Handsome to be sure, with a few great performances...but curiously unengaging at its core. For once, 20th Century-Fox's line of hard-to-find library and cult titles, the Cinema Archives, gets their aspect ratios right, releasing Fox's award-winning period drama, Sons and Lovers, from 1960, in an anamorphically-enhanced widescreen transfer. Based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence, directed by Jack Cardiff, lensed by Freddie Francis, and starring Trevor Howard, Dean Stockwell, Wendy Hiller, Mary Ure, and Heather Sears, Sons and Lovers was American producer Jerry Wald's attempt to lend a little bit of English literary respect to his patented late '50s glossy, widescreen, potboiler formula, and it worked, with critics of the day falling all over themselves over-praising the movie. Today, however, the truncated, simplified Sons and Lovers plays fairly tame, with a fuzzy center not helped by Dean Stockwell's miscued lead turn. Potential buyers who have been burned by the Cinema Archives's recent idiotic pan-and-scanned transfers will be happy to see this title properly presented in its original CinemaScope shape. No extras included here, however.
In a small, rented row house in a northern English mining town at the turn of the 20th century, sensitive, artistic mama's boy Paul Morel (Dean Stockwell) playfully, even romantically, banters with his mother, Gertrude (Wendy Hiller). Gertrude, fiercely possessive of Paul's affections at the expense of her gruff, hard-drinking husband, coal miner Walter Morel (Trevor Howard), wishes to encourage Paul's ambitions to stay out of the mines and to work as a clerk at a local corset maker's. She does not, however, wish for Paul to mature when it comes to women: specifically, his ever-more-dangerous friendship with nearby farm girl, Miriam (Heather Sears). Paul would like to push events to their logical conclusion with timid, scared Miriam; however, Miriam's strict religious and provincial upbringing stymies her own sublimated passion for Paul. Paul's chance to leave behind the attractive/repulsive attentions of his mother comes in the form of rich benefactor Mr. Hadlock (Ernest Thesiger), who spots one of Paul's paintings at a gallery showing, and who wishes to put him through art school in London. Paul, however, decides to stay in town and take his clerking job, after a drunk Walter viciously attacks Gertrude, locking her out of the house. There at the factory, Paul is immediately pole-axed at the sight of the factory's beautiful overseer, Clara Dawes (Mary Ure). Paul discovers she's a liberated suffragette, separated for two years from her husband, Baxter (Conrad Phillips), who, awkwardly, still works at the factory. Paul, returning to boring "tune up" girlfriend Miriam to get his virginity out of the way, quickly drops her after said nailing, pouring on the charm with Clara until he scores with her, as well. However, everything changes for Paul when his beloved mother takes ill.
Sons and Lovers, famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff's (The Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes) first time out of the gate as director, drew mostly enthusiastic praise when it debuted in 1960, with many of the critics of the day singling out the movie's "daring" and "bravery" in tackling D.H. Lawrence's once-steamy material (is he still required reading anymore at college?). Seen now in the context of American producer Jerry Wald's output at that time, Sons and Lovers doesn't play that much more "daring", either in themes or in what actually appears on the screen, than Wald's other big, glossy melodramas, such as Peyton Place, The Long, Hot Summer, or The Sound and the Fury. Longtime producer Wald was already an expert at taking potentially salacious or out-of-bounds material and transforming it into entirely acceptable mainstream movie entertainment (Mildred Pierce and Peyton Place in particular). Even though the script is based on D.H. Lawrence's semi-autobiographical novel, which many literary critics consider his masterpiece, Sons and Lovers plays more like a high-class, trans-Atlantic Jerry Wald/Fox soap than say, something grimy and "small" and discernibly not "Hollywood" from Woodfall. I've always suspected that Sons and Lovers received the attention it did back in 1960 because it "fooled" the critics who chose to focus on the fine British actors and the evocative location work and the pedigree of the source material...while ignoring the American studio, the American lead (required by money-maker Wald), and the story edits--the entire first half of the book was jettisoned, among other important points--employed to focus the material to appeal to the average American teenage ticket buyer (as pretty as Freddie Francis' cinematography is, as almost all of the movie's admirers make pains to point out, I've never read one critic who questioned why, exactly, that high-gloss look was utilized for this kind of story--surely Woodfall's grainier, grittier look would have been better suited?).
What's most distressing about Sons and Lovers is its diffused, non-committal attitude towards its story and characters. Some individual sequences work, including most of the Morel home scenes between Howard and Hiller, where Howard (in his only lead Oscar-nominated turn) does some remarkable work as a violent/sensitive miner who "...is not loved because I'm low, so I act low." Those dynamics work well between the two superb British performers, probably because those themes--Hiller's vindictive, casually cruel treatment of drunken Howard, and his resentment at her showing him how little he has achieved in life--are more accessible and easily wrought to the 1960 screen. But the central core of the novel--Paul's romantic destruction at the hands of his mother--is indifferently handled here, whether out of censorship fears, or just an inability to get a handle on the material (if you look at that original poster art, lovers Miriam and Clara are mentioned...but certainly not mommy). Sons and Lovers excises much of the novel's battle between Paul's mother and the two women in his life (while also completely eliminating her first "love affair," if you will, with Paul's older brother), while reducing Miriam's intellectualism and Clara's suffragette independence down to a simple case of who's the worst choice for mother-loving Paul: brunette prig Miriam or blonde, indifferent hussy Clara?
Screenwriters Gavin Lambert (Inside Daisy Clover) and T.E.B. Clarke (The Lavender Hill Mob, Passport to Pimlico) refashion the cinematic Paul into some kind of blank-faced sexual fascist who takes what he wants and blithely discards later without cuing in the audience as to exactly how his too-deep attachment to his mother is the cause. Even stranger is the abrupt ending, where Paul is portrayed as somehow liberated by his mother's death (rather than left barren, as in the novel), without making sure we know that he found both of his women wanting next to his mother (that's why he returned to her, after all). You can't blame him for the misguided script, but Stockwell doesn't help matters any by enacting Paul as if Stockwell was still divesting himself of his Compulsion personae the year before, making Paul not an overly-sensitive artist deeply troubled by his mother's suffocating love, but rather a weirdly intense, staring cipher whose motives we can only guess at from the confused text. With the core of the novel hollowed out and transformed into some sort of a weak amalgamation of Lawrence's "boy gets and loses two girls to gain a mother, only to lose her" and frustrated Edwardian heavy petting, we're left with not much more than moments with Howard and Heller (who both claimed to have directed themselves in absence of competent guidance from Cardiff) and pretty-but-uninformed black and white widescreen frames of Nottinghamshire and the surrounding northern countryside...which one suspects cinematographer-turned-director Cardiff was most interested in in the first place.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.