Great American writers series
Good plays tend to curdle when they’re made into movies. The camera never seems able to escape the set. What sounded like poetry in a live performance becomes hammy in a close-up. Of course, this has never stopped Broadway dramas from being made into Hollywood movies, especially when the playwrights have big names. To prove this, Paramount has dusted off some prime examples from its archives and released them as the ”Great American Writers Series.”
William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba is the exception that proves the rule. It’s one title in the series that has remained a familiar late-night TV presence, and deservedly. Shirley Booth won an Academy Award for her performance as the pathetically frowsy wife of an alcoholic, and if she doesn’t make you wet your handkerchiefs in the last bittersweet five minutes, you can’t be human. Burt Lancaster, as a man slowly sinking in the quagmire of marital despair, is every bit as good. (To appreciate what an actor the man is, check out, in this same series, The Rose Tattoo. It’s minor-league Tennessee Williams, but another slice of ham grilled to perfection by Lancaster, as a boisterous, gentle cretin.) Inge, who also wrote Bus Stop and Picnic, was better served by Hollywood than most other playwrights, but Come Back, Little Sheba was surely both his best play and his best transfer to film.
Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms is the hokiest of the plays. Sometimes the hokum is fun, as when crusty old New England patriarch Burl Ives twangs out, ”A hum’s got t’hev a woman!” and his newlywed bride, Sophia Loren, looking possessively at her new home, replies, ”A woman’s got t’hev a hum!” Anthony Perkins is fatally miscast as Ives’ youngest son. Stripped to the waist and pretending to do farm chores, he looks embarrassing and embarrassed, and as for the love scenes, even with Elmer Bernstein’s score heaving away, Loren and Perkins might as well be in two different movies.
Carrie, directed by William Wyler and starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones, is the most interesting dark horse in the series, but like so many other dark horses, it fades in the stretch. Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie is a brutal riches-to-rags story about a man ruined by a biological force called love. Wyler’s movie (the only one of these releases not made from a play) deletes all of Dreiser’s vision and most of his drama and replaces it with Jennifer Jones’ pretty face and Olivier’s noble demeanor. Eddie Albert delivers the most creditable performance: At least he seems American. Neglect this one.
The other plays in the Paramount series are Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams and The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder.
Come Back, Little Sheba: A
Desire Under the Elms: C-