Friday, March 20, 2009

TAMMY TRIPLE FEATURE (Universal 1957, 61, 63) Universal Home Video

Based on Cid Ricketts Sumner’s heartwarming novel, director Joseph Pevney’s Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) is an equally charming big screen adaptation whose chief asset is the winsomely angelic Debbie Reynolds. Oscar nominated for her role as backwoods babe Tambey ‘Tammy’ Tyree, Reynolds infuses the character with an unspoiled sincerity, utterly effervescent and genuinely enchanting. The film is one of those near forgotten gems that really deserves more playtime and appreciation.

The film opens with Tammy and Nan’ (her goat) by a babbling brook near the Ellenbee, the shanty riverboat Tammy lives on with her grandfather, John Dinwitty (Walter Brennan). Learning of a wreck up the river, Tammy and John come across the bedraggled and unconscious body of wealthy playboy, Peter Brent (Leslie Nielsen). Nursing Peter back to health, Tammy develops an infatuation that Brent is neither anxious to discourage nor encourage from progressing. Now, how’s that for a tease?

Unfortunately for Tammy, the day arrives when Peter is well enough to return to his family. He does so and all but forgets about Tammy – that is, until she comes up the road with Nan’ looking for what has become of him. Seems John has been sent to prison for selling corn liquor; a considerable offense. Through a misassumption that Tammy’s grandfather is dead, Peter’s mother (Fay Wray) and father, Professor Brent (Sidney Blackmer) take Tammy into their southern colonial home where she proves to be a useful edition to their family.

Peter’s aunt, Renie (Mildred Natwick) finds Tammy’s simple freshness invigorating, though Mrs. Brent prefers that Tammy should remain silent and preferably upstairs in her guest room. Renie learns of Tammy’s genuine love for Peter and encourages their romance, despite the fact that Peter is already engaged to snobbish socialite, Barbara Bissle (Mala Powers). It is Barbara’s desire that Peter should leave his dream of restoring his family home to prosperity through farming and instead go to work for her father in his textile business.

But Peter’s love of the land is more aligned with Tammy’s desire to see him thrive at whatever his passion may be. Eventually, Peter comes to his senses about the girl from the bayou – although his revelation comes too late to save his own dream of farming his ancestral lands.

Oscar Brodney’s expertly crafted screenplay keeps the story development effortless and fanciful. Debbie Reynolds sings the Oscar nominated Ray Evans/Jay Livingston song ‘Tammy’ from her moonlit bedroom– an unabashedly sentimental highlight in the film, as is the scene where Tammy revives the ghost of Peter’s great grandmother by dressing in her trousseau and recanting for a crowd of visitors how it was that she and the man of this great house came to start the Brent clan so many years before.

In the final analysis, Tammy and the Bachelor may not be phenomenal entertainment, but it is irresistable as it is poignant; a fable, expertly told and a sheer joy to behold.

Encouraged by the film’s success, in 1961 director Harry Keller decided to rip another chapter from Sumner’s saga – this time with teen pop sensation Sandra Dee as his Tammy. Unfortunately, Tammy, Tell Me True (1961) never quite attains the level of homespun charm that its predecessor had in spades. In the original, Tammy is merely a fish out of water, inadvertently casting her own spell of loveable enchantment on the people she meets from the world outside her own cloistered existence. However, in the sequel the character becomes something of a determinist backwood’s pixie, liberating the modern world from its own self imposed oppressions. This can become grating - and does - fairly quickly, the 'us versus them' scenario having a negative impact on both the folksy and socially mobile elements in the film.

The sequel opens with Tammy once again pursuing Peter who has deserted her to attend an out of state agricultural school. Tammy deduces that Peter’s abandonment is directly related to her own lack of culture and education and vows to go to college to better her social standing and win Peter back. At the behest of Professor Thomas Freeman (John Gavin) Tammy enrolls in college as a ‘special student.’

However, from the moment classes begin, the students – all white bred snobs – find Tammy a figure of fun. To help pay for her education the school’s administrator, Miss Jenks (Virginia Grey) suggests that Tammy become the live-in companion to Mrs. Annie Call (Beulah Bondi); a bitter old woman who has her faith in humanity and health restored after she runs away with Tammy to live on the Ellenbee.

The pieces are all in place and Sandra Dee does her best to live up to Debbie Reynolds galvanic heroine in rags, but this second visit to the well of simple sincerity doesn’t quite come together as it should. Instead, there are sparkles and fragments of genuineness that come and go. The film even makes a vane and pointless attempt to have Dee warble another Evans/Livingston tune that in no way equals the original song for either warmth or charm.

Worse, Oscar Brodney’s retread screenplay shatters our expectations from the first film by having Tammy fall out of love with Peter, making her new and burgeoning romance with Prof. Freeman seem either foolhardy or fickle at best. Apparently, very few of these imperfections in narrative construction seemed to matter to film audiences in 1961 because in 1963 Keller tried the formula once more for Tammy and the Doctor – an abysmal final act to the trilogy, garishly misappropriated by an ineffectual performance from Peter Fonda, cast as the goony love interest/physician on whom Tammy’s new infatuation is thrust. Beulah Bondi returns as Annie Call, stricken with a heart ailment that sends her to the hospital and placed in the kindly care of Dr. Wayne Bentley (Macdonald Carey).

To be near Annie, Tammy becomes a nurse and quickly establishes herself as the most indispensable staffer on the ward. There, Tammy meets Dr. Mark Cheswick (Fonda) who takes a passing interest in Tammy that gradually blossoms into love. He introduces her to highbrow culture and the arts.

It’s easy to see why no more films in the series were forthcoming after this installment. Oscar Brodney’s screenplay is in desperate need of something to say and regrettably discovers nothing by way of either character motivation or plot entanglements that are even remotely amusing or fresh to refine and build upon. Tammy and the Doctor is therefore a film already on life support before the opening credits roll, and in vital need of a transfusion by the final reel.

Universal Home Video’s two disc/three film ‘DVD collection’ needs some revisiting. The original feature, shot in Cinemascope suffers from muddy colors and a considerable amount of film grain during fades and dissolves. At times the image can appear rather nicely refined with somewhat pasty flesh tone and enough fine detail. Unfortunately, there are many scenes that are on the verge of vinegar disintegration, where the color is not only faded, but clumpy – resulting in a very blurry and somewhat distorted image.

The last two features were both shot in 1:75:1. To varying degrees the shortcomings already mentioned plague these last two installments as well. Universal Home Video has reserved a single disc for Tammy and the Bachelor and compressed the latter two features on one side of a second disc. In all cases the audio is mono and adequately represented. There are no extra features and NO chapter listings.

While I can’t fault Universal for not taking the high road on the last two films, the original is a time capsule worth preserving. In this critic’s opinion it would be nice to see a restoration expert like Robert A. Harris tackle this assignment.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Tammy and the Bachelor 3.5
Tammy Tell Me True 2.5
Tammy and the Doctor 1

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
0

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