Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone has more or less been ignored or dismissed ever since it received mixed to poor reviews in 1961. It's an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams novella and has a completely different tone than his theatrical adaptations, like a foreign film played mainly by American and English actors. After its original Technicolor prints disappeared from screens, it's also been shown mostly in miserable television versions, with faded color.
Vivien Leigh fans have championed her performance here, embellishing it with inside knowledge of the actress's turbulent private life. But critics have always been divided on the merits of young Warren Beatty's work, reeling at his attempt at a foreign accent but acknowledging that he's entirely credible as a pretty-boy gigolo.
Legendary actress Karen Stone (Vivien Leigh) decides that her newest London show is a flop and retires from the stage, but her much older husband dies on the Jet to Rome. She settles with his millions in a lavish apartment. She "drifts" not knowing what to do without a career to occupy her time, and soon falls prey to The Contessa (Lotte Lenya), a shrewd procuress of handsome young men for lonely old widows. Young Paolo di Leo (Warren Beatty) makes all the usual moves on Karen only to be halted by her obvious higher quality. When they become lovers The Contessa is furious that Paolo isn't working on Karen for the expected gifts of money. Karen doesn't heed the warnings of her friend, journalist Meg (Coral Browne), and enjoys using Paolo to make younger starlet Barbara Bingham (Jill St. John) look like a ninny. But eventually economics rears its ugly head, and Paolo begins to put business ahead of romance.
Tennessee Williams' original novella is said to be set just after the war, and its poetic subtext remained a subtext, instead of being brought to the surface as in the author's theatrical work. The film adaptation by Gavin Lambert (Bigger than Life, Bitter Victory) doesn't enlarge the story as much as it allows it to spread out. Karen Stone drifts in a way a Hollywood film wouldn't allow. While plans are being drawn against her, she avoids most of her friends and contacts and idles in her apartment idly thumbing through magazines.
It's a form of luxurious morbidity, as Stone has already decided that her life is over after leaving acting. She's too wise to fool herself about her looks (which most women of 40 would envy) but can be made interested by the advances of the right young man -- we assume that she had no sex life with her otherwise loving husband. Karen is definitely not looking to destroy herself in a sordid affair, or at least so it seems; the movie does a nice balancing act, never letting us know that the reserved widow stone is hep to the game until she catches Paolo in an obvious lie. From that point on we know she's willing to become a slightly more dignified version of the pitiful matrons serviced by The Contessa's gallery of gigolos and grotesque hangers-on.
The most 'symbolic' aspect of the story is the destitute "Young Man" who hangs out below Karen's window and stalks her in the streets. She's less perturbed by him than she should be and returns to check on his presence time and again, reacting as if he were inevitable. The Young Man is set up as a possible agent (or angel) of Death, and there's little doubt that his appearance in the last scene heralds the impending end of Karen, if not an immediate end. It's an entirely different take on the finale of the German silent Pandora's Box.
Director José Quintero handles all of this rather well, especially Paolo's mysterious introduction. Vivien Leigh remains a subdued presence. When their romance starts to sour she and her consort trade sharp words but no florid theatrical exchanges -- Karen Stone retains some mystery and almost all of her dignity. Yet she's sufficiently neurotic to lose her composure under pressure, especially when she sees Paolo setting up his 'next' girlfriend. And there's Karen's slightly unhinged business of telling old acquaintances that she's dying of a mysterious disease.
I'm not as critical about acting in general and find Warren Beatty more than satisfactory, possibly because there are no authentic Italians around to compare him with. The closest we get is Paul Stassino's barber (Thunderball, The Stranglers of Bombay). The fact that Beatty's character has little depth is acceptable considering Paolo's chosen line of work; if anything, he's too sensitive. For me, the movie really works in its one lovemaking scene. Karen steps into bed at her instigation and at her speed. She knows who she is and is looking for a direct emotional effect, not some silly fantasy that Paolo is really in love with her. In that respect the film is unusual in its maturity.
There are plenty of other actors in this mostly-English movie to keep us intrigued. Jeremy Spenser's sad-eyed Young Man makes just the right impression and lends the final shot a creepy ambiguity. Coral Browne (The Killing of Sister George, The Ruling Class) offers a sane contrast to Karen's discreet disintegration. Lotte Lenya has the most active role and naturally steals the show whenever she's on; her Contessa is the kind of cultured vermin rarely made credible on screen. It's Ms. Lenya's first screen appearance since Pabst's The Three-Penny Opera thirty years before; she'd be back almost immediately as the unforgettable Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love (ah, the days when 007 movies had interesting casting).
Even though she's playing to type, Jill St. John is unconvincing even being an unconvincing starlet; when she's in the same frame with Vivien Leigh it's like a fine engraving standing next to a crayon squiggle. Scattered about in tiny parts but oozing credibility are Bessie Love, Warren Mitchell, Ernest Thesiger, Mavis Villiers, Edouard de Souza and Jean Marsh. The great jazz singer Cleo Laine is seen performing in a Roman nightclub.
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a handsome production that apparently uses doubles to place its stars in Rome locations. The matching of Italian sets back in England is extremely convincing and much better than Hollywood efforts we're familiar with, like the travelogue oriented Three Coins in the Fountain. Only a country party where Karen meets the vapid starlet Barbara Bingham looks phony. The movie has a good feel for foreigners gliding through Rome on carpets of money.
Warners' DVD of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is the poor cousin of the Tennessee Williams Collection, completely without reason. The disc presentation is excellent, with a fine enhanced transfer showing off Harry Waxman's glowing color cinematography.
An original trailer is included as an extra, with a new featurette entitled Looking for Love that has biographers of Miss Leigh and Warren Beatty explaining in a non-gossip manner the significance the film had in both of their careers. Leigh had only made one picture in the previous decade after withdrawing (or being fired) from Paramount's Elephant Walk smack in the middle of filming. That picture wasn't worth her talent. Hollywood probably decided from that point onward that Leigh was a bad risk.
As for Beatty, Splendor in the Grass hadn't yet been released when he took this job and he couldn't be sure if he was going to be the next James Dean or the next Richard Beymer. Frankly, show-biz stories like this one aren't well suited to the DVD featurette format. Corporations want family-safe content. The travails of great personalities like Vivien Leigh are better handled in books, where a good author-researcher can examine a troubled life beyond the scope of a sound bite.
The most useful thing the docu tells us is the state of the film before this latest re-transfer. The featurette had to be finished before the new transfer was done, and used old clips that show us the washed-out colors and grainy texture of what's long been available on this title. Seen in its original quality The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is very easy on the eyes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone rates:
Movie: Excellent -
Supplements: New featurette The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone: Looking for Love in All the Dark Corners, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 27, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson