Tuesday, November 19, 2019

cinema obscura: two robert preston gems

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

Gregory Peck won the Oscar that year for Robert Mulligan's "To Kill a Mockingbird." Preston's is the better performance of the two, but really, where does one begin to compare? However, with the Willson musical, director Morton DaCosta provided Preston with an awesome second act.

Preston went on to do the incredible 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 with Blake Edwards, "Victor/Victoria" and "S.O.B." Then there are two titles that bookend his performance in the movie version of "The Music Man' - the film versions of two other stage productions, both films apparently now lost.

They would be "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," based on the William Inge play and shot immediately prior to "The Music Man" (and for the same studio, Warner Bros.), and Tad Mosel's "All the Way Home," adapted from James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "A Death in the Family."
There are those who thought that 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 also plays the small on-screen role 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 Pat Hingle (in the role that Preston would play on film), Teresa Wright 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 movie version, directed by Delbert Mann from Harriet Frank, Jr.'s adapation, cast Dorothy McGuire in the part created on stage by Wright, and replaced Heckart with Eve Arden. Angela Lansbury has a supporting role in the film, and a young Shirley Knight was an Oscar nominee for her debut performance.

Preston, meanwhile, walks the tricky, balance-testing demands of a man teetering between our sympathy and disregard. He's likable but do we like him? (One could stretch this part, seeing it as a somewhat lighter variation on "The Music Man.") It's a testament to Preston's talent that he pulls it off.

"All the Way Home," meanwhile, has something of a legendary history. Based on Agee's Pulitzer Prize book, 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 1963 Paramount film version, directed by Alex Segal from a Philip H. Reisman Jr. adaptation, starred Preston as the father and Jean Simmons as his wife; Pat Hingle (again) as his brother and, recreating her Broadway role, the great MacMahon as Aunt Hannah. Michael Kearney played the boy, a role performed on Broadway by John Megna, a New York child actor best known for his role on film as Dill in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Due to its narrative arc, Preston has a smaller role here, but even when he is not on screen, his presence is always felt, a crucial quality for a play/film that examines the process of mourning and the heartache that makes it almost impossible to heal. Another piece of lost filmmaking art, and yet another performance by Robert Preston, that begs to be seen.

Note in Passing: Re my earlier reference to the history of "All the Way Home," the material was filmed twice more, both times for televison - first in 1971, with Fred Coe directing Richard Kiley, Joanne Woodward and (again) Hingle from a teleplay by Mosel. The second TV version, shot in 1981 by Delbert Mann (again), stars William Hurt, Sally Field, Ned Beatty and Polly Holliday as Aunt Hannah. Between Mann and Hingle, there are a lot of cross-connections shared by these two plays and films.

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

* * * * *
(from top) 

~Preston with his wife Catherine Craig backstage at the Majestic Theatre where "The Music Man" had opened in 1957 
~photography: Friedman-Ables 1957© 

 ~Preston with Dorothy Maguire in a scene from Delbert Mann's film of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" 
~photography: Warner Bros. 1960©

~Playbill from the stage version of the William Inge play, "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs"

~Preston with Jean Simmons and Michael Kearney in Alex Segal's "All the Way Home"
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 1963©

~Poster art for "All the Way Home"
~Paramount Pictures1963©

~Preston and Simmons in a scene from"All the Way Home"
~photography: Paramount Pictures1963©


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.

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.

Pacocat said...

"All the Way Home" is currently available for streaming and download on Amazon.com. 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.

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.

Billy from Philly said...

Joe, I have ALL THE WAY HOME on tape! You do people who love movies a TREMENDOUS favor by continuing to remind them of both that movie and THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS. And what about ISLAND OF LOVE? I just love your cinema obscura section.

joe baltake said...

Billy- 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 Wolfe said...

Thank you for mentioning "The Last Starfighter"! As with Sheila above, I too love it, in large part because of what she said: "His character was Harold Hill transported from River City to a sci-fi universe." Perfect.

This movie was one of two underrated sci-fi movies from the mid-1980s that I loved, the other being "Night of the Comet." Coincidentally, both featured Catherine Mary Stewart, who during the same time also starred in a good 1950s-set coming-of-age drama called "Mischief." (Bad title, surprisingly good movie.) Movie history truly offers an endless number of overlooked or forgotten actors and movies to discover and enjoy.

joe baltake said...

You nailed it, Bill. And thank you for references the wonderful - and much missed - Catherine Mary Stewart. -J

Peter Lappin said...

You can stream "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" here:


Daryl Chin said...

Of course, there was a time when Broadway plays were regularly adapted for movies, and THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS and ALL THE WAY HOME were classic examples. THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS remains a favorite of Angela Lansbury (who feels this was one of her best performances before John Frankenheimer "resurrected" her career with ALL FALL DOWN and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE); Eve Arden shows more depth than usual, and, in general, it's beautifully acted. It's hard to understand the almost total eclipse of the reputation of William Inge. But there you have it. (Additionally, Inge had a knack of discovering talent: Warren Beatty, Michael Parks and Nick Nolte were three examples. Beatty starred in A LOSS OF ROSES on Broadway, and then Inge wrote SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS for him; for Michael Parks, Inge wrote the movie BUS RILEY'S BACK IN TOWN, but the studio changed the script and re-edited the movie to emphasize Ann-Margret's part; furious, Inge asked for his name to be taken off the movie. He was working on new plays which he hoped to star Nick Nolte, but then Inge committed suicide.) ALL THE WAY HOME had a period when it was shown on TV a lot, but have no idea what has happened to it. But i do remember how convincing the family atmosphere was, and the lovely scene when Robert Preston takes the little boy to the movies. (But not just these films: Shirley Booth only starred in four movies, COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA - based on Inge - and THE MATCHMAKER - based on Thornton Wilder - are readily available, but what has happened to ABOUT MRS. LESLIE and HOT SPELL?)