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Desire Under the Elms

Desire Under the Elms
Paramount Home Video
1958 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 111 min. / Street Date August 31, 2004 /
Starring Sophia Loren, Anthony Perkins, Burl Ives, Frank Overton, Pernell Roberts
Cinematography Daniel L. Fapp
Art Direction J. McMillan Johnson, Hal Pereira
Film Editor George Boemler
Original Music Elmer Bernstein
Written by Irwin Shaw from the play by Eugene O'Neill
Produced by Don Hartman
Directed by Delbert Mann

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Eugene O'Neill's grim play gets the Hollywood treatment in this well-intentioned but ill-fated adapation. Sophia Loren's potent star power warps the picture in an unintended direction. Viewers familiar with the play will see her as too decorative, while those expecting a Loren vehicle are going to be profoundly surprised by the film's dark tone. Even the titles are black in this sobering drama.


Bitter Eben Cabot (Anthony Perkins) lives for the day that his father Ephriam (Burl Ives) will die and permit him to inherit the beautiful New England family farm. He no sooner buys off his two lazy brothers (Pernell Roberts and Frank Overton) than his father throws a new wrench into his plans: the old but healthy man returns from a trip with a young bride, Anna (Sophia Loren). She's a land-hungry immigrant also willing to do whatever's necessary to have a home and roots of her own. At first Eben and Anna are fierce enemies, until their mutual hatred brings them together as lovers.

Eugene O'Neill isn't someone we go to for a barrel of laughs and his Desire Under the Elms is no exception. It's a sobering experience that seems derived from some unpleasant bible story, the kind where people pay dearly for their weaknesses, when they should have been accepting life's cruelties without complaint.

It's about greed and the way greed twists hearts. The expected villain of the piece turns out to be the film's only honest character, while the ambitious son and the May-December wife reveal themselves to be black hearted and murderous. The story begins with a scene establishing the curse of Eben's unhappy mother. The prologue is easy to ignore (Iet's get on with the illicit romance!) but overshadows the rest of the drama. By goading her son toward hatred, the mother poisons him. Surely O'Neill's play had other facets, but the best message we can find is that miserable wives are supposed to bear their sorrow no matter how terrible their husbands are.

The unexpected wickedness of the romantic leads fights the Hollywood tradition of young and beautiful movie stars being naturally good and likeable. Anthony Perkins and Sophia Loren are attractive and personable, so the expectation is for love to cure them of their problems. Although it seems unfair to the actors - and the acting is quite good - the film needed either a narrative device to shake us of our star worship, or less glamorous faces in the lead roles.

Burl Ives is powerful as the aged farmer as surprised as anyone by his continued robust health. Anthony Perkins is a mass of resentment and bottled-up passion in an atypical role. Both he and Sophia Loren are very interesting to watch, although their pairing generates little chemistry.

Americans hadn't seen Ms. Loren in many comedies before 1958 so our reaction is bound to be different now ... we think Anna is kidding when she behaves so cruelly, baiting Perkins and trying to turn Ives against his own son. She's clearly trying her best to be a Rome-to-Hollywood crossover star, and does a fine job with her English save for a few unusually-pronounced vowels. If Anna Cabot is meant to be a penniless Neopolitan, she picked up some high-class English teachers along the way.

Frank Overton (Wild River) and Pernell Roberts are quite good as the prodigal brothers who bolt the farm and return as gold rush winners. They're too heavy to be comedy relief and if anything make the film seem even stagier, especially when they return with their floozie wives (Rebecca Welles and Jean Willes) to snicker at their father, foolishly lording it over his new infant son.

It's not just the 1940 old-farm "thee 'n thou" verbiage that makes Desire Under the Elms seem like a bible story. The rather impressive art direction gives us a Cabot farm created entirely on a vast interior set, with artificial lighting but very realistic. Thus the stagey feeling is maintained, as in moral tales like the fantasy The Devil and Daniel Webster. With the glowering painted skies frowning down on the Cabot farm, we should expect all manner of dark deeds and grim fate. But toss Anthony Perkins and Sophia Loren together in some kissing scenes and it still seems a surprise when the film doesn't find a happy ending.

O'Neill followers claim that the movie alters the play's finale, and I'm curious to find out if that's true. As this is a mainstream 1950s movie we know the adultery is going to have to be paid for, but we certainly don't expect the ending we get. Even Carl Dreyer in Day of Wrath showed more sympathy for the young wife who falls in love with her husband's son. Desire's bleak ending teaches that coveting daddy's property is a one-way road to Hell. If Mel Gibson did a remake, it would end with a graphic public stoning.

Paramount's DVD of Desire Under the Elms looks great on DVD, with the VistaVision B&W photography popping off the screen. The film isn't exactly well-known today so it's in pristine shape, with only a few tiny scratches in the first reel. They're horizontal, thus revealing the sideways VistaVision format.

There are some real exteriors that don't match the interior sets but otherwise the film is visually consistent. Paramount hasn't included a trailer or any kind of extra material, so those viewers traumatized by the events of the last reel will have to go to the library to find O'Neill's play.

Paramount has put out a lot of Anthony Perkins films in the last couple of years, which makes Savant think there's a Perkins fan somewhere among The Mountain's DVD executives. Of all their fifties movies, why these in particular?

Until I saw the playwright's name I was expecting something entirely different. In the late 50s, Mad Magazine used the film's title to lampoon Hollywood advertising and star product endorsements. An image similar to the original artsy graphics on the Desire poster turned out to be a deodorant ad, with the caption Desire Under the Arms.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Desire Under the Elms rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 7, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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