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Sweet Bird of Youth

by Glenn Erickson Apr 28, 2020

Not all Tennessee Williams film adaptations are successful, but Richard Brooks’ blend of romance, show biz venality and political thuggery is just too entertaining to dismiss. The entire cast is better than good, with Geraldine Page shining and Paul Newman well-cast. And the ingenue Shirley Knight receives her most iconic role, right at the beginning of her career. It’s sad timing for admirers of Ms. Knight, but still good to see her looking so radiant.


Sweet Bird of Youth
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1962 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 120 min. / Street Date April 28, 2020 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Ed Begley, Rip Torn, Mildred Dunnock, Madeleine Sherwood.
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Film Editor: Henry Berman
Written by Richard Brooks from a play by Tennessee Williams
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Directed by
Richard Brooks

 

As with many American playwrights, Tennessee Williams was definitely bitten by the bug to stand up for freedom and call out our tendency toward political demagoguery. That’s the background for a tale that crosses a bit of Sunset Blvd. with 101 stories about a guy returning to his home town in hopes of winning the girl he previously loved and lost.

The release of this 1962 film adaptation of Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth was accompanied by special ‘for adults only’ notices, and this after it had been cleaned up considerably for the screen. With Paul Newman, Ed Begley, Rip Torn and particularly Geraldine Page behind Williams’ emotionally heightened dialogue, it’s a powerful experience even if some of the nastier edges have been dulled down. Richard Brooks’ adaptation is more successful than his earlier Cat on a Hot Tin Roof because the basic premise is still intact: the main characters struggle to maintain the illusion of youthful success, or to achieve dreams long since lost.

 

Good- looking Hollywood bum Chance Wayne (Paul Newman) has dragged around L.A. and New York for years, and may finally have found a way to break into the acting racket. Now he’s driving a large convertible, returning to his Florida town of St. Cloud as the consort of the dissipated film star Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page). While she sobers up in a hotel suite, Chance tries to reverse his bad luck in one go. His plan is to steal away with the love of his life, Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight) and blackmail the hashish-smoking Alexandra into helping him become a star. But Heavenly’s father is still Tom ‘Boss’ Finley (Ed Begley), the domineering, near- Fascist politician who will do anything to get re-elected — and to make sure Chance never gets near his daughter again.

Tennessee Williams is one author that never shied away from using characters as poetic symbols, not with one of his leading ladies named ‘Heavenly Finley.’ Sweet Bird of Youth compresses a great deal of theatricality into two hours. Chance Wayne is yet another Williams alter ego, a studly beach boy and failed Broadway personality looking for a free ride to the top. His last-gasp attempt at success is particularly heinous — he thinks he can coerce the high-maintenance star Alexandra Del Lago into promoting him as a new discovery. Freaked out because a preview audience laughed at her, the impossible Del Lago has been hiding in booze bottles, and using an alias, Princess Cosmonopoulos. Chance rolls joints for Alexandra, waits on her head & foot and even beds her to get her to honor a promise he thinks will result in a quick trip to stardom. When she’s thinking straight, Del Lago admits only that she thinks he’s the best-looking gigolo she’s crashed with in a long time.

 

That’s only half of Williams’ not-so-subtle story — Chance is set on straightening out his ugly past. The Huey Long clone Boss Finley uses cracker-barrel theatrics and brass bands in his bid for reelection. St. Cloud’s Sheriff and the leader of the Ladies’ Auxiliary do everything but kiss Finley’s feet, and Boss’s sadistic son Tom Jr. (Rip Torn) has organized a local goon squad to do Dad’s dirty work. He’s just terrorized one Boss’s political opponents.

Years before, poor boy Chance accepted Finley’s ‘gift’ of a ticket to New York, thinking that if he made good, Heavenly would be his when he returned. When he did return it was as a bum on a freight car. Heavenly got pregnant and her father covered it up with a secret operation that netted the doctor responsible both a top hospital job and the promise of Heavenly’s hand in marriage. Boss Finley perceives Chance’s return to St. Cloud as a double threat: Heavenly symbolizes Finley’s ‘clean family’ image, and he suspects that Chance is part of a scheme to discredit him. To insure that Heavenly stays under Boss’s thumb, Tom Jr. doesn’t mind terrorizing the excitable Alexandra, either.

Once again Richard Brooks adapts a Tennessee Williams play originally directed by Elia Kazan. Brooks’ choices tone down the stylized speeches while the MGM production values replace stylized stagecraft with standard, brightly lit Hollywood sets. Just the same, Brooks’ good judgment keeps the show from collapsing into a soap opera populated by hysterical grotesques. The characters on screen are extreme, but we strongly identify with their conflicts.

 

The play survives its metamorphosis into a glossy MGM production, especially the key performances. Paul Newman and Geraldine Page originated their roles on Broadway, allowing a bit of theater history to be preserved. Richard Brooks’ tough-minded direction balances the wild shifts in dramatic contrast: the boozy chaos in Del Lago’s hotel suite, the cops and dogs that guard Heavenly, the blunt bullying of Boss Finley. Ed Begley won the Oscar with this role, a part tougher than it looks. It would be all too easy for Boss to become a bad joke, another ‘Foghorn Leghorn’ southern blowhard.

Luckily, Sweet Bird of Youth retains its basic thrust. Richard Brooks had won considerable concessions from the Production Code censors for the previous year’s Elmer Gantry. By 1962 producers were complaining that the Code wasn’t allowing Hollywood to offer adult-themed content that was getting all the attention in foreign films. Much more ‘European’ content is allowed to sneak through in this show. Heavenly Finley’s spirit has been broken by an illicit abortion. Chance Wayne is obviously Alexandra Del Lago’s gigolo even though dialogue infers that their night sleeping together is exceptional. Chance pops Benzedrine uppers, boasting that the pills make happy times happier. They’re shown transporting, hiding and smoking the hashish she’s smuggled from North Africa.

On the political end of things Sweet Bird of Youth presents a corrupt southern tyrant who believes in little else beyond raw power. Boss Finley has installed a mistress (Madeleine Sherwood’s Miss Lucy) in a hotel; he can compromise an entire hospital without any adverse political fallout. The town’s leading medico is a venal opportunist under Finley’s thumb. Storm trooper cops accompany Boss Finley wherever he goes. I’m surprised that St.Cloud, Florida didn’t sue to have its name taken off the film. (Am I correct in this?  Our old commercials touted a Sea World theme park in a place called Kissimmee/St. Cloud.)

The continuity incorporates soapy Hollywood-style dramatic flashbacks. Alexandra Del Lago’s disastrous movie preview experience is a nightmare that convinces her that her stardom is at an end. Chance’s earlier run-ins with the duplicitous Boss Finley seem an unnecessary break from the present-tense narrative. But one flashback is beautifully integrated. When Chance and Heavenly have a glorious reunion at the lighthouse, the soundtrack plays a romantic tune from early in the 1950s, Ebb Tide. (Thanks to Louis Helman for identifying the song.) The use of the familiar easy-listening tune which makes the rendezvous feel like something from a painful, lost past romance. The great Shirley Knight received better opportunities to perform more complex characters, but her dash up the lighthouse staircase is likely her filmic high point. (top image ↑ )

Censorship abuse aside, in 1962 most would have agreed that some particulars would have to be dropped. In the play Heavenly and Chance pay for their indiscretions not only with their youth but with their sex organs. Heavenly originally needed major surgery after contracting a venereal disease, which helps explain her father’s seemingly disproportionate desire to strike back at Chance. Tom Jr.’s thugs originally didn’t just break Chance’s nose, they castrated him. The ‘poetic’ lesson is that American reactionaries will sooner mutilate their own children than grant them the freedom of youth.

Chance’s dreams seem to be coming true one second but then fall apart. Everyone has a role to play. Miss Lucy starts as a gargoyle but gains stature as she opposes The Boss; she ends up coaching Alexandra Del Lago, when the star is trying to leave St. Cloud in a big panic. Heavenly’s relatively powerless Aunt Nonnie (Mildred Dunnock) is a cheerleader for the younger generation. The original tragedy is somewhat blunted by a compromised happy ending — which we’re supposed to forget that Boss Finley can stop a last-second escape with just one phone call. The movie needs to be compared to the play to be completely understood, but even with these changes it sizes up as one of the better Tennessee Williams adaptations.


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Sweet Bird of Youth is a dazzler, with strong color and a sharp image that shows off occasional effects work to place actors in moving cars. The symbolic lighthouse is visible from the window of Alexandra Del Lago’s hotel room, reminding us of Chance and Heavenly’s sad backstory.

The marvelous Geraldine Page looks more attractive than ever. The great stage actress was never one to go the glamour route, but is on record saying that she enjoyed being dressed and made up to the nines for this picture. Her Alexandra is a monster and Chance a craven opportunist, but we’re supposed to be on their side, as underneath all the venom and conniving, they’re innocents at heart. The soundtrack melodies reflect the innocence of the Chance-Heavenly love story. The tune It’s a Big, Wide, Wonderful World, sees service as Chance Wayne’s theme song.

The extra docu carried over from the old (2006) DVD spells out the basic facts of Sweet Bird of Youth’s history on stage and screen. Shirley Knight, Rip Torn and Madeleine Sherwood appear in what look like archived interviews. We learn that Torn and Geraldine Page were married not long after the film was released, and stayed together until her death 34 years later.

 

Even more revealing is a screen test with Page and Torn, with Torn in the Chance Wayne part. The test leaves in original lines that demonstrate how the play was altered. One exchange compares Heavenly Finley’s secret operation to the gutting of a chicken left hanging in a butcher shop. We hear a dialogue reference to castration as well.

An effective trailer uses a graphic approach to sell the film as a high-powered sizzler, recommended for Adults Only.

An editorial observation — apparently the censor didn’t like the scene in which Boss Finley becomes so angry, he pushes Heavenly into the water. On lengthy shot is a grainy optical blow-up, cropped in tight to avoid showing the front of Shirley Knight’s sheer, clinging dress. She’s still partially visible in a longer shot that follows. I guess Richard Brooks couldn’t slip that one past the Production Code office.

Judging by the look of the large set where Heavenly Finley gets dunked in the water, I’d say it was likely filmed on MGM’s Stage 30, the old ‘Esther Williams’ stage with the enormous water tank. The ‘beach’ area looked much the same in 1978 when a huge miniature of the Ocean Park Amusement Pier projected out into the pool, for Steven Spielberg’s 1941.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Sweet Bird of Youth
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good ++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: featurette, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
April 23, 2020
(6251swee)

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.