Thursday, March 15, 2012

humble beginnings on shubert alley

Very few plays make it onto film these days, and even fewer stage musicals.

But there was a time when the studios depended seriously on Broadway as a source for its prestige productions. (There's been a curious flipflop in the past two decades with the B movie - action films and action comedies - now being given the lavish adornments once reserved for message/Oscar films exclusively.) Hollywood had such an unquenchable need to film plays that even stage productions that were flops and folded quickly (but were not necessarily bad) quickly became movies.

To name a few...

"Little Murders"

Written by the popular acerbic cartoonist Jules Feiffer, the very dark "Little Murders" opened at the Booth Theater on April 18th, 1967, playing a total of seven performances. The play starred singer Barbara Cook (in a decidedly non-singing role) and Elliott Gould, just before he hit Hollywood with William Friedkin's "The Night They Raided Minsky's" and Paul Mazursky's "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice."

Feiffer comically chronicled what happens when a gung-ho all-American girl brings an inarguably unAmerican guy (a self-described "apathist" who photographs dog excrement for a living) home to meet her family - an oblivious mother, a father embarrassed by his name (it's Carroll) and a brother who wants to be a woman, played by Ruth White, John Randolph and David Steinberg, respectively. Exacerbating the tension are such modern travials as power outages, a garbage strike and serial murders.

Heyward Hale Broun, Phil Leeds and Dick Schaal rounded out the cast, under the direction of George Sherman.

A subsequent 1969 staging at the Circle in the Square also starred Gould and Steinberg, along with Linda Lavin, Vincent Gardenia and Donald Sutherland in the role of a hippie cleric.

Gould, of course, recreated his role for the 1971 film, which was gamely directed by Alan Arkin who also assumed the role of the quickly uncoiling detective investigating the murders. The wonderful Marcia Rodd (and exactly what happened to her?) is a standout in the Cook role of Patsy; Elizabeth Wilson and an encoring Gardenia play her parents and Jon Korkes her brother, and Sutherland was back on board as the minister.

"The Seven Descents of Myrtle"/"Last of the Mobile Hotshots"

Tennessee Williams' "The Seven Descents of Myrtle" 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.
"A Loss of Roses"/"The Stripper"

William Inge's "A Loss of Roses," which opened December 7th, 1959, at the Eugene O'Neill Theater and closed after 25 performances, remains Warren Beatty's only Broadway appearance. His co-stars were dancer Carol Haney (in a decidedly undancing performance), Betty Field, Robert Webber, James O'Rear, Margaret Braidwood and Michael J. Pollard who, of course, would appear with Beatty in Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde."

Daniel Mann directed.

Its plot revolves around Lila (Haney), a sensitive, aging showgirl for a series of shows staged by a Madame Olga. When she gets dumped by the thieving Rick (played by Robert Webber in play and film) and is left stranded in the small town where she grew up, she moves in with her neighbor (Field) whose son she used to babysit. That role was written by Inge especially for the young Warren Beatty who would go on to star for Inge in "Splendor in the Grass" on screen. For the 1963 film, directed by Franklin J. Schafner in his debut, Joanne Woodward (in arguably her finest, if least heralded, performance) and Richard Beymer play the Haney/Beatty roles, with Pollard also recreating their stage roles. The rest of the cast includes Claire Trevor (in for Betty Field), Carol Lynley, Louis Nye and ... Gypsy Rose Lee as Madam Olga.
"Silent Night, Lonely Night"
The estimable Robert Anderson (who penned "Tea and Sympathy" and "I Never Sang for My Father") wrote this lovely play about two lonely people - played by Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes - who have a chance meeting as a cozy New England inn during the Christmas holiday.

Each one is there for personal, troubling reasons.

The play, directed by Peter Glenville and co-starring Lois Nettleton, Bill Berger, Peter De Vise and Eda Hainemann, opened at the Morosco Theater on December 28th, 1959 and was snapped up immediately by Universal which then let the project linger for ten years.
The film version of "Silent Night, Lonely Night," directed by Daniel Petrie, was not made for theaters, but for TV. Nevertheless, it's an excellent movie, intimate and involving. Lloyd Bridges (outstanding) and Shirley Jones (an Emmy nominee) took over the Fonda-Bel Geddes roles, Carrie Snodgress played the Nettleton part and Lynn Carlin and Cloris Leachman showed up in roles created for the film by adapter John Vlahos, who wisely retained most of Anderson's script. Its dialogue is nearly verbetim.
"My Sweet Charlie"

David Westheimer's play "My Sweet Charlie" - a study in race relations - opened in tryout at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia on November 8th, 1966 before moving to New York's Longacre Theater onn December 6th, 1966, where it closed after 31 performances.

The actor Howard Da Silva ("They Live By Night," "The Great Gatsby," "The Blue Dahlia," "The Lost Weekend" and "1776" among many other films) directed a cast that included Louis Gossett, Jr. in the title role, Bonnie Bedelia, John Randolph and Sarah Cunningham. Gossett's Charlie Roberts is a black New York lawyer accused - falsely - of murder in a small Texas town. He finds a vacant house where he hides out and this is where he meets Marlene (Bedelia), an artless, uneducated young woman who has been shunned by her father for being pregnant.

They become allies and unlikely friends.

The 1971 TV film version, also produced by Universal, was adapted by the then-hot team of William Link and Richard Levinson and directed by the great Lamont Johnson on location in Port Bolivar, Texas.

"My Sweet Charlie" was hugely popular as a film, thanks in large part to the affecting lead performances of Al Freeman, Jr. and Patty Duke. Ford Rainey took over the Randolph role.


larry k. said...

I love the film version of "Little Murders." Gould is great and it's really well directed. How did Arkin go from this to "Fire Sale."

You left off Lumet's 1972 "Child's Play," but maybe you talked about that film earlier this year.

joe baltake said...


Yes, I did write about Lumet's "Child's Play" - in my October 10th post in 2008. Check it out. The difference, however, is that "Child's Play" was not a Broadway flop. It had a substantial run.

larry k. said...

I did just notice that Lumet's "Child's Play" is now available for downloading through Amazon... as is another lost 1970's film Frank Perry's "Man on a Swing."

Dave said...

"My Sweet Charlie" is one of my favorite TV movies. I knew it was based on a play but had no idea that the play was not a success on stage. I guess had it been a hit, Universal would have made it for theaters. But I'm not complaining. I'm glad they made it!

larry k. said...

"My Sweet Charlie" was such a hit on television that Universal did try a minimal theatrical release.

joe baltake said...

Yes, I remember the brief theatrical release of "Charlie." Universal probabaly regretted that it did not give this fine little film the prestige of a theatrical showing. "Man on a Swing" is, of course, not based on a play - successful, failed or otherwise - but it is indeed a lost movie. Thanks for reminding me of it.

larry k. said...

I know "Man on a Swing" isn't a play... but I got so excited about finding "Child's Play" that I went searching for other movies I'd seen but time forget. Still no "T.R. Baskin."

joe baltake said...

"T.R. Baskin." Ah, yes. Larry, you are bringing up some nice, forgotten films (although I had a difficult time with Candy Bergen in that film). BTW, I have a great source that helps locating such films. Let me know if you need it.

larry k. said...

Thank you. You are correct: Candy Bergen doesn't work as a lead. I found some guy in England who sends me stuff like George C Scott's "The Last Run" and Paul Newman's "WUSA." I think that is how I wound up on this blog.... your lost classics. Here is another lost beauty I found: "Getting Straight" on Google Video -

New York Ticket Broker said...

Yeah, first you buy their <a href="”>Broadway theatre tickets</a><br> and then you buy tickets to see the movie and it all ends up costing a small fortune. I'll stick to nights out at the park.

Carrie said...

The first time I heard "The Seven Descents of Myrtle" referenced was in 1968 when Estelle Parsons won an Oscar for Bonnie and Clyde and said that she got a night off from the play to come to the Academy Awards.

Ralph DeLuca said...

I always enjoy the film version of "Little Murders". Gould is usually entertaining in every film role.

Ralph DeLuca
Madison, NJ

Sheila said...

Joe- Larry K. asked why you didn't mention Robert Morosco's "Child's Play," but that show wasn't a flop. True, it was made into a film but it has a successful run on Broadway, championed by the critics.

joe baltake said...

Sheila- You're right! This post is devoted to plays that made it on screen even though they failed on stage. "Child's Play," the play, may be forgotten now, but it was an estimable hit when it opened in New York.

Kim said...

Little Murders is an amazing piece of work, one of the darkest satires imaginable. It's also an amazing showcase for some truly deranged monologues, both from Lou Jacobi (as the Judge) and Donald Sutherland (as a hippie preacher). Feiffer's other play-into-film, Carnal Knowledge (directed by Mike Nichols), is almost as bleak and darkly funny, though not nearly as surreal -- its bleakness is entirely constrained to realistic depictions of romantic relationships. Feiffer is a great talent, both in film and in his consistently razor-sharp Village Voice strip.

Daryl Chin said...

Glad to see that you corrected your comments on THE STRIPPER; indeed, the play was written by Inge for Warren Beatty (just as Inge would write his screenplay for SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS for Beatty's film debut). And, yes, i think it has Joanne Woodward's finest performance. (One note: with her platinum hair, and the slight jiggle in her walk, Woodward was obviously playing a woman emulating Marilyn Monroe... but Woodward, who was a friend of Monroe's, said that one day, she was going to the commissary on the Fox lot when she ran into Marilyn, on one of the rare days when Monroe showed up for SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE, and Monroe asked her what she was doing, so Woodward explained that she was making a film of Inge's LOSS OF ROSES, and Monroe said, oh, you're playing another version of Cheri from BUS STOP, and Woodward was able to say, yes! Woodward had been afraid that Marilyn would think that Woodward was making fun of her, but when Monroe made the connection to BUS STOP, Woodward felt easier about it.) That's really a lost movie! It hasn't shown up in decades, but i saw it when i was a child, and then it played a few times on TV, but it hasn't been around since the 1970s, that i know of.

Re: William Inge. Inge was (from all accounts) one of the most repressed homosexuals who ever lived. (Let's put it this way: if you told people who knew him that he died a virgin, they'd believe it.) His sister noted that, ever since high school, he would have crushes on boys (usually athletes) and he would do their homework for them, etc. But he'd never, ever touch them. Warren Beatty was one of those people: Inge did everything to launch Beatty's career, from writing a Broadway play for him, to writing the first and third films for him (SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS and ALL FALL DOWN). But by the time of his death, Inge's alcoholism was so severe that he couldn't get anything done, yet he had found another boy to fall in love with... though he wasn't able to finish the play for that boy. And that boy was Nick Nolte.

joe baltake said...

Daryl! Thanks as ever for the wonderful, invaluable information. -J

Natalie said...

I know that you have already written about DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STARS, which remains maybe the best of the Inge adaptations, with great performances by Robert Preston, Dorothy McGuire, Eve Arden, Shirley Knight, Angela Lansbury (it's one of her favorites of the movies she did). In DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, there was another of Inge's "golden boys", this time played by Lee Kinsolving; this time, Inge went and named the character "Sammy Golden"!

joe baltake said...

Yes, Natalie, I did write about "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" - on August 26th, 2007.