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Summer and Smoke is often given short shrift among Tennessee Williams' better known plays. It didn't attract the immediate praise enjoyed by his more successful A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. Critics felt the characters weren't as forceful and that the play lacked originality. Williams apparently took these opinions to heart, because he later revised it in a simplified form, as The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.
What may have been a theatrical disappointment makes for a surprisingly effective film adaptation in 1961's Summer and Smoke, with Laurence Harvey and Geraldine Page heading an impressive cast. The movie hasn't seen many revivals, and only recently has been available on cable television (Turner Classic Movies) in its original Panavision screen shape. It may not have the powerhouse presence of a Blanche Dubois, but it remains a moving experience. Primarily a stage director, Peter Glenville also did fine work with the film versions of Term of Trial and Becket. The Hal Wallis Hollywood production has a glossy surface that blends well with the play's theatricality. A park setting with a fountain in the form of a stone angel calls out one symbolic word, "Eternity". It's just one of several elaborate sets that make no effort to "open up" Tennessee William's rich drama, set in the fictional town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi.
The film adaptation by James Poe and Meade Roberts shifts a characterization or two and restores a prologue featuring some child actors. Alma Winemiller (Geraldine Page) has always been devoted to her neighbor John Buchanan, Jr. (Laurence Harvey) but destiny has kept them apart. The daughter of a stern reverend (Malcolm Atterbury), Alma stays home to teach music and care for her troublesome mother (Una Merkel). Suffering from dementia, Mrs. Winemiller is prone to shoplifting and embarrassing Alma with opinons about her love life. Alma has reacted by emphasizing her own gentility and turning toward spiritual values. She's convinced that John will come to his senses and realize that they were meant for each other.
John Buchanan has graduated from medical school but shows no desire to rush into a practice, much to the consternation of his father, the respected local doctor (John McIntire). John and his bad reputation sweep back into town in a bright yellow automobile. He immediately takes up with Rosa Zacharias (Rita Moreno), the flirtatious daughter of the owner of the local roadhouse, the Moon Lake Casino. Confused by his womanizing ways, Alma encourages John to lift his head higher, as if admiring the spiritual beauty of a cathedral. John counters with his materialistic theory that human needs can be divided into the needs of the brain, the stomach and the groin, all three of which he intends to satisfy. With Dr. Buchanan away attending to a local disease outbreak, John invites Rosa and the Moon Lake Casino crowd into his house for a wild party. Alma is so dismayed that she uses the telephone to alert his father.
Summer and Smoke revolves around the familiar Williams character of a repressed woman who reaches for the inner beauty of higher values, only to be defeated by her own baser nature. Alma's stern father and ditzy mother condemn and belittle her romantic notions. When Alma Winemiller rejects John Buchanan's "Chart of Anatomy" (the play's original title) and his sexual advances, she's unfairly pigeonholed as a spinster in the making. Unlike some of Tennessee Williams' earlier Broadway leading ladies (Jessica Tandy, most pointedly), Geraldine Page was allowed to perform her stage role on the screen. She won high praise for her soulful interpretation of the fragile and somewhat foolish Alma.
Laurence Harvey has one of his best roles as the rogue son who reacts to his father's contempt by doing his best to debase himself. The fiery Rosa has a plan to marry this "man she can't hold", and to escape to the right side of the tracks, away from her background of Spanish dancing and cockfights at the Moon Lake Casino. John is also amused by the precociously coy Nellie Ewell (Pamela Tiffin), a local girl who asks to borrow a reference book on the facts of life. John is attracted to Alma, and persists in his amorous pursuit. He attempts to seduce her in a gazebo at Moon Lake, an episode that spins them in separate directions.
Summer and Smoke is a tragedy of failed romance. Alma's belated appeal for love is heartbreaking; the irony is that Alma and John might have been an ideal couple. The play ends with her joining the ranks of other fallen women in the work of Tennessee Williams. This film version doesn't impress us as a lesser achievement.
Rita Moreno gives Rosa more depth than usually afforded the Latin alternative in American dramas, but still comes off as something of a hot-blooded stereotype. Her father (Thomas Gomez) is a gun-toting criminal. More of a surprise is Pamela Tiffin's somewhat feather-headed but studiously ladylike Nellie. Her mother (Lee Patrick) is a boarding-house keeper who drinks and plays cards with traveling salesmen. Blind luck favors Nellie, who presents herself as a socially acceptable alternative just as John Buchanan turns over a new leaf. Summer and Smoke was Pamela Tiffin's first feature film. Her second appearance as the spoiled Southern belle Scarlett Hazeltine in Billy Wilder's comedy One, Two, Three seems almost a parody of her character in this film.
Olive Films' DVD of Summer and Smoke presents Paramount's superior play adaptation in a fine widescreen transfer. The colors show little or no fading, with the bright costumes, John's antique car and a fireworks display popping off the screen. The rich audio track showcases Elmer Bernstein's dynamic music score, which was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
The picture attracted more than its share of awards attention. Geraldine Page won the Golden Globe for Best Actress and was nominated for the same honor by the Academy (winner: Sophia Loren in Two Women). Una Merkel merited a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination (winner: Summer and Smoke's Rita Moreno, for West Side Story). The film was also nominated for Best Art and Set Decoration.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Summer and Smoke rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.