Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Newman and Woodward Bring on a Memorable Hot Summer

       Summertime offers the perfect excuse to re-watch (and pass the viewing experience on to others, if possible) one of the 1950’s most satisfying and entertaining romantic melodramas, 20th Century-Fox’s The Long Hot Summer. Director Martin Ritt, quickly gaining ground as a formidable talent and making up for lost time due to the era’s abominable blacklist, which blocked him from directing for several years, sets a light-hearted tone not normally found in the torrid potboilers of the period (such as Fox’s previous smash in this vein, Peyton Place, or any number of Douglas Sirk’s deft works), while simultaneously beginning a fruitful association with Summer’s soon-to-be superstar leading man. Ritt is aided by a truly remarkable screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., which manages to ingeniously blend several of William Faulkner’s works in a coherent manner, including the classic short story “Barn Burning” and the novel “The Hamlet” into a riveting tale involving the Varners, a well-to-do Southern family whose lives are impacted in various ways after rebellious drifter Ben Quick enters their estate and stirs up plenty of passions within the brood. 

      A first-rate cast comprised of both veterans and talent newer to 1958 audiences does a terrific job of balancing the drama, comedy and romantic aspects of the story. From the outset of the film wherein, after a prologue detailing his eviction from a previous town due to the aforementioned barn burning, Ben Quick’s journey to Frenchmen’s Bend and the local Varner clan is relayed over the title credits as the strains of the film’s pleasant title song is aptly rendered via Jimmie Rodger’s smooth, relaxed vibrato (in a vocal so era-appropriate, you can picture a couple going to a café after the movie and playing Rodger’s Honeycomb or Kisses Sweeter Than Wine on the jukebox), Paul Newman is clearly in supreme command of his colorful anti-hero role. After rising to prominence with his winning performance as boxer Rocky Graziano in 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me, Newman paid a few dues in standard fare such as Until They Sail before 1958’s one-two punch of Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof put him firmly in the mix as a star possessing an uncannily knack for showing the vulnerability behind a rebel’s tough exterior- check out how convincingly Newman switches from slick conman to wounded victim as Ben relates his troubled childhood for a prime example of his dramatic finesse in this area. Add in those famous baby-blues, seen to great advantage in Summer’s De Luxe color, and Newman’s arrival as a leading man second-to-none and major screen performer (he won Best Actor at Cannes for Summer) is clear.

          Partnering with Newman for the first and maybe best time onscreen is Joanne Woodward as Clara Varner, a not-so-spinsterish, down-to-earth young schoolteacher both drawn to and repelled by the brash Quick. Made just before the couple became one of the most renowned husband-and-wife teams in show business, Woodward demonstrates an easy chemistry with her beloved in Summer, both in their romantic interludes and during the more frequent scenes wherein friction arises as Ben and Clara match wits and try to figure each other and their relationship out. Newman and Woodward are great sparring partners, finding the humor in their character’s conflicting emotions and attraction to each other, and their spot-on teaming in Summer makes a fan wish more of the duos’ subsequent films could’ve matched this initial high-quality outing. Woodward was rising even faster than Newman around this time, with an Oscar in hand for 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve and equally standout work in the same year’s No Down Payment (also ably directed by Ritt) preceding the release of Summer. It’s great to see Woodward so adeptly switch gears and combine Clara’s more serious nature with a more playful, romantic manner, and you sense Woodward is relishing the chance to avoid typecasting by mixing things up in Summer, as opposed to again handling the stark dramatics involved in her 1957 starring roles. 

        Woodward is also great at showing Clara’s strength in good-naturedly but firmly standing up to her bombastic father Will, played by Orson Welles at his slyest and, appropriately given Will’s overbearing nature, his liveliest. Welles apparently was concerned regarding working with a field of young, formidable players from the Actor’s Studio portraying strong, independent spirits to boot, but he shouldn’t have worried: no one is overshadowing Orson Welles when he gets his teeth into a role this meaty, or otherwise for that matter, as it’s difficult to recall a time anyone’s one-upped Welles onscreen, period, whether he’s giving a performance for the ages in Citizen Kane or hamming it up to hilarious effect via his Catch 22 cameo. Spitting out his dialogue in an often-intelligible manner as Will rants and raves through the town he owns lock, stock and barrel before going home to do more goading with his family, you can’t keep your eyes off of Welles as he blusters his way through Summer with the verve of a genius out to steal a movie. However, Welles is as gifted an actor as the other top-liners in the film, and he modulates the role enough to allow for some calmer, touching moments, such as his one-on-one with Clara late in the movie, to indicate the more humane aspects of Will Varner, lending an impressive believability and compassion to the role when it threatens to become even more larger-than-life than it should be. 

          As Will’s son (and heir-apparent) Jody, who becomes increasingly dejected as he finds his father becoming fond of Ben at his expense, Franciosa is saddled with the most morose role of the principles and, as frequently happened with many an Actor’s Studio alumni, he sometimes lets his Method training show in a too intense, studied manner, lacking the charm and grace found in his costars’ less labored work. However, Franciosa is clearly trying hard to illustrate Jody’s dilemma, and you root for him to break though the generation gap often found in 1950’s dramas, and find common ground with his disassociated father (and what do I know: Franciosa was fresh off an Oscar nomination for A Hatful of Rain and had a Golden Globe soon-to-come for 1959’s Career, which is almost impossible-to-see nowadays, despite a great cast). As Jody’s lushly beautiful young bride Eula, Lee Remick has a giddy spontaneity and sensuality which allows her to rate a major breakthrough with limited screen time, making a maximum impact against stiff competition for onscreen attention. Although Remick would go on to become one of the foremost leading ladies in films and television, often in lady-like roles, in her early parts, such as her debut as the erotic teenage baton twirler who catches Andy Griffith’s eye in A Face in the Crowd, as Eula and, most significantly, as Laura, the calm, sexy wife in 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, who may or may not be the victim she appears to be, Remick displays great dexterity in handling provocative material, blending an element of sweetness with maturity and a touch of class belying her years. Remick appears to have a ball playing these not-quite bad girls in an entertaining but completely realistic manner, and her appeal in these roles is colossal. 

        Rounding out the cast, Angela Lansbury also has fun playing Minnie, Will’s good-time girl in town with marriage on her mind. Lansbury rarely made a bad move on film, appearing to thrive regardless of what type of character she enacted, and Minnie gives her a chance to show off a bouncy, carefree demeanor, while also convincing an audience she has the willpower to tame Will and get him to settle down; she’s a great match for Welles’ forcefulness. Richard Anderson is seen to good advantage as Alan, the reserved object of Clara’s attentions; although Alan is labeled a ‘Mama’s Boy,’ Anderson does a fine job of not simply playing into the stereotypical weak-willed aspects of the character, showing Alan as strong enough to face the derisiveness frequently directed at him by Will with a quiet-but-firm staunchness. As Alan’s sister and Clara’s friend Agnes, Sarah Marshall and her distinct bird-like voice make a considerable impact in her main scene on the Varner’s front porch with Clara, wherein over pink lemonade the two young  women languidly discuss the lack of men in town and their future prospects for a mate- Marshall has a priceless, nervous-but-intrigued reaction shot when the gorgeous Newman shows up and briefly stares her down, resulting in Agnes wanly smiling and skittishly diverting her eyes elsewhere (it’s one of the best scenes in the movie at capturing a sense of summertime ambience and the stirring libidos involved therein). 

        A substantial box-office success upon its release in March of 1958 (Summer placed in the top twenty hits of the year with a tidy 3.5 million in domestic rentals, according to Variety) the film deserves more recognition today for the thoroughly enjoyable manner in which it pulls off the tricky Faulkner subject material in both dramatic and more comedic terms. Viewing the movie a few years ago in its full Cinemascope glory amid a packed house at the New Beverly Theater in L.A., Summer went over like gangbusters with the crowd, making me wonder why this personal favorite hasn’t been shown more regularly in revival houses. The Twilight Time Blu-ray offers classic movie lovers a chance to see the movie in a nice print adequately showcasing the top-flight efforts of Ritt and his remarkable cast, as well as an entertaining bonus feature detailing the eventful making of the film with Newman, Woodward and Lansbury offering their insight.