Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Tuesday Forgotten Movie: THE LONG HOT SUMMER starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury
What a cast! THE LONG HOT SUMMER (1958) is the perfect title, the perfect movie to talk about during this very long, very hot, very steamy summer of 2011.
Tuesday's Forgotten or Overlooked Movies is a Weekly Meme hosted by Todd Mason at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Be sure and check to see what other forgotten 'classics' other bloggers are talking about. Here's the link.
THE LONG HOT SUMMER is the film for those who may not remember Paul Newman's early movie star good looks. (Not that he wasn't a handsome and charismatic older man.) Or for those of you who never knew Paul Newman's work in the 1950's. Or those of you who - God forbid - only know Newman from the salad dressing labels. Since he had such a long career, there are some who may not have the complete dazzling picture.
A film glossily produced by Jerry Wald and directed by Martin Ritt, THE LONG HOT SUMMER has a misguided sappy theme song sung in 50's crooner style by Jimmie Rodgers. The tune lets you know right off the bat that nothing too, too dreadfully dire is going to happen as a barge sails down the Mississippi with drifter Ben Quick (played by Newman) on board. On the move after being chased out of yet another town, Newman's eyes were never bluer as he gazes avidly out at the world, looking for his main chance.
Okay, if you can tear yourself away from looking at Newman in all his glory, there is a dynamite cast surrounding him in what is, essentially his movie. Although Orson Welles does his good ol' Southern boy best to steal the show from under Newman's perfectly chiseled nose. I can't help myself, I loved Welles in this even if he did go a bit heavy on the cornpone.
The screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. was based on three William Faulkner stories: BARN BURNING, THE SPOTTED HORSES and THE HAMLET. So it's not pure Faulkner by any means. It's a Hollywood invention of Faulkner with a tacked on happy ending - enjoyable as pure movie star fare. But I've always had a soft spot in my heart for this version of THE LONG HOT SUMMER. (An updated adaptation filmed for TV in 1985 with Don Johnson, Judith Ivey, Jason Robards and Ava Gardner as Minnie Littlejohn was nowhere near as good, though Johnson was always a treat to watch - especially in an undershirt.)
The central character, Ben Quick, is a man with a shady past. A man who may or may not be a dangerous 'barn burner'. The Quick family, of which Ben appears to be the only one left, has a certain disreputable reputation in the state of Mississippi. A reputation that Ben does his best to enhance in his own inimitable bad-boy style. As played by Paul Newman, Quick is no one to trust, but he's so winning, so engaging and so devil-may-care handsome, he gets away with just about anything. At least he does in Frenchman's Bend, a sleepy Southern town set along the banks of the Mississippi.
Will Varner (Orson Welles), the local land baron, takes a liking to Quick and hires him to work in his mercantile on main street, mainly to spite his [Varner's] family. This upsets son Jody (played by Anthony Franciosa) whose hands begin to sweat whenever Poppa Varner enters the room - a man so pathetically afraid of his father is a sad thing to watch. That his father is a gorgon doesn't make it any easier. It's obvious to anyone and everyone that old Poppa Varner is just waiting for Jody to show some backbone, but Jody, poor sap, just doesn't get it.
I've never thought - then or now - that Anthony Franciosa could physically pass for a Southern son of Orson Welles and he sure as heck doesn't look anything like his 'sister' in the film played by the classically calm, cool and collected Joanne Woodward. But that's my only quibble with the casting gods.
The beautiful Lee Remick plays Jody's very giggly, fun loving wife, Eula (LOVE that name), whom the neighborhood boys howl at from the bushes night after night. As indulgent as she appears about Varner family dynamics, she too is beginning to weary of Jody's quaking fear of ever pleasing his father.
The only one who stands up to Pa Varner is his daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward) a snippy, icy blond whose regular gentleman caller Alan Stewart (Richard Anderson) is so obviously unsuited to her (he is probably homosexual, though that's only hinted at) that Ben Quick spots it right away: "If you're saving yourself for him, you've got your account in the wrong bank." He has a way with words, does Ben Quick.
Will Varner's liking for Ben Quick takes a darkly devilish turn when he invites him to live up at the big house with the family. He then insists that Clara make a choice. She must either hurry up and marry Alan - they've been 'dating' for six years - or she will have to take Ben Quick as her husband. Time is flying by and Poppa Varner wants immortality - grandchildren! He's apparently given up hope of Eula ever needing maternity clothes.
Speaking of matrimony, Varner's long-time lady friend, Minnie Littlejohn (played wonderfully by Angela Lansbury) is putting on the wedding pressure herself. After all, they've been dancing around the issue for twenty years. It's now or never.
Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman were already married, I believe, by the time they made this film and the sparks between them fly onscreen - this is not always the case with real life lovers or married couples. But Woodward and Newman always knew how and when to turn it on. She is just right as the deceptively cool school teacher waiting for the right man to come along, in the meantime burying herself in the literary classics, making do with iced tea and long, fitfully nervous walks. She is 23! Practically an old maid. (Though I must say that Woodward looks a few years older than 23 in the film.)
When Poppa Varner promises Ben Quick land and money to marry his daughter, Quick jumps at the chance. It's the sort of unprincipled thing he's good at and he might as well live up to his reputation. It doesn't hurt any that he's attracted to Clara to begin with.
In the meantime, Ben has snared Jody in a get rich 'quick' scheme involving some worthless property and a buried treasure. The upshot of which makes Jody an even bigger fool than he already is and adds fuel (literally) to the final, moving confrontation between father and son.
When a fire breaks out in Varner's barn- as you knew it must else why make Ben Quick a suspected barn burner to being with - Quick is the immediate suspect. But a lynching is averted and the end result sets everything to rights and leads to an un-Faulkner-like happy ending and a very satisfying closing line for Orson Welles.
Original trailer for THE LONG HOT SUMMER.