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Summer and Smoke (DVD Review)

1 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Una Merkel, Rita Moreno, Pamela Tiffin, Laurence Harvey, John McIntire, Geraldine Page.

A perfect example of a movie that’s not very good yet absolute eyewash in the most positive sense, this stilted but gorgeously mounted 1961 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play was a handsome view in theaters, also on laserdisc (for its day) and now, way belatedly, on DVD. What a Blu-ray it would make, thanks to its Oscar-nominated art/set decoration and Technicolor whose intense vividity immediately identifies it as a Paramount production (that studio’s color movies looked like no one else’s).

For an actress one might speculate would have been tough to cast on screen, Geraldine Page got seven Oscar nominations herself, and Smoke is the one that really got her on the road following a previous 1953 nod for a movie unlike anything else she ever did: Hondo, opposite John Wayne. Smoke was substantially more in her regular wheelhouse and commenced a remarkably consistent run: three more nominations in the ‘60s, two in the ‘70s and two in the ‘80s (climaxed by a win for 1985’s The Trip to Bountiful when excited presenter F. Murray Abraham opined that he considered to be the greatest actress in the English language).

Smoke has what some might think of as one of the Page’s quintessential roles: a prototypically Williams small-town spinster (raised by a preacher and a dotty mother) who can’t quite repress her feelings for the med-student wastrel next door (Laurence Harvey, not quite in the middle of that roughly 5-year period when he was really big). Often, though, this haunter of nightspots is banned from the household because his respectable physician father (John McIntire) doesn’t approve of his whoring and (later) choice of fiancées (played Rita Moreno, whose Oscar-winning showcase in West Side Story opened in New York about a month before Smoke‘s release).

Between his bread-and-butter Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley pictures throughout the ’50s, Smoke producer Hal Wallis had enjoyed critical/commercial success bringing a couple high-profile plays to the screen: William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba and Williams’ The Rose Tattoo — which, under the directorial hand of Daniel Mann, had respectively won best actress Oscars for Shirley Booth and Anna Magnani. Even so, Mann was such an undistinguished filmmaker that he doesn’t even rate mention in critic Andrew Sarris’s landmark book The American Cinema — and Smoke’s Peter Glenville (who did earn four Tony nominations) wasn’t even the filmmaker Mann was. What is it about Wallis that made him gravitate toward the likes of Mann, Glenville (whom he used again on Becket), Joseph Anthony, Charles Jarrott and Gene Saks? One gets the sense that he didn’t want a strong personality around, other than perhaps an obstreperous old-timer (but anti-stylist) like Henry Hathaway, who missed at least half of the humor there was to be gotten out of the Wallis-produced True Grit.

Most of Smoke is stagey, and even the exteriors (foliage and all) look as if they were done on a set. These scenes include a long, awkward opener that presents the central characters as children and gets the movie off to a terrible start — though Page and Harvey are good enough to enable the rest to “correct” itself (up to a point) when they take over the roles. But only to a point. It’s interesting to compare Elia Kazan’s films of A Streetcar Named Desire and Baby Doll — which both really feel like Williams — to what transpires here. Richard Brooks’ movie of Sweet Bird of Youth (filmed with Page the next year) feels similarly forced, though it had some extenuating problems with censorship at the time.

But again, on a cosmetic level, this DVD is a joy to watch, as typified by the muscle-flexing reds on an outfit worn late in the movie by Pamela Tiffin in her screen debut. There’s also an Oscar-nominated score by Elmer Bernstein, who made a lot of fair movies seems better and a lot of good movies seem much better — for decades. Gorgeous Tiffin, whose career nosedived fast, could actually act and should have had an Oscar nomination for her marvelous comic performance (and as another Southern belle) in Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, which opened about a month after Smoke did.  In fact, Tiffin could have gotten the one that went to Una Merkel here as Page’s mother — one of those transparent cases where you sense the academy simply wanted to honor a veteran performer.

Despite Smoke’s limitations, many seem to remember it fondly, so it’s doubly puzzling why the Williams-Page-nominations pedigree couldn’t get Paramount to release it on DVD years ago. Instead, it is one of the new Olive Films releases of vintage Paramount titles — and the best-looking one they’ve brought out to date.

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