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Come Back, Little Sheba

Come Back, Little Sheba
Paramount Home Video
1952 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 99 min. / Street Date August 10, 2004 / 14.99
Starring Burt Lancaster, Shirley Booth, Terry Moore, Richard Jaeckel, Philip Ober, Edwin Max
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Art Direction Henry Bumstead, Hal Pereira
Film Editor Warren Low
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by Ketti Frings from the play by William Inge
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Directed by Daniel Mann

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This Hal Wallis production is one of the earliest movies to cover the mundane life of a recovering alcoholic - as opposed to the dramatic fireworks of early addiction, like The Lost Weekend or Come Fill the Cup. It stars Wallis discovery Burt Lancaster in a role designed to augment his status as a serious actor (his action romp The Crimson Pirate came out the same year). Its focus is on the low-key daily life of not very glamorous people, but it rings with truth. Shirley Booth is the real star, and she's amazing as an emotionally needy woman in a precarious relationship.


Doc and Lola Delaney (Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth) live one day at a time, as the saying goes; he's an AA member celebrating one year off the bottle. In a way, Lola has the harder role, worrying about Doc's condition while fretting that their troubled wedding twenty years ago was her fault. They take in college student Marie Buckholder (Terry Moore) as a boarder and Doc is bothered both by her youth and her amorous boyfriend Turk Fisher (Richard Jaeckel). That's not a good thing: Doc works studiously at staying sober and any emotional disturbance could knock him off the wagon.

Come Back, Little Sheba is a surprisingly good movie. William Inge's play is another of his tales of small town woe, as in Picnic, All Fall Down, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Splendor in the Grass. You get the feeling that Inge knew people like the Delaneys, the couple at the end of the block who are quiet most of the time, yet everyone knows they've got trouble. Director Daniel Mann was called 'dreary' by Andrew Sarris for not exhibiting auteurist tendencies, but he's adept at presenting his story and staying out of the way. The movie presents the problems of some people in a working-class environment and doesn't feel the need to express a director's personality.

This may be an early look at the AA culture, with its positive method for helping alcoholics through support groups, even though that particular term hadn't yet been coined. Doc Delaney goes through his days dour and methodical, conscious of everything he does and says as if convinced some invisible demon will appear to send him back to the bottle.

Inge sets up an interesting dynamic that does just that. Doc and Lola's childless marriage is slipping into middle age with nagging feelings of failure; his chiropractic business is just getting up again after his drinking problem. Vivacious boarder Marie brings back all the tension of their past, a sad story of a marriage forced by a pregnancy, followed by the unexpected loss of the child. Morally shamed, Doc funnels his obvious attraction (not overstated) for Marie into a puritanical backlash. No 'big scenes' result and the conflict remains known really to Doc alone. But it's enough to destabilize him again.

Burt Lancaster is more than good in the role, but this is really Shirley Booth's movie. She's slack and frumpy without surrendering her pride or positive self-image. Her interpretation of the part makes Lola a heartbreaking character. Lola misses being young and carefree and is often frustrated by Doc's insistence that the past be forgotten. She's also stimulated by Marie's presence, leading to some wonderful moments where she tries to lighten up Doc with a dance or a song. The Sheba of the title is a lost dog, the story's one symbol of broken hope and a past that's irretrievable. Inge is too mature to pull some playwright's stunt, like revealing the dog as a denial mechanism to represent the lost child. The inference is there between the lines.

Terry Moore and Richard Jaeckel both turn in excellent performances, which in her case is something of a pleasant surprise. She makes a great teen tease and he looks like a born co-ed chaser. Jaeckel made few movies without wearing a combat helmet and he's always been good in them, getting little recognition until 1970's Sometimes a Great Notion. Moore and Jaeckel's antics raise the sex temperature in the Delaney household just enough to tip the emotional balance - again, nothing is overplayed or sensationalized.

Finally, unlike many serious dramas of the time, Come Back, Little Sheba paints a picture of a sober little town with great economy. The neighbor lady lets us know that Doc and Lola aren't living in an upscale neighborhood; when Doc cracks up there's alarm and concern, but not surprise. Doc's AA friends reinforce the image that the recovering alcoholic's life is no joy ride. We get a quiet glimpse of the inside of a drunk ward, but there are no sensational exposés of the detox process. The film is instead about personalities and emotional damage. It very neatly draws us to the horror of alcohol at the personal level - the cruel words and physical threats.

Paramount's DVD of Come Back, Little Sheba is in fine shape and is an excellent bare-bones disc, but we're becoming increasingly aware that the Mountain would be doing itself a favor by at least considering minimal extras. Fox brings out lots of ancient pictures with equal or less commercial appeal than some of these Paramount dramas, and after listening to a commentary or watching an interview, we learn a lot about where the films came from and why they're important in the first place. William Inge is a fascinating playwright and there's a great story in Burt Lancaster's championing of high-end movies along with his action sagas. And after seeing Shirley Booth we'd really like to know more about her. As it is, Paramount doesn't even include trailers for most releases.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Come Back, Little Sheba rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 26, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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