Thursday, January 10, 2019

cinema obscura: schaffner's "the stripper" / stage → movie: william inge plays on film

"There was a time in the mid-20th century, 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."

Inge, of course, is playwright William Inge, and the quote is an excerpt from Ben Brantley's New York Times review of a revival of Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba" when it opened at the Biltmore Theater on January 25, 2008. Inge has been on my mind of late after my friend Marvin sent me a box of old videotapes including "The Stripper," a Joanne Woodward film based on an Inge play of another title, "A Loss of Roses."

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner from a screenplay by Meade Roberts and released by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1963, "The Stripper" plays as the sad remnant of a once-good film (or perhaps play, in this case) that was saddled with a new exploitative title. Not good. The film was shot by Ellsworth Fredricks in CinemaScope and black-&-white (always a striking combo), but the Key Video of the film that Marvin sent me is blurry and presented in an inferior pan-and-scan. The dust jacket, meanwhile, contains two color (!) stills from the film - of a scene that all too obviously never made the final cut. At least, it's not on the video.

The only remaining virtues of "The Stripper" are Woodward's committed, empathetic performance and a terrific trademark Jerry Goldsmith score.

The play, "A Loss of Roses," was written by Inge in the late 1950s and one senses that he was running out of ideas, given that its plot is essentially a role-reversed version of his most popular play. Inge's "Picnic" details the arrival in a small town of an attractive drifter, named Hal, no longer as young as he thinks he is, and his interactions with its denizens, particularly one young woman, Madge.

In "A Loss of Roses," it's an aging young woman named Lila, now a showgirl in a touring act, who shows up in her hometown and has a reunion with her former neighbors, particularly with one young man. (Back in the day, she was his babysitter, no less.) Watching "The Stripper," I could sense Inge tracing over "Picnic." The play, which opened December 7, 1959, at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, closed after only 25 performances and remains the single Broadway appearance of Warren Beatty who was its male lead and who received a Tony nomination for his performance.

In a rare dramatic performance, legendary dancer Carol Haney starred as Lila and the play's cast also included Betty Field, Robert Webber and Michael J. Pollard who, of course, would appear with Beatty in Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde." Daniel Mann directed.

Betty Field (an Inge favorite) essentially essayed the same part she played in the film of "Picnic." Claire Trevor took over the role in "The Stripper," whose cast includes Richard Beymer (in the Beatty role), Carol Lynley, Louis Nye - and Webber and Pollard, both recreating their stage roles. (Incidentally, it's been rumored that Natalie Wood, given her connection at the time to Beatty, Beymer and Inge, once considered playing the Lynley role - but only as a cameo.)

"The Stripper" went through several title changes but apparently "A Loss of Roses" (those words referenced in an affecting monologue that was retained for the film) was never under serious consideration. Why not?

"A Woman in Summer," "A Woman of July" and "Celebration" were all considered before Fox went with "The Stripper," a title which makes no narrative sense, given that Lila isn't forced to do a strip routine until one of the final scenes in the movie. But it made business sense: "The Stripper" was filmed while "Gypsy," which was a huge hit for Warner Bros., was playing in theaters. The powers no doubt thought that it was wise to capitalize on that film's success. Also, one of the characters in "The Stripper" is played by ...  Gypsy Rose Lee.

Fox snapped up the film rights to "A Loss of Roses," despite its brief Broadway run, as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe. The actress had a good working relationship with Inge, having starred in Fox's film version of his "Bus Stop," and there were thoughts of a profitable reunion.

But the problems on the ill-fated "Something's Got to Give" and, of course, Monroe's death in 1962 ended that idea. Joanne Woodward stepped in and it's curious that her appearance in "The Stripper" approximates the way Monroe looks in the few surviving scenes from "Something's Got to Give."

And perhaps as a homage, Woodwards sings Johnny Mercer's "Something's Gotta Give" during the strip routine.
Warren Beatty was 22 when he starred in "A Loss of Roses," the beginning of a crucial collaboration with Inge, who also wrote the scripts for Beatty's 1961 screen debut, Elia Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass" (which was an original screenplay) and his 1962 film for John Frankenheimer, "All Fall Down"(adapted from a novel by James Leo Herlidhy

Incidentally, Inge can be seen briefly in "Splendor in the Grass" as Reverend Whitman who counsels Natalie Wood. (Brantley aptly described Inge as "sad-eyed" in the film.)

The handful of plays - and the films based on them - that Inge wrote prior to "A Loss of Roses" stand out with their shared acute observations of the panic, terror and passion that invest the so-called "ordinary lives" that he recorded with such empathy and gentleness. Today, an imaginary William Inge Film Festival, including screen originals and material inspired by his plays but starting with these four Inge staples from the 1950s and '60s:

"Come Back, Little Sheba

The plot: Doc isn't a real doctor, but he wanted to be one. He dropped out of medical school to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Lola, who lost the baby. Now, he's a bitter middle-aged alcoholic, while Lola uses her pet dog, Sheba, as a love substitute. The dormancy of their relationship is challenged when a young woman rents a room in their home.

The Broadway production: Opened on February 15, 1950 at the Booth Theater and ran for 190 performances. The cast included Shirley Booth as Lola and Sidney Blackmer as Doc. Directed by Daniel Mann.

The film version: Released by Paramount Pictures on February 13, 1953. Booth recreated her stage role opposite Burt Lancaster as Doc. Also directed by Mann, from a screenplay by Ketti Frings. A TV version, directed by Silvio Narizzano ("Georgy Girl"), aired in 1977 and starred Joanne Woodward and Laurence Olivier. Inge himself wrote the teleplay.


The plot: A handsome drifter unsettles the women of a small Kansas town during a labor-day weekend.

The Broadway production: Opened on February 19, 1953 (a few days after the opening of the film version of "Come Back, Little Sheba") at the Music Box Theater and ran for 477 performances. Joshua Logan directed a cast that included Ralph Meeker, Janice Rule, Arthur O'Connell, Eileen Heckart, Kim Stanley, Paul Newman, Ruth McDevitt, Reta Shaw and Elizabeth Wilson.

The film version: Released by Columbia Pictures on February 16, 1956. William Holden, Kim Novak, Rosalind Russell, Betty Field, Susan Strasberg and Cliff Robertson starred and, from the play, O'Connell, Wilson and Shaw recreated their roles. Also directed by Logan, from a screenplay by Daniel Taradash.

"Bus Stop"

The Plot: A hell-raising cowboy meets a saloon singer on a bus, falls in love with her immediately and plans to haul her off to his ranch in Montana, whether she wants to go or not.

The Broadway production: Opened on March 2, 1955 at the Music Box Theater and ran for 478 performances. Albert Salmi played the cowboy Bo Decker and Kim Stanley starred as the chanteuse, Cheri. The cast included Elaine Stritch, Crahan Denton, Lou Polan, Patrick McVey and Phyllis Love. Harold Clurman directed.

The film version: Released by Twentieth Century-Fox on August 31, 1956. Marilyn Monroe stars as Cheri and Don Murray made his film debut as Bo. The cast included Hope Lange (also in her debut), Betty Field, Arthur O'Connell, Eileen Heckart and Robert Bray. Joshua Logan directed, from a screenplay by George Axelrod.

A TV version of "Bus Stop," televised in 1982 was directed by Peter H. Hunt and starred Margot Kidder as Cherie and Tim Matheson. Joyce Van Oatten, Pat Hingle and Barry Corbin co-starred. Inge wrote the teleplay,

The material was adapted into a TV series in 1961 and all but one of the episodes had anything to do with the play or film. The one exception was an episode titled "Cherie," which condensed the material and starred the excellent Tuesday Weld and Gary Lockwood in the leads. Don Siegel directed from a script by Robert Blees.

"The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" 

The plot: A family drama about a husband who may be unfaithful, a wife who plans to move in with her sister, their painfully shy daughter and a son lost in a world of clippings about movie stars.

The Broadway production: Opened on December 5, 1957 at the Music Box Theatre and ran for 468 performance. The cast included Eileen Heckart, Pat Hingle, Theresa Wright, Judith Robinson, Timmy Everett, Frank Overton and Evans Evans (Mrs. John Frankenheimer). Elia Kazan directed.

The film version: Released by Warner Bros. on October 8, 1960. The movie starred Dorothy McGuire, Robert Preston, Angela Lansbury, Eve Arden, Shirley Knight, Ken Lynch, Lee Kingsolving, Penny Parker and Richard Eyre. Overton recreated his stage role. Delbert Mann directed from a screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.. (The movie, not available on home entertainment, is almost impossible to see these days.)

Most of William Inge on screen is directly linked to his stage work. But, as mentioned, he wrote the screenplay for Beatty's "All Fall Down," as well as another interesting film - Universal's "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. It is Inge's last produced screenplay. Although his fingerprints are all over it - it is clearly his work - Inge 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.

There was also a 1981 TV version of "Splendor in the Grass," directed by Richard C. Sarafian and starring Melissa Gilbert in the Natalie Wood role. a 1981 TV version of "Splendor in the Grass." John Herzfeld wrote the script.

Inge would write a four more plays before his death, including "Where's Daddy?" (1966), with Beau Bridges, and "The Last Pad" (1972), with Nick Nolte, with whom he would have similar mentor-protégé relationship that he had with Warren Beatty. "The Last Pad" had its premiere in Phoenix, Arizona under its original title "The Disposal." When it played in Los Angeles, Nolte won multiple awards for his performance which introduced him to the Hollywood, jump-starting his film career.

The play opened a few days following Inge's death. He committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning on June 10, 1973. He was 60.

William Motter Inge was gay, but closeted, and addressed his homosexuality openly only in the plays "Where's Daddy?" and "The Last Pad."

More on "Picnic": "Picnic" was, inarguably, Inge's greatest triumph. He won the Pulitzer Prize in drama for it and the play experienced somewhat of a history beyond its success on Broadway and film. It was actually a revision of an earlier, unproduced version titled "Summer Brave." The main difference between the two versions is the ending - the female lead, Madge, decides to stay in her hometown rather than follow drifter Hal.

"Summer Brave" was subsequently staged after Inge's death. It opened October 26, 1975 at the ANTA Theater and played for 18 performances. Director Michael Montel's leads were played by Jill Eikenberry and Ernest Thompson who would switch careers at some point, becoming a playwright. Thompson wrote "On Golden Pond."  

Picnic" also experienced another incarnation. In 1965, Joshua Logan directed a musical version titled "Hot September," with a book by Paul Osborn, music by Kenneth Jacobson and Lyrics by Rhoda Roberts. It opened September 14, 1965 at the Shubert Theater in Boston and closed there October 9, 1965, canceling the scheduled Broadway opening.

There have been several revivals of the play since its 1953 opening on Broadway, the most notable being a 1994 production, starring Kyle Chandler as Hal and Ashley Judd as Madge, and a 2013 version, with Sebastian Stan ("I, Tonya") as Hal and Maggie Grace as Madge. And let's not forget the two TV versions - one in 1986, starring Gregory Harrison and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and another in 200, directed by Ivan Passer, starring Josh Brolin and Gretchen Mol.

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(from top)

 ~William Inge in profiles

~Joanne Woodward in the film "The Stripper"
~Photography: Twentieth Century-Fox. 1963© 

~Playbill for the play "A Loss of Roses" (Warren Beatty, Carol Haney and Betty Field)

 ~Warren Beatty and Carol Haney in the play "A Loss of Roses"
~photography: Friedman-Abeles 1959©

 ~Woodward and Richard Beymer in "The Stripper"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox. 1963©

~Marilyn Monroe in "Something's Got to Give"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox. 1962©

~Beatty with Inge on the set of "Splendor in the Grass"
~Natalie Wood with Inge in a scene from the film
~Photography: Warner Bros. 1962© 

~Playbill for the play "Come Back, Little Sheba" (Shirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer)

~Ralph Meeker and Janice Rule in the play "Picnic"
~photography: Friedman-Abeles 1953©

 ~Kim Stanley and Albert Salmi in the play "Bust Stop"
~photography: Friedman-Abeles 1955©

 ~Tuesday Weld and Gary Lockwood in "Cherie," an episode of the TV series, "Bus Stop"
~Photography:Twentieth Century-Fox. 1960©

~Playbill from the play "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" (Pat Hingle with Theresa Wright, and Eileen Heckart)

~Robert Preston and Dorothy Maguire in a scene from the film of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1960©

 ~Poster art for the stage musical "Hot September"


Daryl Chin said...

William Inge is really one of the forgotten men in the American theater; there was a time (in the early 1960s) when he was regarded as one of the most important American playwrights (along with Williams, Miller, Lillian Hellman, Clifford Odets). He had four consecutive hits on Broadway (COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA, PICNIC, BUS STOP, and THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS); though A LOSS OF ROSES wasn't a hit, his work in the movies was garnering acclaim (SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS). But then it all went South, as it were. A sad, complicated life, but i want to add that, though it's difficult to see, i think THE STRIPPER is one of the better films based on Inge's plays. It certainly has one of the best (if not the best) performances by Joanne Woodward. In a way, it's of a piece with another film that Inge worked on in that period, ALL FALL DOWN (though based on James Leo Herilhy's novel, Inge's screenplay emphasized themes consistent with Inge's own work). And both films showed how two directors from TV (Franklin Schaffer for THE STRIPPER, John Frankenheimer for ALL FALL DOWN) were adapting to the movies. One thing: between Warren Beatty and Nick Nolte, the third of Inge's proteges was Michael Parks. (Inge was so upset by what happened to BUS RILEY'S BACK IN TOWN because he had intended it as a showcase for Parks; Inge also had a hand in THEN CAME BRONSON, but also had his name taken off when there was too much interference.) When Inge killed himself, both Parks and Nolte were notably upset: Nolte spent at least two years in limbo, quite distraught over Inge's death (that's why he was already in his 30s when he finally hit with RICH MAN, POOR MAN: he did a lot to avoid acting, feeling that he was cursed.)

joe baltake said...

Daryl- Thanks, as always, for the fascinating information, particularly your references to Nick Nolte and Michael Parks. It's also nice to read a positive opinion of "The Stripper." And, yes, Joanne Woodward is fantastic in it. -J

jay 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...

Jay- Yes, "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" must be rescued. It must! Let's hope that Warner Archives home entertainment finds time to take if off the shelf on which it's been sitting. Re "All Fall Down," your take on the Beatty character - or rather how he plays it - is interesting. That said, I like the film. -J

s. selland said...

Your piece on Inge should be required reading for any professor teaching, and any student attending, classes on the great American playwrights of the 1950s. Films mentioned in piece, which were either written by Inge directly for the screen, or adapted by Inge for the screen, should be seen as part of classroom work and essays written comparing and contrasting themes, points of view, etc. This piece would be a grand syllabus to be used on a grand playwright; I know several professors of cinema studies throughout the nation who would jump at the chance to have the piece as a "start-off" point leading to instruction on a grand scale of author Inge and his works.

joe baltake said...

Wow! Thanks for the generous words. Inge is being slowly rediscovered but rediscovered nevertheless. -J

Charlotte said...

DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STARS remains maybe the best of the William 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). I've read that Inge had a habit of finding straight young actors who he would fall in love with, and then try to promote their careers. In DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, there was another of Inge's "golden boys," played by Lee Kinsolving; this time, Inge went and named the character "Sammy Golden"!

Sheila said...

I'm a William Inge fan. He seemed to love situations where older women got all hot and bothered by young men. There's Lola eyeing the character Turk in "Come Back Little Sheba," the schoolteacher Rosemary making a fool of herself in "Picnic," the various women throwing themselves at Berry-Berry in "All Fall Down" and Lola reconnectingwith young Kenny in "A Loss of Roses"/"The Stripper."