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  Summer and Smoke Wrong For Each Other
Year: 1961
Director: Peter Glenville
Stars: Laurence Harvey, Geraldine Page, Rita Moreno, Una Merkel, John McIntire, Thomas Gomez, Pamela Tiffin, Malcolm Atterbury, Lee Patrick, Max Showalter, Earl Holliman
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Ever since Alma (Geraldine Page) was a little girl, she has been in love with John (Laurence Harvey), the boy next door. She tended to obsess over him, and one of her dearest memories is the Halloween night when they shared a moment at the local drinking water fountain when he kissed her and ran away giggling. But now they are grown, and Alma still lives in the same house where she grew up, with her senile mother (Una Merkel) and Reverend father (Malcolm Atterbury) who struggles to cope with her. Meanwhile, next door John has returned to see his father (John McIntire), not receiving much of a welcome for despite being a doctor now, he remains a rebel...

The adaptations of Tennessee Williams plays continued into the nineteen-sixties, the studios pursuing those A Streetcar Named Desire cash profits that had made such an impression on them early in the previous decade; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had done very nicely too, so it was not an one-off. But with the censorship of the times, these versions had to be toned down from the stage performances, and you wonder if they had been adapted later in their lives if they would have been more faithful and had more impact. Nevertheless, these Williams movies were as much a part of the era they emerged as any of the censor-busting controversies that led into the late sixties reform.

However, for every Baby Doll being condemned from the pulpits, there were more efforts like Summer and Smoke, where the writer's obsessions began to resemble self-parody; here in particular the plot points looked like hoary old clich├ęs if you had had any experience of Williams' work in the run up to it, with the hapless Alma looking like Blanche Dubois had Blanche never left home. Not much help was that Page, a much respected thespian lest we forget, was allowed to ham it up in a misjudged and unconvincing reading of her character, to the point that she was coming across like a refugee from a John Waters' movie rather than a fully-rounded personality to be empathised with.

Something like Polyester, maybe. Anyway, as you clawed your way through the morass of terrible Southern accents, you sought in vain anything remotely like real life, or at least something that was not plainly some dramatic construct conveyed with contrived and artificial results. The chemistry between Page and Harvey was so lacking that you were baffled as to what either of them saw in one another as far as the story went, so much so that it would occasionally prompt unintended laughter when one of them went over the top in their tries at making a connection. Given John was supposed to be romancing Rita Moreno in a stereotyped Mexican firecracker role (this in the year she gave her Oscar-winning stylings in West Side Story), it was bizarre that he would spend time with the neurotic and unexciting Alma.

It didn't matter that Alma liked to remind people her name was Spanish for soul, there was zero soulful about her, she was simply a caricature of an "old maid" spinster, here the most horrifying position a woman can be in, apparently, and though Page was obviously seeking nuance that Harvey was not so warm to, she was fighting a losing battle. With scenes like John taking Alma to a cockfight in one of the most misjudged dates on the big screen until Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver next decade, or the aftermath of a wild party John has held that gets stumbled upon by his furious father who is then shot by the firecracker's father for beating him with his cane (!), the raised temperatures of emotions were certainly present, but so was the sense this was all very silly and the characters were solely acting like this for the purposes of the narrative and whatever lessons of reconciliation and attempted poignancy of missed opportunities they were aiming for. You could garner some camp amusement, but it was a long two hours for a few chuckles. Music by Elmer Bernstein.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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