The summer season at Bournemouth has passed, and the residents left in this hotel are the long term ones, those with nowhere else to go. Among them is Major Pollock (David Niven), an ex-army man who enjoys regaling all those who will listen with tales of his time in the Second World War, but it is really only Sybil (Deborah Kerr) who likes to hear him speak. She is the daughter of an old battleaxe, Mrs Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper) who is happy to keep the spinster under her thumb due to her daughter's emotional fragility. But a new arrival at the hotel, Ann Shankland (Rita Hayworth) will disrupt them...
Along with a revelatory report in the local newspaper about Major Pollock, although if you couldn't guess that he was fibbing about his time in the forces from the instant he starts chattering then you haven't been paying attention. Separate Tables was a starry prestige production from the fifties, drawn from Terence Rattigan's acclaimed play, but even by the time the film was made his work was beginning to look old hat what with the revolution in British theatre occuring in the later years of the decade. Hollywood did not mind, however, and were happy to garland it with Oscar nominations and a couple of wins for Niven and Wendy Hiller, who played the hotel owner.
Watching it now, it might be most interesting as an example of what was considered daring in the stuffy world of mid-twentieth century cinema, as while it wouldn't shock many people now, there was the subject of sexuality that raised its head, albeit nothing wholesome. The Major, as if you could not have worked out, is not all he seems and has been convicted of harrassing women in a cinema - not for the first time, either. He tries to hide the newspaper report, but Mrs Railton-Bell is too sharp for him and exposes the scandal to all the other residents, including poor old Sybil who needless to say doesn't take it very well.
That's not the only plotline that concerns the film, as there are two Hollywood megastars in the cast, and sticking out like sore thumbs amongst the British players. Burt Lancaster is the alcoholic writer running away from his ex-wife, which makes it unfortunate that she should check in at the hotel; Ann, for it is she, attempts to manipulate his feelings for her into getting back together with her, resulting in a lot of storming about quite at odds with the Brits' repression. Much of this jars with the tone of the neglected seaside resort that the plot is set in, as perhaps we were not used to seeing frustrations boil over in hotel settings until sitcom Fawlty Towers appeared on the scene.
I'm not being facetious: although Separate Tables lacks a Basil Fawlty to buckle under the pettiness and disappointments of life, that's the way most of the characters are feeling, and the picture of existence in the United Kingdom is one of misery, suppressed rage and pathetic behaviour all round. This is presumably meant to make the Major's dilemma and how it is resolved all the more poignant, but in effect you're left with the sense of muddling through life's despair with only the benefit of someone being polite to you every morning the sole compensation for your grim passage through this vale of tears. It is the British cast who predictably put this across most convincingly, and while Niven was enjoying one of his most respected roles, you still get the impression he was better suited to light comedy. It's undeniably staid, this once-celebrated film, but full of historical interest for its attitudes and picture of its era. Music by David Raksin.