Monday, March 23, 2015

cinema obscura: a robert preston double-bill

Preston with his wife Catherine Craig

Following his incredible success on Broadway in "The Music Man," the fabulous Robert Preston went on to give his defining performance in the 1962 film version - a performance which should have earned him at least an Oscar nomination but didn't.

But the Meredith Willson musical did provide him with an awesome second act.  Preston went on to do the fine work in a dazzling array of films - Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner," Sidney Lumet's "Child's Play," Michael Ritchie's "Semi-Tough" Gene Saks' "Mame," Nick Castle's "The Last Starfighter" (his final film) and, of course, two Blake Edwards titles, "Victor/Victoria" and "S.O.B."

But, today, I am more interested in the two titles that bookended his performance in the movie version of "The Music Man' - the film versions of two plays, both films apparently now lost.
Delbert Mann's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" (1960)

There are those who thought that the great playwright William Inge would enjoy the household-name status of Tennessee Williams, given that in the 1950s he wrote such plays as "Come Back, Little Sheba," "Picnic," "Bus Stop" and, in 1957, "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," all of which were adapted into films. His 1959 play, "A Loss of Roses," became the 1963 film, "The Stripper" and he also wrote the screenplay for Elia Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass" (1961), in which Inge played the small role of of a minister who counsels Natalie Wood.

Kazan also directed the Broadway version of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," which opend at the Music Box Theatre on December 5, 1957, with a cast including of Teresa Wright, Pat Hingle and  Eileen Heckart. Once again, we have another dysfunctional family drama about a man who, in middle age and out of work, tries to compensate for a lack of self esteem by cheating on his wife with another woman in another town.

The 1960 Warner Bros. film, directed by Delbert Mann from Harriet Frank, Jr.'s adapation, starred Preston in the Pat Hingle role, along with Dorothy McGuire (above with Preston)  and Eve Arden, taking the Wright and Heckart parts, along with Angela Lansbury and a young Shirley Knight, an Oscar nominee for her performance.

Preston was great as always in this and in ... "All the Way Home." 

Alex Segal's "All the Way Home" (1963)

This piece has something of a legendary history. Based on James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "A Death in the Family," it was first adapted by Tad Mosel for the stage in 1960. It opened at the Belasco Theater on November 30th of that year, with a cast headed by Arthur Hill, Colleen Dewhurt and - now get this - Lillian Gish and Aline MacMahon. Actors' heaven. Arthur Penn directed.

Set in Tennessee in the early 1900's, "All the Way Home" revolves around a man's sudden, accidental death and the ramifications that it has on his family, especially his young son.

The play examines the process of mourning and the heartache that makes it almost impossible to heal.

The 1963 Paramount film version, directed by Alex Segal, starred Preston as the father, Jean Simmons as his wife (above with Preston and Michael Kearney, below with Preston), Pat Hingle as his brother and, recreating her Broadway role, the great MacMahon as Aunt Hannah. Michael Kearney played the boy, a role played on Broadway by John Megna, a child actor best known for his role as Dill in the film, "To Kill a Mockingbird." Philip H. Reisman Jr. did the adaptation for this most affecting film.

"All the Way Home" was also filmed twice for televison - first in 1971 with Fred Coe direcing Richard Kiley, Joanne Woodward and (again) Hingle in a teleplay adaptation by Mosel. The second TV version, shot in 1981 by Delbert Mann, starred William Hurt, Sally Field and Ned Beatty. Polly Holliday as Aunt Hannah. (Between Mann and Hingle, there are a lot of cross-connections shared by these two plays and films.)


Alex said...

Yes, these two are filmed plays... but the acting in both is just wonderful, and the dialogue is always memorable. I could go on and on about the many virtues of these films. Great choices, Joe!

Ron said...

Yes, Joe, great choices!

I'm looking for two filmed (actually taped) plays from the 80's: Separate Tables (1983) and Bus Stop (1982). They were shown on TV in the mid-eighties.

Are you familiar with these productions, and know where I can find them?


joe baltake said...

Ron! Yes, I am familiar with them. There are so many plays that were filmed for TV and are now lost. Some enterprising DVD outlet should look into locating them and putting them out there.

m.h. said...

I love your cinema obscura section. First, Julie Andrews, and now Robert Preston.

I have ALL THE WAY HOME on tape!

Brian Lucas said...

THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS became lost only recently -- I once owned a VHS of it that I taped off of TV. I never got around to looking at it before my VCR died. It was tossed away with all of my other old tapes when I moved.

joe baltake said...

Brian- Yes, "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" once made the rounds on television, but to the best of my knowledge, it has never surfaced on any form of home entertainment - not as a Beta or VHS and certainly not as a DVD. Sad.

Brian Lucas said...

Perhaps it's a matter of rights issues. Is it possible that Warners doesn't own it anymore?

joe baltake said...

It's possible.

Sheila said...

I loved Preston in "The Last Starfighter." His character was Harold Hill transported from River City to a sci-fi universe. The fact that it worked at all is an indication of Preston's talent, and to Harold Hill's as well!

Charlotte said...

Haven't seen "All the Way Home," but I was impressed with Alex Segal's direction of the original live TV version of "No Time for Sergeants," which is available on home entertainment.

george said...

I'm sad to say I haven't had a chance to see either of these two movies - and probably won't be able to do so, given their unavailability.

Edmond Osborn said...

"All the Way Home" is currently available for streaming and download on I haven't watched it yet (though it's on my watchlist!) so I can't vouch for the quality of the print they are using, but it's great that these streaming services have unearthed some long-unavailable titles. I recently watched a title ("Wild is the Wind" with A. Quinn and Anna Magnani) that I thought would never see the light of day again.

joe baltake said...

Edmond! Thanks for the heads-up. "Wild Is the Wind" is another title (another Paramount) that I'd love to see again.

April Showers said...

Never saw most of these movies but just loved him "Music Man." I'll be using your list to create a new "wish list" of films to watch.

marvin said...

Joe, you do people who love movies a TREMENDOUS favor by continuing to remind them of both THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS and ALL THE WAY HOME. And what about ISLAND OF LOVE? Marvin

joe baltake said...

Marvin- I wrote about “Island of Love” a couple years ago. Then, Turner started to show it and Warner Home Archives put out a DVD. It’s easier to see now. -J

Bill said...


I remember seeing both of these beautifully acted movies on the old AMC in the 1990s. I hope they show up on TCM soon. Jean Simmons and Dorothy McGuire are two of the most underrated actresses in film history.