Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth was accompanied by special 'for adults only' notices when it opened in 1962, and this after it had been cleaned up considerably for the screen. With Paul Newman, Ed Begley, Rip Torn and particularly Geraldine Page behind Williams' emotionally heightened dialogue, it's still a powerful experience even if much of the corruption and ugliness of the stage version has been left behind. Richard Brooks' adaptation is more successful than his earlier Cat on a Hot Tin Roof because the basic premise is still intact: The main characters struggle to maintain the illusions of youthful success, or to achieve dreams long since lost.
Chance Wayne (Paul Newman) has dragged around Hollywood and New York for years trying to break into the acting racket, and now he returns to his small southern town with dissipated film star Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page) in tow. While she sobers up in a hotel suite, Chance tries to reverse his bad luck in one go -- he wants to steal away with the love of his life, Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight) and blackmail Alexandra into helping him become a star. But Heavenly's father is still Tom 'Boss' Finley, a domineering, almost Fascist politician who will do anything to get re-elected --- and make sure Chance never gets near his daughter again.
This is one author that never shied away from using characters as poetic symbols, not with one of the leading ladies named "Heavenly Finley." Sweet Bird of Youth compresses a great deal of theatricality into two hours. Chance Wayne is yet another Williams alter ego, a studly beach boy and failed Broadway personality looking for a free ride to the top. His last-gasp attempt at success is particularly heinous -- he thinks he can coerce Alexandra Del Lago, a high maintenance star, into promoting him as a new discovery. Freaked out because a preview audience laughed at her wrinkles, the impossible Del Lago has been hiding in booze bottles behind an alias, Princess Cosmonopoulos. Chance rolls joints for Alexandra, waits on her head and foot and even beds her to get her to honor a contract he thinks will result in a quick trip to stardom.
That's only half the story. Chance maneuvers Del Lago's Cadillac back to his hometown of St. Cloud, Florida with the aim of straightening out his ugly past. Another one of Williams' "Big Daddy" monsters emerges in Ed Begley's Tom 'Boss' Finley, a horrible demagogue who uses brass bands, cracker-barrel theatrics and brute force in his bid for reelection. The Sheriff and the leader of the Ladies' Auxiliary do everything but kiss Finley's feet; the near-satanic Tom Jr. (Rip Torn) has organized a local goon squad to do Dad's dirty work. Poor boy Chance made the mistake of buying into Finley's trickery years before: He accepted a ticket to New York to 'make good', thinking that Heavenly would be his when he returned. When he did return it was as a bum on a freight car. Heavenly got pregnant and her father covered it up with a 'secret operation' that netted the doctor responsible both a top hospital job and the promise of Heavenly's hand in marriage. Finley perceives Chance's return to St. Cloud as a double threat: Heavenly symbolizes Finley's 'clean family' image, and he suspects that Chance is part of a scheme to discredit him.
Once again Richard Brooks adapts a Tennessee Williams play directed by Elia Kazan. His choices inevitably tone down the stylized speeches while the MGM production values replace stylized stagecraft with standard, brightly lit Hollywood sets. Just the same, Brooks' good judgment keeps the show from collapsing into a soap opera populated by hysterical grotesques. We identify with the extreme but understandable characters on screen.
Much of the play survives the transition to this glossy MGM production, especially the key performances. Paul Newman and Geraldine Page originated their roles on Broadway, allowing a bit of theater history to be preserved. Richard Brooks' tough-minded direction balances the wild shifts in story tone - the boozy chaos in Del Lago's hotel suite, the cops and dogs guarding Heavenly, the blunt bullying of Boss Finley. Ed Begley won the Oscar with this role, a role tougher than it looks -- it would be all too easy for the character to become a bad joke, another "Foghorn Leghorn" southern blowhard.
Luckily, Sweet Bird of Youth retains its basic thrust, most likely because of Richard Brooks, who won considerable concessions from the Production Code censors for the previous year's Elmer Gantry. Much more "European" content is allowed to sneak through in this show. Chance Wayne is obviously Alexandra Del Lago's gigolo even though dialogue makes it seem that their night sleeping together is an exceptional occasion. They're shown transporting, hiding and smoking hashish she's smuggled from North Africa. Chance pops Benzedrine uppers and boasts that they make happy times happier. Heavenly Finley's spirit has been broken by an illicit abortion.
On the political end of things Sweet Bird of Youth presents a corrupt southern tyrant so powerful he can install a mistress (Madeleine Sherwood's Miss Lucy) in a hotel and compromise an entire hospital without any adverse political fallout. The town's leading medico is a venal opportunist. Storm trooper cops accompany Boss Finley wherever he goes. I'm surprised that St.Cloud, Florida didn't sue to have its name taken off the film.
As with most Williams' adaptations, it was understood that some particulars would have to be dropped, especially the idea that Heavenly and Chance pay for their indiscretions not only with their youth but with their sex organs. In the play Heavenly is supposed to have had major surgery after being infected with a venereal disease. This helps explain her father's seemingly disproportionate desire for revenge on Chance. And Tom Jr.'s thugs originally didn't just break Chance's nose, they castrated him. The idea must be that American reactionaries will sooner mutilate their own children than grant them the freedom of youth. 1
Chance's dreams seem to be coming true one second but then fall apart. Everyone has a role to play. Miss Lucy starts as a gargoyle but gains stature as she opposes The Boss; Heavenly's powerless Aunt Nonnie (Mildred Dunnock) is a cheerleader for the younger generation. The original tragedy is somewhat blunted by a compromised happy ending in which we're supposed to forget that a last-second escape can be stopped by just one phone call from Boss Finley. The movie needs to be compared to the play to be completely understood, but it's certainly one of the better Tennessee Williams adaptations.
Warner's DVD of Sweet Bird of Youth packs an impressive enhanced transfer with a picture much improved over the laserdisc from the early 1990s. The yellows and oranges in the hotel suite no longer blur into one hue and the marvelous Geraldine page looks more attractive than ever. The soundtrack highlights the song It's a Big, Wide, Wonderful World and a memorable instrumental used for Chance and Heavenly's love theme. Both received quite a bit of radio play but I don't know what the instrumental is called or who composed it. 2
The extra docu is a tidy, unattributed piece with an unnamed female narrator that does the essential job of acquainting casual viewers (Savant raises his hand) with Sweet Bird of Youth's history on stage and screen. Shirley Knight, Rip Torn and Madeleine Sherwood appear in what look like archived interviews. We learn that Torn and Geraldine Page were married not long after the film was released, and stayed together until her death 34 years later.
Even more revealing is a screen test with Page and Torn, with Torn in the Chance Wayne part. We can see how the play was altered, as the test leaves in original lines that compare Heavenly Finley's 'secret operation' to the gutting of a chicken left hanging in a butcher shop. And there's another dialogue reference to castration as well.
An effective trailer uses a graphic approach to sell the film as a high-powered sizzler, recommended for Adults Only.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sweet Bird of Youth rates:
Supplements: New featurette Sweet Bird of Youth: Chasing Time, Geraldine Page and Rip Torn screen test; Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 18, 2006
1. It's just an editorial observation, but when Heavenly Finley throws herself in the ocean, we see another example of unsubtle censorship. An entire shot is cropped in tight with a grainy optical to avoid showing the front of Shirley Knight's sheer, clinging dress. She's still partially visible in a longer shot that follows.
2. Note from Louis Helman, 4.22.06:
Hi, Glenn! Been meaning to write you for months now to tell you how much I've particularly enjoyed reading certain reviews of yours ("Dodsworth", "Come and Get It", "The Innocents", etc.) -- as well as your succession of reviews on the upcoming DVD's of MGM musicals and the Tennessee Williams film adaptations. Will get to these soon, but -- for now -- I think I know the name of the instrumental "love theme" for Chance and Heavenly to which you refer in Sweet Bird of Youth. Admittedly, I haven't seen the film in over twenty years, but I remember the song Ebb Tide (1953, written by Carl Sigman and Robert Maxwell) as the lush music being played in a key scene where Chance steers a motorboat to the dock where Heavenly is waiting for him. Does this sound right to you? And I can tell you something else -- reading your review not only makes me wanna see the movie again, but probably purchase the Williams Box Set! Will write about those other above-mentioned DVD titles soon. Best regards, Louis
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson