Summer and Smoke (1961)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: She is sexually repressed.

Alma (Geraldine Page) is an adult woman still single and living with her parents. Her father (Malcolm Atterbury) is a minister while her mother (Una Merkel) having suffered a mental breakdown several years’ earlier acts and behaves in a perpetual child-like state. Alma yearns for the affections of John (Laurence Harvey) the dashing doctor who lives next door with his father (John McIntire). However, John’s lifestyle is much too wild for Alma’s repressed tastes, but when she tries to change she finds that it may be too late in this film version of the Tennessee William’s play.

I have been a fan of Geraldine Page for years. She has a terrific ability to play fragile and eccentric characters while doing it with a panache and style. Her characterizations are always vivid and revealing and executed in a seamless fashion. One can become so entranced with her performances that sometimes it becomes more interesting than the story itself. Her appearance here proves to be no exception. She became known for playing a lot of dark, sinister characters, so it was a nice change seeing her play this part. She even does some singing and in fact the scene where she sings to John’s father as he lies on his deathbed for me left the most lasting impression. I always love watching the woman’s body language, gestures, and facial expressions and how she uses them to create a three-dimensional character. Her acting discipline should be studied and emulated by students of the craft everywhere.

Harvey as her co-star was an interesting choice. Despite his reputation as being an over-rated actor and possessing a strange personality off-camera I have found some of his performances to be excellent particularly the one in the original Manchurian Candidate. However, he seems to be better suited playing parts with a cold and aloof presence. The role here demanded more emotion and I didn’t think he could quite hit it. By the end Page was acting circles around him and turning the production into her own vehicle.

The supporting performers aren’t bad. It is fun seeing Rita ‘Hey you guys’ Moreno in an early role playing a young vixen with eyes for John. McIntire is fine in his small role and the part where comes home to find all sorts of drunken people lying about passed out in his living room and hallways is good. Thomas Gomez is memorable simply to glimpse his large almost unbelievable waist size.

I really didn’t like Merkel’s part as the crazy mother. I found it frustrating that there really was never any explanation for why she behaved in such a strange way. Simply saying that she had a ‘breakdown’ wasn’t enough and I wanted more of a scientific or medical reason. It also would have been more interesting to see what she was like before her breakdown, but that is never shown.

Technically the film is well produced. The sets, costumes and performances are all very turn-of-the-century and it helps draw you into the mood and thinking of the era right away. I did not like that the outdoor scenes where done on a soundstage as the foliage and sky look annoyingly artificial.

Most of William’s plays deal with sad, lonely, and pathetic characters and this one proves no exception. However, I was pleasantly surprised that after the expected histrionics this one manages to have a somewhat upbeat ending, which helped distinguish it above some of his others. The characters and situations are all too real and Alma reminded me very much of someone I know and others may know someone like her as well, which on a personal level made this story all the more fascinating.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: November 16, 1961

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Peter Glenville

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix streaming

One response to “Summer and Smoke (1961)

  1. Very interesting subject, appreciate it for putting up.

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