Barns are a-burning, Paul Newman is recommended to Joanne Woodward as ‘a big stud horse’ and Lee Remick oozes sexuality all over Martin Ritt’s CinemaScope screen. William Faulkner may be the literary source, but this tale of ambition in the family of yet another southern Big Daddy is given the faux Tennessee Williams treatment — it’s a grand soap opera with a fistful of great stars having a grand time.
The Long, Hot Summer
1958 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 117 min. / Street Date August 14, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, Orson Welles, Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury, Richard Anderson
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Art Direction: Maurice Ransford, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor: Louis R. Loeffler
Original Music: Alex North
Written by Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank Jr. from stories and a novel by William Faulkner
Produced by Jerry Wald
Directed by Martin Ritt
Time has been uncommonly kind to producer Jerry Wald’s The Long, Hot Summer. It’s near the top of his string of highly successful late ‘fifties melodramas, big movies with big stars and based on big properties: The Eddy Duchin Story, An Affair to Remember, Peyton Place, The Best of Everything, The Sound and The Fury, Beloved Infidel. Where he could, Wald would slip in a title tune, hoping for a big hit.
The big and sprawling William Faulkner adaptation, concocted by folding a novel and several Faulkner stories together, is the work of director Martin Ritt’s favorite screenwriting team, Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.. They stayed with Ritt all the way to his final film Stanley and Iris in 1990. A couple of character arcs are a little rocky in this all-star jumble, but overall the story plays well — as long as one likes super-soap opera complications and an atmosphere trying to emulate Tennessee Williams. The real-life romantic acting team of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward bless the story with more than a little dignity. For its kind of movie, The Long, Hot Summer earns high marks.
Ambitious, mysterious young drifter Ben Quick (Paul Newman) is first seen being ousted from a town under suspicion of burning a farmer’s barn over a money dispute. Quick slips into the hamlet of Frenchman’s Bend and directly into the affairs of the family of local honcho Will Varner (Orson Welles) a bigger than life, domineering figure with a King Lear complex. Varner owns everything worth owning in the county. He sees instant potential in the devious Ben Quick, who proves his mettle by swindling the locals in a sale of some horses Will needs to get rid of. Practically invited to become a substitute son, Quick earns the immediate contempt of Varner’s actual adult son Jody (Anthony Franciosa), who’s not so dumb that he doesn’t realize he’s being pushed aside. Jody does find compensation in the arms of his hot-blooded new wife Eula (Lee Remick). But Will, who is already carrying on with local boarding house proprietress Minnie Littlejohn (Angela Lansbury) has plans for Ben Quick — to hook the young stud up with his virginal, schoolteacher daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward).
It’s a hot summer in Mississippi, and you can bet that every person that matters in Frenchman’s Bend has but one idea on their mind – sex. In Picnic, William Holden’s character spins a tall tale of being picked up by two women in a convertible looking for a good time, and who call him, ‘beefcake.’ That was a young man’s obvious self-serving fantasy, but The Long, Hot Summer starts out in almost the same way, with borderline nympho Lee Remick half leaping into the back seat to be with highway bum Paul Newman.
Flexing his muscles and leading every conversation with the kind of vague sexual banter nobody gets away with in real life, Paul Newman is the dangerous stud stranger who prowls around the edges of Faulkner stories. The excellent dialogue has Newman’s Quick pelting Woodward’s Clara with more graphic double-entendres than one would think possible for 1958; for wit they best by far the crudities traded by Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep.
The movie goes a little haywire as to character. The male cast is established as the lowest of SOB’s, cheats and incompetent attempted murderers, only to be given sentimental, un-Faulkner-ish redemption in the final act. Take our word for it: this Ben Quick is really a swell guy. Never mind that he cheats all the locals and takes advantage of his new boss’s invitation to move into his house like a fox in a chicken coop. Newly-installed in the Varner mansion, Quick even walks around the second-floor veranda uninvited to peep into Clara’s bedroom — wearing a big grin, washboard abs and no shirt. Newman’s Ben Quick fleeces son Jody without mercy, in a way guaranteed to drive any neurotic boob to booze, murder or suicide. Then we’re supposed to be thankful that Ben shows uncommon ethics by returning $60 to a sharecropper’s wife cheated in that horse auction swindle. How to grandstand, 101: the tricky dicks of this world keep rolling by giving back 2% of what they steal.
The Long, Hot Summer ambles from set piece to set piece — the horse auction, the hunt for pirate gold, the town picnic, the dinners where Will Varner cruelly taunts Clara’s longtime beau Alan Stewart (Richard Anderson) for not carrying her off like a caveman. The Stewart character receives plenty of screen time but remains a mystery. When asked point blank why he hasn’t proposed, Stewart says that he instead wants to help Clara, a line that should be followed with Clara asking, ‘what the **** are you talking about?’ Is Stewart a noble but decadent old-money heir with some secret? Is he sleeping with his mother, hiding a war injury or suffering from some extremely tropical disease? Nobody in the show has a clue, but Tennessee Williams fans would deduce the situation immediately.
The other characters are written with less mystery, but are kept in their sidebar narrative pigeonholes. In her second feature, Elia Kazan protég´ Lee Remick comes on like gangbusters as the ditzy, sex-obsessed newlywed Eula. After a great first-act introduction, Eula is relegated to the dramatic sidelines, albeit often in her slip, like Liz Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Poor Anthony Franciosa is neither funny nor sympathetic as Varner’s dumb-cluck son, the fall guy in a Prodigal Brother scam. Stuck with a boy’s name, his Toby comes off like a sucker in a Looney Tunes cartoon, the kind that gets called “a maroon, a real Eskimo pie.” The emasculation is complete when everyone takes it as normal when the local boys catcall at Eula from the road, urging her to ‘come out and play.’ And Eula loves the attention.
Angela Lansbury received praise for her portrayal of the aging townie with an eye for Varner Senior. The role is curiously similar to Marlene Dietrich’s more forthright Madam in Welles’ Touch of Evil made the same year. Lansbury expertly sets up the character of Minnie, which then goes nowhere until needed for a sentimental bonanza in the third act.
I can’t decide on Orson Welles in this show. I’ve always thought him the prize turkey of The Long, Hot Summer, pumping up the volume with his domineering Southern Colonel. His makeup looks downright weird. Everyone else has that one-skin-tone-fits all look of Max Factor #13 or whatever, while Welles’ appearance comes off as a serious facial accident. The fake noses are often interpreted as saying that Welles wants to hide himself in a role, but here I think he just doesn’t like his nose, and likes to play make-believe. Perhaps the makeup also gives him the ability to stall if he isn’t quite ready to play a scene. Even in this improved transfer, the overall color on Will Varner’s face ranges from pink to bluish, with a cloud of darkness around the nose that looks like someone threw a fistful of cinnamon in his face. He looks like he’s trying to channel Edward Arnold but what we get is something like Thomas Gomez, after a trick cigar blew up in his face.
In terms of acting Welles does the right thing with this bombastic bellowing bully. Varner spends a solid hour snarling and plotting, chortling over his vices large and small and making impure suggestions to his own kinfolk. The script requires Welles’ Varner character to practically pimp his bookworm daughter Clara to the new man in town, and he stomps around demanding to know if she’s made up her mind or not about which beau she’s to marry. Welles is so intrusive, his next step would be to check Clara’s underwear when she comes home at night (the movie feels almost that crude). Just beginning to lose control of his weight, Welles slams his character around town in a jeep. He’s the rich, intimidating string-puller feared and respected by all, but the various hicks and rubes that comprise the population of Frenchman’s Bend have to be made exceedingly stupid in order for Varner’s character to work. It’s funny to see a dumbbell farmer running around with a length of rope in his hand, searching for the ‘tame’ horse that ran off like a whirlwind two minutes after he bought it.
The last act rushes the three top male characters into a happy finale. When Will Varner suddenly decides to do the right thing vis-a-vis Minnie, we at first we think he’s pulling off some kind of cruel stunt. Ben Quick’s instant reformation is given a better preparation, yet it filters Faulkner through a Days of Our Lives sieve: Ben comes clean about his dark heritage as a Barn Burner, and suddenly transforms himself into Galahad. Poor Toby flips out in two directions at once. He first threatens to kill Ben Quick, and then makes a bona fide attempt to frame Ben for a barn-burning arson murder. But the way things work out, none of these psycho actions have permanent effects.
The Will Varner character must perform yet another sentimental about-face, happily accepting a son who’s just tried to kill him and fix the blame on another. To do this, Welles has to dash around for three minutes, a-spoutin’ and a-fumin.’ It isn’t pretty. Welles knows that he has to play BIG to make the extremes of his character work, but he can’t fix this crazy rush to tie up loose ends. At just under two hours The Long, Hot Summer is too short to give this extreme situation and characters the needed time to make such a happy ever after ending work. We watch and smile, but dramatic credibility was left in the burning barn.
Martin Ritt’s assured direction finds a way to keep the CinemaScope screen active, and he gets a lot of help from genuine locations in Louisiana. The location feel is so good that we’re surprised to be confronted by some giant painted backdrops for scenes at the Varner mansion. ‘Fifties Hollywood would sometimes undercut its own realism that way — had they just overexposed the backdrops a bit, they would have effected a convincing ‘indoors facing outdoors’ feel. Doing so would probably have been a cameraman’s no-no at the time.
Martin Ritt is kind to all of his actors — most of the bits with dialogue get good coverage, and Val Avery, Byron Foulger and Danny Borzage get brief close-ups. This was Ritt’s third picture after being blacklisted from TV five years before. The story has no racial element although various black townspeople are in evidence, albeit without dialogue. Clara walks to see Ben Quick with a little black kid for company — and Ben gives the kid a slice of watermelon.
Redeeming everything are of course the strong performances by so many great actors (including Welles). Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are extremely good together and must have been a producer’s dream. The movie couple of the year made The Long, Hot Summer one of ‘the’ movies to see and talk about. Newman brings class and some honest directness to the itinerant hunk Ben Quick, and for at least this film drops most of his faux-James Dean posturing. Quick knows exactly who he is and what he’s up to, and he zeroes in on spinster Clara precisely because his good taste naturally leads him to quality. Joanne Woodward has to find a way to let Clara keep some dignity, which is not an easy task under the circumstances. This woman is abused by just about everyone in sight, particularly her father. Dime store psychology will decree that she be attracted to a powerful man similar to Daddy, but we can tell that the attraction between Newman and Woodward is real. Woodward’s repeated turndowns are sincere, but they never fully slam the door; Newman’s sleazy come-ons are almost flattering, and he’s quick to back them up with real feeling. It just shows you how a classy production and some honest acting can bring a dubious story to life.
After using Ben Quick’s undeserved reputation as a Barn Burner for an extra tension device, the finish only gives a nod toward a possible lynching. Ben escapes intact, whereas Paul Newman’s character in Tennessee Williams’ The Sweet Bird of Youth is given a much harder time. . . especially in the stage play version.
The Long, Hot Summer ends with a double marriage on the way, a dimwit son welcomed back into the fold, and everybody in the Varner household happily in the sack with the right mate. It’s a bizarre thing to be celebrating at the fadeout, and, if this were a book, certainly nothing William Faulkner would have put his name on. As a downgrade sexy ‘fifties soap, it’s not bad at all, mostly through the graces of its young romantic stars.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Long, Hot Summer is a major improvement on the old DVD, which was the first time I saw the show in its proper ‘Scope proportions. Everything’s better here — sharper, with more stable colors. If a face has a green tinge, it’s because of light reflected from the plants in Varner’s yard. The wide shots make every scene look like a Louisiana location, although I was told that more of the show than is obvious was done on the Fox back lot. One giveaway may be if you see rows of tall trees in the background, which could mark where the set ends and Pico or Santa Monica Blvd. begins. That was one enormous back lot, encompassing much of Century City.
The video extras from the 2003 DVD have been ported over. An AMC Backstory piece on the film stays safely respectful of the show, but puts across a lot of background info that’s prudent to print, such as director Martin Ritt’s rescue from the blacklist. Those interviewed (Newman, Woodward, Lansbury) say safe things about each other, with Welles made an easy target. Also included is a newsreel of the Louisiana Premiere (even though the film takes place in the state next door) and a trailer that appropriately makes the sex content appear even hotter. Julie Kirgo’s well-researched liner notes chart the complicated web of show biz collaborations in flux in this show, and even specify the exact William Faulkner works raided adapted for the new composite storyline. She notes the possible influence of Tennessee Williams hits too, reinforcing my lucky guess. Kirgo does step clear of the Orson Welles minefield — by simply calling him ‘entertaining.’ True enough.
I was curious about Sarah Marshall, the Varner neighbor who gets half a scene with Woodward and featured billing. She helps ‘set the scene’ for the drama and then takes a quick exit from the movie, returning only to be humiliated singing off key at a picnic. It’s the kind of thankless scene saved for great supporting actresses like the beloved Alice Pearce. Sarah Marshall is actually an English actress, the daughter of Herbert Marshall and Edna Best.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Long, Hot Summer Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Hollywood Backstories: The Long, Hot Summer, Fox Movietone Newsreel, trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 21, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson