the truth."
If you don’t like Geraldine Page, I doubt you’ll care much for Toys in the Attic. She’s the entire show. And what a show it is. Wendy Hiller (underplaying nicely and turning stillness into an art) is the grounded center around which Page’s Tasmanian Devil of a faded southern belle spins uncontrollably and destructively. Playing a delusional, manipulative character whose life of peculiarly selfish selflessness has left her one throbbing mass of unrecognized desires, Page is simply terrific.
What's a Southern Gothic without a brass bed and rumpled sheets?
Yvette Mimieux suffers more from how her character is written than from anything specific I can cite in her performance. Perhaps because Mimieux had just played a girl with an intellectual disability in Light in the Piazza (1962), the filmmakers decided to drop that angle completely. Unfortunately, in an effort to write Lily as simply naive and immature, she winds up coming across as a nitwit. Her character becomes an annoying presence long before she has a chance to become a sympathetic one.
Gene Tierney is a welcome sight and is very good (and charmingly funny) in a small role requiring the 41-year-old actress to look older than 44-year-old Dean Martin. She and the dashing and dignified Frank Silvera make a handsome couple.
Dean Martin is surprisingly good as Julian. He's a limited actor, to be sure, but he doesn't embarrass himself and has moments that make me wish he did try his hand at more dramatic roles. So, while I might have, from time to time, found myself imaging the kind of depth and poignance Jason Robards would have brought to the role, I had to concede that Martin's a natural when it comes to likability and boyish exuberance. Something I can't say for Robards.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
By way of a striking visual style that emphasizes the dominating and confining aspects of the Berniers home, Toys in the Attic finds a deft way of expounding on the film's theme of emotional and self-imprisonment.
|Fearful that Julian is having an affair and feeling unwelcome by his sisters, Lily's isolation is dramatized in this shot which makes the childlike woman appear to be standing in an oversize crib.|
|Many scenes are shot from an attic's eye view, the characters minimized and dominated by the house|
|Bars and fences are a recurring visual motif. The incestuous love Carrie has for her brother has always kept Anna at a remove. Frequently Hill frames Page & Marin in the foreground with Hiller separate and apart|
|Again, the characters are filmed in a way as to make them appear caged in and confined by the house|
Movie trends inevitably suffer from oversaturation, resulting in perfectly fine films being rejected by critics and the public alike due to the genre cycles having run their course. Distanced from what in 1963 must have looked like yet another go-round of decorous depravity and decay told with wavering southern accents; Toys in the Attic is now a film worthy of reappraisal and another look.
|In 1960, Wendy Hiller starred in the London production of Toys in the Attic, playing the Geraldine Page role.|
|In 1976 Yvette Mimieux appeared with her Toys in the Attic rival Nan Martin in Jackson County Jail. A Drive-In exploitationer in which the usually passive Mimieux breaks character and beats a prison guard to death with a stool!|