By and large, the 1950s marked a triumphant decade for Tennessee Williams, onscreen and onstage. The playwright began his major theater career with The Glass Menagerie (1944), followed by A Streetcar Named Desire (’47) and Summer and Smoke (’48), but it wasn’t until the ’50s that Hollywood came calling.
The first film version of Menagerie (’50), with a more upbeat Hollywood ending, might have been a critical and popular dud, but then came the sensational Streetcar (’51), The Rose Tattoo (’55), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (’58), and the decade-closing Suddenly, Last Summer (’59), the best of Williams’ plays adapted to film.
The ’60s were far more uneven for Tennessee Williams onstage and onscreen.
Waiting for the imminent release of Suddenly, Last Summer (upgraded and restored on Blu-ray), I’ve been going through Williams’ filmography. The Rose Tattoo was a revelation, as was Summer and Smoke (’61).
Williams had first wanted Italian actress Anna Magnani for his stage production of Tattoo, but she was intimidated by the demands of the English dialogue. She had no desire to learn the language, and when she agreed to star in the film, many of her lines were learned phonetically—which makes her performance (for which she won an Oscar) that much more remarkable.
Set on the Louisiana Gulf Coast (exteriors filmed in Key West, next to Williams’ home), it’s about Serafina Delle Rose (Magnani), an early-40ish seamstress whose beloved husband Rosario, a trucker with a smuggling business on the side, is killed in the film’s opening moments. It soon turns out he had a mistress, Estelle, (Virginia Grey), but Serafina will hear nothing of it, choosing to hide away for three years, mourning her dead love.
Meanwhile, her teenage daughter Rosa (Marisa Pavan, in an Oscar-nominated performance) is growing up and falling in a love with Jack, a sailor on leave (Ben Cooper), precipitating a crisis for Serafina. Halfway through the film, another man enters Serafina’s closeted life, eventually propelling her back into reality.
Alvaro (Burt Lancaster) is another trucker who wears his heart and his zest for life on his sleeve. In his efforts to win Serafina, he has a rose tattooed on his chest in imitation of her dead husband. Though theirs is a riotous, fractious whirlwind courtship, love wins out all round.
Directed by Daniel Mann, The Rose Tattoo was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning three. The film’s most memorable achievement is Anna Magnani’s performance. It’s so vivid, so realistic and earthy, she and Serafina seem to be as one.
Tennessee Williams fans, take a close look at the nightclub scene where the playwright sits at the bar. Later in the same scene, there’s a brief glimpse of Frank Merlo, Williams’ longtime companion, the inspiration for the film, to whom Williams gave a percentage of the play’s profits.
I also want to recommend the excellent 1961 film version of Summer and Smoke, with Geraldine Page in an Oscar-nominated turn; she lost to Sophia Loren in Two Women.
Though the original 1948 theater production was a dud, its 1952 Off-Broadway revival (starring Page) was a hit. It took almost 10 years for the actress to bring her vivid portrayal of Alma Winemiller—a lonely frustrated spinster—to the screen. Laurence Harvey, one of the ’60s hottest British stars, plays wastrel Dr. John Buchanan, Alma’s neighbor and secret love of her life. Theirs is not a romance made in heaven.
Helmed by British director Peter Glenville (Becket), Summer and Smoke may be a bit stagey in comparison to The Rose Tattoo, but is still an effective, compelling tribute to one of America’s top dramatists of the 20th century.