Saturday, February 16, 2008

cinema obscura: The Films of William Inge

Now that William Inge's seminal 1949 play, "Come Back, Little Sheba" is back on Broadway, starring S. Epatha Merkerson in an acclaimed performance, perhaps there will be a renewed interest in the neglected and just-about-forgotten Inge.

"There was a time in the mid-20th century," Ben Brantley wrote in his review of the "Sheba" revival in The New York Times, "when Inge (1913-1973) was spoken of in the same breath as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Thoreau’s much-quoted words about 'lives of quiet desperation' were regularly and mistily invoked to describe the ordinary people of waning hopes in Inge’s plays, which were regularly translated to film."

Those films stood out during the 1950s and '60s with their shared acute observations of panic and terror and passion that invest the so-called ordinary lives that Inge recorded with such empathy and gentleness.

No William Inge Film Festival would be complete without his staples - "Come Back, Little Sheba" (1952), Daniel Mann's version with Shirley Booth recreating her stage role and Burt Lancaster taking over for Sidney Blackmer; "Picnic" (1955) and "Bus Stop" (1956), both directed by Joshua Logan and studded with stars (Kim Novak and William Holden in the former, Marilyn Monroe and Don Murray in the latter); Elia Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass" (1961) based on a script written directly for the screen by Inge, and John Frankenheimer's "All Fall Down" (1962), which Inge based on the James Leo Herlihy novel. No problem. All are avilable on DVD or TCM.

Unfortunately, still unavailable are Delbert Mann's fine film of Inge's fine play,"The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" (1960), with a script by Harriet Frank, Jr. and starring Robert Preston in his first film after his stage success in "The Music Man" on Broadway, and Franklin J. Schafner's "The Stripper" (1963), based by scenarist Meade Roberts on Inge's play, "A Loss of Roses," and featuring Joanne Woodward in a superior performance.

Inge's last produced screenplay was for the ill-fated "Bus Riley's Back in Town," filmed in 1965 by Harvey Hart with a cast including Michael Parks, Ann-Margret, Kim Darby, Janet Margolin and Mimsy Farmer. Although Inge's fingerprints are all over it - it is clearly his work - the writer was unhappy enough with it to have his name removed. (Reportedly, his script was restructured by the producers to showcase Ann-Margret.) The release print carries his nom de plume, Walter Gage.

Three of Inge's films were also remade for TV. "Picnic" was filmed twice - in 1986 by Marshall W. Mason, with a cast featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gregory Harrison, and in 2000 by Ivan Passer, starring Gretchen Mol and Josh Brolin. Silvio Narizzano filmed "Come Back, Little Sheba" in 1977, with Laurence Olivier and Joanne Woodward in the leads. And Richard C. Sarafian directed Melissa Gilbert in a 1981 TV version of "Splendor in the Grass."

Speaking of which...

William Motter Inge, who died in 1973 at age 60 of suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, can be seen briefly on screen as Reverend Whitman in a scene with Natalie Wood in "Splendor in the Grass." Brantley aptly described Inge as "sad-eyed" in the film. He's a haunting presence in it.

Note in Passing: "Bus Stop" was also adapted into a 1961-62 omnibus TV series, directed by the likes of Robert Altman, Stuart Rosenberg and Arthur Hiller. Marilyn Maxwell and Rhodes Reason achored the series as the owner of the bus-stop café and the local sheriff. Only the pilot episode, directed by Don Siegel, featured Monroe's Cherie character. It was titled "Cherie" and starred Tuesday Weld.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: William Inge, with Natalie Wood, in "Splendor in the Grass," based on his original screenplay; the dustjacket of the published script from the original 1949 production of "Come Back, Little Sheba," starring Shirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer; the display ad for the 1952 film version, starring Booth and Burt Lancaster, and the poster for the film version of Inge's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com


jbryant said...

I generally like Inge, and would love to see "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" (I have an old VHS taped off TV in SLP mode, but I can't bear to look at it in such compromised form).

I was a bit underwhelmed by "All Fall Down." It's certainly not bad -- Inge himself did the adaptation, the cast is strong, and Frankenheimer and his DP, Lionel Lindon, create some exemplary B&W images. But I enjoyed it in sort of the same way I enjoyed something like "God's Little Acre." It's all compulsively watchable and colorfully melodramatic, but there's not much else to take from it. It doesn't help that the focal point of the story is Warren Beatty's Berry-Berry, a charismatic rebel without a cause, who I suspect we're supposed to find tragic but mostly comes off as just loathsome. His entire romance with Eva Marie Saint plays out in less than 20 minutes of screen time, and we can tell it's true love because instead of abusing her (his usual M.O.), he takes her bowling and to a museum and passionately kisses her beside a lake full of swans.

Saint gives the best performance, and Brandon De Wilde does maybe his best work as Beatty's devoted younger brother (his dialogue can be pretty annoying though: "Gee, Berry-Berry, does it bother you that I call you Berry-Berry every five seconds, Berry-Berry?"). Karl Malden and Angela Lansbury carefully tread the line between "colorful" and "hambone" to good effect (with this and "The Manchurian Candidate," Lansbury was Frankenheimer's 1962 go-to gal for quasi-incestuous mother roles). Evans Evans is amusingly vivid as a dancer who's ready to take Beatty back even though he cracked her head open. Man, that Berry-Berry sure is catnip to the ladies, most of whom make him an indecent offer within 30 seconds of meeting him. Like De Wilde's character, the film eventually, belatedly, gives up on making excuses for this lug, which helps a lot.

joe baltake said...

Really insightful analysis of "All Fall Down," jbryant! Thanks for sharing.