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Sons and Lovers (DVD Review)

27 May, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
$19.98 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Trevor Howard, Dean Stockwell, Wendy Hiller, Mary Ure, Heather Sears.

Given all the home market success with tony literary properties enjoyed by the likes of BBC, PBS and other outlets, it astounds me that it’s taken the Jerry Wald-Jack Cardiff version of D.H. Lawrence’s novel to get any kind of rec-room release. And by this, I mean even on VHS, which seems almost as long ago as the Lawrence era. After all, this Wald production tied with The Apartment for 1960’s top honors in New York Film Critics Circle voting; got seven Oscar nominations, including one for best picture and a win for Freddie Francis’s black-and-white cinematography; was chosen year’s best (for what it’s worth) by the National Board of Review; earned a best director nod to Cardiff from the Golden Globes, and so on. There’s definitely something to sell here, and even with this welcome release — which definitely has some aggressively grainy moments on my 57-inch screen — it’s easy to envision Criterion treatment, given that company’s established relationship with the 20th Century-Fox library.

Telescoping a long novel (even longer in the unexpurgated version) into 103 minutes that only at the end feel arguably rushed, screenwriters Gavin Lambert and T.E.B. Clarke lay out he basic conflict in a matter of minutes. As in Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement and the Kazan upbringing that inspired parts of it, we’re dealing with the plight of an artistically bent youth born into a working class household defined by grunt work — where mom is the protector and dad feels discomfort with anything above his station. In this case, the former is what today some would call a “helicopter mother,” yet Wendy Hiller’s charm as an actress softens these tendencies and intensifies the character’s good points. If Oscar-nominated Trevor Howard is a rougher-edged patriarchal coal miner than Welsh counterpart Donald Crisp in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, he has his softer moments to counter some loutish ones and displays what may be kinder and truer colors near the story’s wrap-up.

Dean Stockwell (a few trillion miles from that curly-haired kid in Anchors Aweigh) has the all-important role of third son Paul Morel — the gifted one whose undeveloped artistic talents are imposing enough to land him a shot at London art school until complicated events put his chances on hold (but will this plight be permanent?). One complication is a family tragedy, but Paul’s love life is a distraction as well. Being Lawrence, there’s a lot of romantic tension here between the pull of flesh and conflicting pull of spirituality. This is all complicated by a pair of mothers: Paul’s own and the piece of work who takes an aggressively miserable approach to life when raising/indoctrinating Paul’s closest non-mom confidante Miriam (played by Heather Sears). In a compelling story arc that hits about 40 minutes in, Paul then takes up with a married professional seamstress (Mary Ure) who is also a suffragette (Donald Pleasence has a very amusing small role as her boss, who tries to cope with The Modern Woman). This is an extremely grown-up movie for its time and one pretty well uncompromised by big-studio treatment. You keep waiting for and fearing the inevitable cop-out at the end, which doesn’t happen.

I don’t think the film is absolutely top-rung in terms of 1960 English-language releases — the way The Apartment, Psycho, Wild River, Peeping Tom and maybe even Spartacus are. But it more than holds its own with those on the next rung down: Home From the Hill, The Sundowners, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and cult items like Comanche Station, The Bellboy and Flaming Star. Despite professional longevity that has escaped most child actors, Stockwell deserved an even better career (and I would have given him the supporting Oscar for Married to the Mob — which, by the way, could use the same kind of Criterion Blu-ray Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild got. But with his short height, delicate features and slightly pockmarked face, he was never going to be lead-actor material. Actress Ure also had a lot to offer, but alcohol messed her up (leading to a premature death) and kept her from fulfilling her substantial early 1-2 punch with the screen version of Look Back in Anger (opposite a feeling-his-oats Richard Burton) and then this undervalued achievement.

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