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What novelist Zane Grey was to the wild, wild West, playwright Tennessee Williams was to Deep South gentility. His florid, full-throttled female leads have everytime been the most sought after, while his deeply private works not only made celebrated scene stars out of Jessica Tandy, Barbara Bel Geddes, Elizabeth Ashley, and Jessica Lange, but created movie legends out of Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor. Fortunate in having a huge number of his prize-winners transferred successfully to film, Williams seldom failed to pique interest with his old-fashioned reveries of sexual longing or depravity. 1961's "Summer and Smoke", set in small-town Mississippi in 1916, is a refulgent exercise in the former.The original Broadway ver opened a year after the resounding success of Williams' "A Streetcar Called Desire" (1948), and though it doesn't match "Streetcar" in brilliance (what does???), it has a luminosity all its own, with Geraldine Page, arguably the finest American theater actress of her time, providing most of the wattage. Page is one of the more fortunate scene stars to have had the honor of recreating a Williams' heroine for the screen. She did so again a couple years soon with the equally potent "Sweet Bird of Youth."Ms. Page portrays prim, genteel Alma Winemiller ("Miss Alma"), a minister's daughter chided as a youth by her school friends for being such. Far removed from experiencing life's libidinous pleasures, the grown up Alma has consigned herself to living a respectable, straight-laced, unbearably lonely existence as one of the town's more prideful, eccentric symbols of religious piety. Still living at home, her drab life consists of teaching voice lessons and leading bible studies with matronly ladies twice her age. Adding to the drudgery is the obligation of caring for her elderly parents, especially her emotionally erratic mother who delights in taunting Alma with cruel remarks while humiliating her in front of city folk with random acts of shoplifting. The malcontent but dutiful Alma bravely bears up under the weight, living a spinster's life method before her time.Enter Laurence Harvey's John Buchanan, an exceptionally handsome, hard-living playboy who lives on life's edge. A next-door neighbor to Alma, whose first passionate schoolyard crush was Buchanan, the prodigal son has been sent back home to straighten out his reckless ways. But life's sinful pleasures prove far too tempting and later he is back to his old habits of cathouse carousing and cockfighting matches. Buchanan's return rekindles Alma's youthful stirrings, for underneath the thick, confining layers of corsets and bustles still lies a heart teeming with unbridled desire.As she reinserts herself slightly into Buchanan's life under the religious guise of soul-saving, the effort leads to a brief, life-altering romantic interlude for Miss Alma. To witness the bipolar directions the two end up taking is the essence and fascination of Williams' elegiac piece.Geraldine Page (Oscar-nominated) is spellbinding as Alma, showing brilliant range and delicate power as the fading wallflower who suddenly over-blooms. Laurence Harvey gives a remote, synthetic performance as the roving Lothario which, I suppose, is consistent with the character, yet his rakish nice looks and polished charm cannot be denied.As Alma's maddening mother who reverts to childlike behavior, Una Merkel stands out among the helping cast with a brittle, flavorful Oscar-nominated performance. Malcolm Atterbury appropriately shows unflinching, old-town values as her stiff, aloof minister of a father. Pretty Pamela Tiffin, in her early career, plays Alma's young songbird student and object of attraction for Harvey with youthful vibrance. And having just won an Oscar for "West Side Story," Rita Moreno unfortunately returns real to form in one of her many spitfire stereotypes as Harvey's jealous, round-heeled paramour. John McIntire is all gruff and grimace as Harvey's deprecating old man, while young energetic Earl Holliman has a poignant, show-stopping stage with Page in the final reel as a traveling salesman.Leisurely paced with fine, frilly attention to period feature and atmosphere, the movie earned Oscar-nominations for its art direction and lovely, lyrical Elmer Bernstein score.Required viewing for Tennessee Williams fanatics and a gotta for those who love to lose themselves in costumed romantic drama.
"Summer and Smoke" is other Tennessee Williams southern drama that, after debuting as a play, was made into a movie and soon an opera. Set earlier in the 20th Century, it's the storyline of repressed passion, unrequited love and desperation. Geraldine Page stars as Alma Winemiller, the uptight daughter of a minister. She teaches voice, sings a little, and lives with her father and an insane mother (Una Merkel). Alma, since childhood, has been in love with the young doctor next door, John Buchanan (Laurence Harvey), the son of a doctor and a playboy. Buchanan has recently returned to city and is still a reckless playboy. Actually he's involved with Rosa Zacharias (Rita Moreno), a woman from the wrong class and the wrong side of town. On the evening that something should have happened between Alma and John, she runs from him. One night, while a wild party is going on at the Buchanan house, Alma goes next door and learns that Rosa and John are going to be married. Upset, she calls John's father (John MacIntyre) at the hospital and urges him to return home. The effect is tragedy.This is a very strong and poignant storyline of two people, one interested in earthly pleasures and one focused on the soul and spirit. Neither one is entirely right or wrong, but it creates a chasm between them. When every realizes what the another has been saying, it's too late for them.Geraldine Page, who played this role to nice acclaim on stage, brings her superb portrayal to the screen. The role was based on Williams' sister, who eventually went insane. If physically Page is a tiny less delicate looking than one imagines Tennessee Williams' female characters, her portrayal includes all of the fragility of the role. The final stage between Alma and a salesman, played by Earl Holliman shows the shocking contrast between Alma in the beginning and at the end of the film. Geraldine Page gave us all too several gems on films, as she concentrated on the stage. We have to savor what we have.Laurence Harvey is very handsome and desirable, but probably a tiny too refined for the role of John. The role needs someone whose sexuality is less ethereal and more earthbound. Una Merkel is perfect as Alma's mother, a truly disturbed and frightening woman.Very nice movie based on a Williams play, worth seeing for the unbelievable Geraldine Page and its thought-provoking story.
When this was released I quickly made my method to the Fox West Coast Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills, California during its first-run engagement. Advance reviews were quite positive but I was unprepared for the power and yet the delicacy of Geraldine Page's performance as Alma Winemiller. Although I was never a fanatic of Laurence Harvey, who was cast in so many top movies of that era, he joined his fellow users in affording Miss Page some very solid support. Una Merkel and John McIntire were especially worthy of praise, Earl Holliman acquits himself manfully in a brief role in the chilling final sequence, and Pamela Tiffin was touchingly pretty as a heedless young thing. However, Rita Moreno, who has since complained about all those "spitfire" roles with which she was saddled during her earlier Hollywood days, probably counts this appearance as one of those she'd prefer we forget. (But, parenthetically, she has more than reason to be grateful for a list of credits that had already included the lovely Tuptim in the mega-box office hit, "The Lord and I," an Academy Award for her helping role in "West Side Story," resulting in a career that continues to this day, outlasting many of the top stars who had led the casts of her earliest movie assignments.)Peter Glenville's direction (whose filmography is notably sparse) marshalls his actors and the top-notch production values with aplomb, aided by one of Elmer Bernstein's greatest scores. The VHS ver does not appear to be letterboxed, thus losing cinematographer Charles Lang, Jr.'s elegant Panavision framing, which was one of this film's handsomer attributes.
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