Sunday, October 14, 2007

cinema obscura: Two by Tennessee Williams

Much like Neil Simon, Tennessee Williams was that rare playwright whose stage works routinely made it to the screen, where they were often treated as events.

Even his flops were optioned by the Hollywood studios, although their screen counterparts were equally unsuccessful. Two come immediately to mind - one completely forgotten and the other remembered only as a camp classic. Both underwent title changes for their respective film versions.

Needless to say, a DVD incarnation has evaded both.

Let's start with his 1964 play, the wonderfully titled "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," which made it to the screen in 1968 as a Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton vehicle, courtesy of Universal, under the lame title, "Boom!"

Produced for the stage by David Merrick and directed by Tony Richardson, "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" starred the singular Tallulah Bankhead as Flora "Sissy" Goforth, an aging ex-Follies girl, retired on the Italian Riviera and writing her memoirs. Her days consist of dictating her autobiography and begging for injections from her nurses. This world is invaded there by swaggering young gigolo Chris Flanders (played on stage by Tab Hunter), known as the "Angel of Death" who upends her life. The play also starred Marian Seldes, Ralph Roberts, Ruth Ford, Bobby Dean Hooks and Konrad Matthaei.

"The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" opened January 1st, 1964 at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. It ran for five performances.

Taylor played Mrs. Goforth in the Joseph Losey-directed film version, set atop a Mediterranean island where she makes her own rules. Burton plays Flanders, a man known for visiting to women shortly before their death. Noel Coward essayed the supporting role of intriguingly-named "The Witch of Capri, one of Mrs. Goforth's neighbors, and the supporting cast included Michael Dunn and Joanna Shimkus.

Williams second flop that made it to the screen is "The Seven Descents of Myrtle" which had a tryout at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia and opened March 27th, 1968 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with a cast consisting of Estelle Parsons, Harry Gaurdino and Brian Bedford, under the direction of José Quintero.

OK, here goes: Williams' play is about Lot (Bedford), a tubercular, impotent transvestite who has taken a wife named Myrtle (Parsons) who, in turn, is a prostitute and former showgirl, the sole survivor of the Five Memphis Hot Shots. Myrtle lives to nurse Lot back to health but Lot cares only about stealing the family property from his multiracial half-brother, Chicken (Guardino). Naturally, Chicken is attracted to Myrtle.

"The Seven Descents of Myrtle" closed after 29 performances.

Sidney Lumet directed the 1970 film version, which was retitled "Last of the Mobile Hotshots" and was one of the few prestige films of that era to be rated X by the MPAA. Lynn Redgrave starred as Myrtle, James Coburn as Lot (renamed Jeb actually for the film), and Robert Hooks as Chicken. The film was made in New Orleans and St. Francisville, Louisiana, but forget the scenery. All that counted here was the idea of James Coburn playing a transvestite.

I don't know about you, call me a mosochist, but I want to see both these films again.

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

(Artwork: The poster from "Boom!"; the playbill from "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore"; Lynn Redgrave as Myrtle in "Last of the Mobile Hotshots," and the playbill from "The Seven Descents of Myrtle")

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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


girish said...

Joe -- A few years back, John Waters picked BOOM as one of his favorite films and presented it in person (with a Q & A afterwards) at the Toronto International Film Festival. I missed that screening and have been on the lookout for the film ever since.

chris schneider said...

I'd like to see "Boom" again, and "Mobile Hot Shots" for the first time.

Some celebrity names you might mention in connection with "Mobile Hot Shots" are: Gore Vidal (screenplay), James Wong Howe (cinematography), and Quincy Jones (music).

jbryant said...

I saw Mobile Hot Shots in a second-run theatre, probably in 1971, when I was about 14. Not sure why they let me in, since it was an X rating (I was with my cousin, who was the same age as me). Can't say it made much of an impression, but I'd love to see it again, now that I actually have an appreciation of the talents of Lumet, Howe, Jones, Redgrave, et al.

Daryl Chin said...

BOOM (and its companion piece, SECRET CEREMONY) have been making their appearance on the Sundance Channel, as part of a deal that was made by MCA-Universal to lease some "obscure" titles from the 1960s and 1970s for cablecast. BOOM showed a month ago, and will be making its way back on the rotation this winter.

(BOOM is letterboxed, and the sets still look as magnificent as ever.)

Another film in this group is Carol Reed's THE PUBLIC EYE starring Mia Farrow and Topol, which just showed about a few weeks ago.

joe baltake said...

Hi, Daryl-

Thanks for the tip on "Boom!'s" Sundance telecast. The cable station has also shows James Bridges' "September 30th, 1955," which I commented on here earlier:

BTW, I also wrote about Sir Carol Reed's "The Public Eye" when Sundance showed it last May. Here's the link in case you missed it:

I wrote about it in tandem with Brian G. Hutton's "The Pad (and How to Use It), which of course was "The Private Ear" when it played on stage with "The Public Eye." Two Peter Shaffer one-acters.

Roland Saint-Laurent said...

You can vote for both of these films to be released on DVD on the Turner Classic Movies page. Just look up the films and on the right hand side you'll see the option to vote for their release.

I own a cheap-looking DVD-R of Boom! that I got on eBay awhile back, and if any film deserves a deluxe treatment on DVD, this is it, especially if they could get John Waters to do commentary on it. As for "Last of the Mobile Hotshots," I'd love to see how this film earned it's X rating back then.

To quote Waters, "The “bad” Tennessee Williams is better than most of the 'good' of his contemporaries."