Sunday, May 27, 2012

Come Back Little Sheba (1952): Hazel on Downers

Through the years I've read many reviews and articles about the 1952 Oscar winner Come Back Little Sheba and it seems the general consensus appreciates the cinematic and artistic value of the film but the opinions about the story, individual characters and their relationship with each other are all over the board.  The middle aged marrieds, as the focus of the movie, could be the dramatic version of the Odd Couple, with the emotional scale heavier on the melancholy rather than the comic.

Come Back Little Sheba was originally a hit Broadway play written by William Inge.  Produced in 1950, it starred Shirley Booth as a blowsy, lazy housewife named Lola Delaney and Sidney Blackmer as her disillusioned, alcoholic husband, Doc.  Producer Hal Wallis brought the heartbreaking story to the screen via Paramount Pictures in the early 50's, with Booth reprising the role of Lola and Burt Lancaster taking on the part of Doc.  The play's director Daniel Mann was also brought in to oversee the production.  As with most film versions of famous plays, the story is visually contained with most sets limited to the interior of the Delaney's deteriorating mid-western home.  The film's focus is on the couple's deteriorating, mid-western marriage.

Lola is a slovenly matron, sloppy and pathetically child-like.  Her days consist of sleeping late, lounging on the sofa while the radio transports her to exotic locales and desperately trying to engage the mailman into general conversation, a result of her attention starved existence.  Doc is a chiropractor and recovering alcoholic, remorseful over his broken dreams of becoming a "real" physician due to his forced marriage to a pregnant Lola many years before.  As the film progresses, it is discovered that Lola is rejected by her father after she finds herself in the "family way" even when she and Doc marry.  To add insult to injury she loses the baby and isn't able to conceive again.  Their humdrum life together gets shaken up with the arrival of a young college co-ed (Terry Moore) into the home.  The nubile new border is a ray of sunshine to the crestfallen Doc, a source of emotional activity to the clueless Lola.

The driving influences of the two lead characters, as well as their casting, are what make the film so interesting.  In a time when middle aged actresses and roles for such veterans were in small demand, 54 year-old Shirley Booth not only repeated her stage success as Lola (she won a Tony for the role on Broadway) but walked away with the Academy Award, Golden Globe, New York Drama Critics Award and Cannes Film Festival Award for this, her debut film.  A triumphant victory to be sure, but such a huge achievement left little opportunity for her future in the film world.  Appearing in only four more movies (one in a mere cameo role), the talented Booth made an even larger impression on audiences as the meddling and guffawing maid Hazel in the long running television series of the same name, adding two Emmys to her collection of accolades.  Such honors weren't foreshadowed before filming of Sheba began however, and Paramount, wary of featuring depressing subject matter and an unknown (to film) actress, hedged its bets by casting Burt Lancaster as Doc.  An extremely appealing, athletic and virile actor, a former acrobat in fact, Lancaster had to stretch his acting muscles (and cover his physical ones) to portray an aging, mild mannered, broken husband.

For the most part, Burt's Doc was a personal success, gaining the actor the dramatic experience he would use to create legendary film characters in years to come.  But as an overall contribution to the completed Sheba, Lancaster's believability is lacking.  He was 15 years younger than Booth and even with aging make up, slumped shoulders and body padding, his good looks and athleticism showed through, particularly in the scenes where he physically attacks Lola.  It is hard to imagine Lancaster staying with the clinging, dowdy Booth.

Depending on who you ask, Lola is viewed as a sympathetic frump or a half witted slattern, whose non stop prattle drove her husband to drink.  Doc could be seen as a kind yet sorely disappointed man, whose once great potential was never to be discovered.  However, some call him an internal whiner, who should put on his big boy pants and build some sort of life with the upbeat, friendly Lola, who obviously cares for him.  Modern viewers of the film might question the choices made by the principals, living together under such miserable and depressing circumstances, but times and social mores were different in 1950 and the play/film is a good character study of a realistic, unglamrous relationship in mid-century America.  By the way, the title refers to Lola's little dog, who ran away before the movie begins and who is referenced throughout.


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