Sunday, April 16, 2017

horton's affection for life's unremarkable people

Arguably, Horton Foote (1916-2009) was America's premiere regional playwright, a poet who appreciated the underdog and the forgotten, small men and women with limited vocabularies and even fewer hopes.

He wrote innumerable heart-breaking plays, often in cycles, but is perhaps best known by the moviegoing masses for his faithful adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" for director Robert Mulligan in 1962.

His other film scripts include Arthur Penn's "The Chase" (1966) and Otto Preminger's "Hurry Sundown" (1967), both all-star affairs, and many of his plays have been filmed, usually with Foote himself attached as scenarist.

Two of these films are based on lesser-known Foote plays - "The Traveling Lady," written for the stage, and "Tomorrow," written for television.  These are works which share a gnawing sense of desolation felt by characters who have been overlooked, written off and often condescended to - and they also shared the same leading lady, the singular Kim Stanley (right), who may or may not have been Foote's muse for a while. Stanley herself was seen far too infrequently on screen but was showcased brilliantly in two of her films, John Cromwell's "The Goddess" (1958), based on a Paddy Chayefsky script (with Stanley's character reputedly modeled on Marilyn Monroe), and Bryan Forbes' intellectual creep show, "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" (1964).

If "The Traveling Lady" is unfamiliar, it's because it was retitled "Baby, the Rain Must Fall" when Mulligan filmed Foote's play for Coumbia Pictures in 1965. For the record, the stage production opened on October 27th, 1954 at New York's Playhouse Theatre and closed after only 30 performances. Stanley played the show's delicate, yet tough-willed heroine, Georgette Thomas, and Jack Lord ("Hawaii Five-0") co-starred as her incorrigible convict husband, Henry. Vincent J. Donohue ("The Sound of Music" on stage and "Sunrise at Campobello" on stage and film) directed.

"Baby, the Rain Must Fall" fits rather snugly into the satisfying output of Mulligan and his partner, produce Alan J. Pakula.  It was the fourth of seven titles made by the prolific team, who collaborated on films for about 10 years. Some of their other titles include the aforementioned "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Love with The Proper Stranger" (1963), "Inside Daisy Clover" (1965) and "Up the Down Staircase" (1976). How their output has managed to evade a major retrospective is beyond me.

Lee Remick more than meets the daunting challenge of standing in for Stanley on screen as Foote's traveling lady, a young transient mother who seeks out a new life in Harrison, Texas, which is close to where her husband Henry is imprisoned. Steve McQueen, in one of his smaller, straight-acting roles, is perfect as the rough-edged, troubled Henry.

McQueen's singular (albeit, not single) contribution to the screen was that he brought his Method Acting background to the action genre, as evidenced by his moody yet muscular work in "The Great Escape" (1963), "Bullitt" (1968), "Le Mans" (1971) and particularly Sam Peckinpah's "The Getaway" (1972). But he also lent his estimable talents to more intimate, lesser-known efforts - "Junior Bonner" (another '72 film with Peckinpah), "The Reivers" (1969), "The Sand Pebbles" (1966), "The Cincinatti Kid" (1965) and ... the Mulligan-Pakula "Love With the Proper Stranger."

As the film begins, Henry is already out of the penitentiary on parole and and performing in a local saloon with a band. Trying to escape from the disapproving grip of Miss Kate, the indomitable woman who raised him, and also avoid the demands of Georgette and their young daughter Margaret Rose (Kimberly Block), he drinks too much and self-destructs a little more.

The acting here is of first order, dominated by Remick who really has the lead role, and by McQueen who slips into the role of Henry as if it might have been written for him specifically. Remick is especially wonderful in her scenes with the charming Block (a plainspoken, unprecocious child actress) as they make tentative plans to settle in Harrison and talk of planting a Chinaberry tree in the front yard of their future dream house.

There is nothing wrong with "Baby, The Rain Must Fall," which was casually dismissed by both its studio and critics in its day - nothing except its title.

The film was rather hastily released in January of 1965, with most of advertising hinged to a song that was written for it. Somewhere along the way, Columbia Pictures had become disenchanted with the title, "The Traveling Lady," and went with the song title. It's a good song but it had a double-edged affect:  It brought the film a modest amount of popularity but it also seriously marred it. And as a title, it flatly misrepresents the movie and even undermines the moody opening credits (designed by Vance Jonson) superimposed over a long, extended shot of a highway speeding by, accompanied by some vintage Elmer Bernstein music. These titles were clearly designed when it was called "The Traveling Lady."

There were also two television productions of "The Traveling Lady," both starring Kim Stanley that aired a year apart in the 1950s. A "Studio One" version of the play, directed by Mulligan, aired on April 22nd, 1957, and a version for something called "Armchair Theater," directed by Dennis Vance, aired August 3rd,  1958. I've no idea if a kinescope still exists of the "Armchair Theater" telecast, but the "Studio One" version has been preserved and is available (in five parts) on You Tube.

And a bit of trivia: Pakula was married to Hope Lange and hired his wife's first husband, Don Murray, for a supporting role in "Baby, The Rain Must Fall."  Lange and Murray met while filming Joshua Logan's "Bus Stop" in 1956 and were married for six years.

The film "Tomorrow" had a fascinating journey to the screen.  Foote adapted it, originally for television, from a William Faulkner short story that first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on November 23rd, 1940 and is included in Faulkner's anthology of stories, "Knight's Gambit."

The TV production aired on Playhouse 90 on March 7th, 1960, with Stanley and Richard Boone performing the lead roles, under the direction of, yes, Robert Mulligan (again). "Tomorrow" remained dormant for about a decade before Foote adapted it for a curious stage production, performed in a New York church in 1970 with Robert Duvall and Olga Bellin starring for Joseph Anthony, an underrated, now-forgotten stage and film director ("The Rainmaker," "Mary, Mary," "The Best Man" and "Under the Yum Yum Tree" on stage; "The Rainmaker," "The Matchmaker," "All in a Night's Work" and "Career" on film).

Duvall plays the monosyllabic dirt farmer Jackson Fentry,  illiterate and remote, who befriends Bellin's pregnant and homeless Sarah Eubanks and ends up raising her son after she dies. (I've never read the Faulkner story but, on the page, Sarah apparently was a black woman.)

In the work's most piercing scene, Sarah's brutish kin come to claim the child, almost literally swooping down and scooping him up, returning Jackson to his sadly solitary life. The twist in this story is truly original, heart-breaking and cathartic.

The aforementioned TV production of "Tomorrow," starring Kim Stanley and Richard Boone, has also been preserved and is also available (in seven parts) on You Tube.

If you ever wondered where Billy Bob Thornton got his idea for his Karl Childers character in "Sling Blade" (1996), look no further. He was obviously inspired by Fentry. And, curiously, Duvall did a cameo in "Sling Blade" for Thornton as Childer's father.

There are other Duvall/"Tomorrow" connections.  Duvall's role in Aaron Schneider's "Get Low" (2009) owes a great deal to Jackson Fentry as well. (And guess what. Lucas Black from "Sling Blade" is in it.)

And you could also say that Foote himself appropriated a good portion of "Tomorrow" for his original screenplay for Bruce Beresford's "Tender Mercies" (1983), which, of course, starred Duvall and won him the Oscar that he rightly deserved for "Tomorrow."  This is Duvall's best film performance ever, period.  But, surprisingly, even some of his most ardent fans are unfamiliar with this singular film and his work in it.

The supporting cast includes the invaluable character actress Sudie Bond ("Cold Turkey," "They Might Be Giants," "Silkwood" and "Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean") and, as a lawyer, the actor-director Peter Masterson, father of Mary Stuart Masterson and Foote's cousin. As an actor, Masterson starred as Katherine Ross's husband in Bryan Forbes' "The Stepford Wives" and, as a director, he helmed Foote's "A Trip to Bountiful" on screen (the 1985 version which won Geraldine Page an Oscar) and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" on stage.

And then there's the haunting Bellin, who matches Duvall every step of the way in Anthony's sad, heart-breaking love story. (Bellin's husband, producer Paul Roebling, originally presented the play on stage and, with Gilbert Perlman, produced the film version.) The actress, who could have been a silent-movie heroine, made no other films. Bellin passed in 1987.

Note in Passing: This is a revised compilation of two previous essays.

*  *  *  *  *
~top: Horton Foote at New York's Booth Theater
~photography: Carolyn Cole / The Los Angeles Times 2008 ©
* * * * *
~middle: publicity shot of the fabulous Kim Stanley; still shot of  Steve McQueen and Lee Remick in "Baby, the Rain Must Fall"; Playbill for "The Traveling Lady," and McQueen and Kimberly Block on the set of "Baby, The Rain Must Fall"
* * * * *
~bottom: title card for "Tomorrow"; Robert Duvall in an ad for the film, and Olga Bellin in a scene from the film


Jeff said...

Regarding Tomorrow and the similarities to Tendere Mercies, to which you allude, I always had the same impression. Mercies is a more conventional version of essentially the same material.

Chris S. said...

Re "Baby, The Rain Must Fall," such a lovely picture. And such atmosphere! Thank you for writing about it.

Having said all that, though, I do think that Foote's observation (repeated in various interviews)about the film still applies: that it was, in essence, the wife's story in the original stage version, and that it never quite worked once it was restuctured as a Steve McQueen vehicle.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Chris. Given that Foote himself wrote the screenplay, I always took its fidelity to the original play as a given. Maybe not. Maybe he was finessed into changing it. Still, on screen - for me, at least - it remains the woman's story. Columbia seemed to ignore that fact and sold it as a Steven McQueen vehicle. It's easy to see why audiences were indifferent to it at the time, given that it's not something that people expected from him.

Noel said...

I agree entirely with Jeff about your assesment of TOMORROW vs. TENDER MERCIES. In terms of control of tone and effects, TOMORROW beats TENDER MERCIES by a country mile.

Samantha said...

Many thanks to your blog for reminding me of the fine film "Baby" and other McQueen movies. “Baby, the Rain Must Fall" always makes me cry. I'm humbled by the powerful simplicity of the relationships in it. I think Lee Remick is stupendous in it -- in a quiet way. Throughout the film, I could hardly believe such solid, well-written filmmaking like this could be forgotten. Yes, McQueen was a good actor -- too bad he was never honored with an Oscar

Brook Seawell said...

Chris is correct. The stage version was indeed the woman's story. I was there for every performance playing Kim Stanley's daughter, Margaret Rose. Thanks for remembering this quiet, but moving play.

joe baltake said...

Brook-- Thanks for this precious post. it means a lot. --Joe

Tracy said...

I hate sad movies like these. All they do is make me wish I could jump into the screen and change things!

Chris S. said...

It's been a couple of years since I've read the stage version, so my memory is vague, but I have read it. The wife arrives in town, she waits with the child, dances happen offstage ... and the husband shows up (I believe) around halfway through the second act of three. Or halfway through the show, at any rate. The wife is the one who's onstage for most of the time, though. It's a "real time," summer's evening kind of script

joe baltake said...

Chris- You (and Brook) obviously know the play better than I do, so I trust your judgment on this. BTW, the play was revived in New York in March of 2006 and was reviewed in The New York Times by Christopher Isherwood. If you want to check out his critique, just go to: -Joe

Rolf said...

Glad I stumbled upon your blog, great background about this film, which is very good -- and I can't recall why I've not seen it before. I was a big McQueen fan. I'm so old I remember watching his tv series, Wanted Dead Or Alive.

Sharon Bosart said...

"Baby, the Rain Must Fall" is a great, unsung movie. Lee Remick and that little girl just break my heart every time I see it. And it was nice to see McQueen in a straight dramatic role, which was rare for him. Thanks for flashing the spotlight on it.

Sarah said...

I always thought that you were a great critic, and I really enjoyed your reviews. I consider myself to be a film buff and you have always helped me weed out the good movies from the bad movies. Now that you're writing again, I'll be able to catch up with DVDs I might not otherwise see. Like these two.

brad said...

I'm so glad to see these filmsget recognized, and for all the right reasons. Duvall is remarkable in "Tomorrow." And Remick and Block are heartbreakingly sweet together in "Baby, the Rain Must Fall," as is McQueen with the little girl. His attempts to do right by his wife are so earnest; you really want them to be a happy little family and turn it all around. Two touching, quiet, beautiful films.

Marvin J Halpern said...

Forget going to films that are currently showing in theatres! Forget going to the "trendy" film festivals, like Cannes or Venice or Toronto or Sundance. INSTEAD, attempt to see ALL the films mentioned in Joe's piece about TOMORROW and BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL (in addition to those two titles). What a grand "homegrown" film festival we would all have! Thanks, Joe, for your densely written, incredibly informative piece.

joe baltake said...

Marvin- Thanks for the generous kuddos! -J

Sheila said...

"Tomorrow" never fails to bring me to tears.

Bill Miller said...

Kim Stanley recreated her role in "The Traveling Lady" twice on TV, for "Studio One" in 1957 and for "Armchair Theater" in 1960. The "Studio One" version, directed by Robert Mulligan and written by Horton Foote, is on YouTube, and also stars Steven Hill, Mildred Dunnock and Robert Loggia.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Bill! Will update the essay with the additional information, as well as links to You Tube to access both telecasts of "The Traveling Lady" and "Tomorrow." Here are the telecast dates that I was able to find for "The Traveling Lady": The "Studio One" version, directed by Robert Mulligan, aired on April 22nd, 1957. A year later, Stanley shot another TV version for director Dennis Vance and Armchair Theater that aired August 3rd, 1958. -J

Vanessa said...

I never saw Baby the Rain Must Fall? The title was why I didn't see Baby, the Rain Must Fall. Not even on TV! Or maybe because I heard a hokey song and I figured a movie with that title and song must be rubbish.

Kiki said...

There was something glorious about Kim Stanley. Kim Stanley!!!! Jesus, was she wonderful. In the movie "The Goddess," her acting was so good you thought she was beautiful. And "Seance" is one of my top movies.

Marilyn said...

Joe- For the record, this was one of your best pieces. -Marilyn

Bill from Philly said...

LOVED your article on these two films

Joey said...

I was lucky to see this film on the big screen thanks to you Joe when you screened it in Philadelphia a long time ago. It's imagery has always stayed with me and has become on of those many "pieces of time" I carry with me. I see that TCM has aired it a few times lately. You are right when you say that this Duvall's most accomplished work.

joe baltake said...

Joe- "Tomorrow" never opened in Philadelphia, despite my annoying efforts. The screening you mention was also attended by Ramon Posel who owned the Ritz and tried to book it. But something was going on with the backers and, as a result, "Tomorrow" received a pathetically limited release. At the time, it was as if the movie never existed.

k.o. said...

Holy cow, Joe. Streep morphed herself into Stanley! Remember when I said Stanley was such a good actress that she made you believe she was gorgeous in The Goddess? Like Streep did in French Lts's Woman making Jeremy Irons cry, Anna . . . Anna. It never hit me before. Having said that, I don't think Kim Stanley would ever stoop to Mamma Mia. Thank you so much for this. I will play it over and over..k.