Monday, September 5, 2011

TEA AND SYMPATHY (MGM 1956) Warner Archive Collection

The 1950s are an interesting period in American cinema for several reasons. On all sides the seemingly indestructible studio system was being buffeted by change and not necessarily for the better. The decade marked the beginning of the end in Hollywood's supremacy as the sole purveyors of mass entertainment. Overnight, the popularity of the movies took a backseat to television. At the same time production costs were soaring and audiences’ tastes, moving away from the time honored traditional genres and narratives. To help counterbalance the effects of this decline the dream merchants turned to new technologies (widescreen, 3D) and relatively taboo subject matter (sex, teen delinquents, drug abuse, homosexuality, et al.) in an attempt to lure audiences back into theaters. The ruse was only partly successful, primarily because the Production Code that stringently dictated what could and could not be seen on the screen clung to its rigid moral standards, thus preventing film makers from going all the way in their exploration of such topics.
As a result many a scathing social commentary and white hot tabloid exposé on the Broadway stage made the rather sloppy and awkward transition to the Cinemascope canvas with blunted potency or, in some cases, thoroughly revised narratives that effectively left movie goers wondering what all the fuss was about. Of this latter ilk is Vincente Minnelli's Tea and Sympathy (1956). The success of Robert Anderson's Broadway smash (it ran for 712 performances at the 48th St. Theater) was largely due to its then frank, yet sensitive examination of homosexuality; this at a time when the topic itself was hardly referred to except as either 'a condition', 'a deviancy' or a curable 'social disease.' The shocking effect of the play was to be found in its pregnant pauses between pointed dialogue and even more thorny situations. As pure stagecraft, Tea and Sympathy packed a considerable wallop. Regrettably, all of the more overtly suggestive situations and dialogue had to be excised from the film version to satisfy the Breen Office and the Catholic League of Decency.
As re-scripted by Anderson, the film's male protagonist, Tom Lee (John Kerr) is a misunderstood and socially awkward prep school student who does not ascribe to the 'manly' pursuits. He prefers classical to pop music, tennis to football, can sew, goes to the theatre and doesn't have a girlfriend. Tom's remote father, Herb (Edward Andrews) has placed his son in the 'care' of an old college buddy, Bill Reynolds (Leif Erickson) in the hopes that some of Bill's tough guy characteristics will rub off on Tom. By any standards Bill is a Neanderthal. He prefers wrestling with the boys to snuggling with his wife, Laura (Deborah Kerr) and actually supports the other's belittling Tom by calling him 'sister boy'.
After Herb learns that Tom has been cast in the school play in a female role he makes his son give up the part hours before the performance. He further instructs Tom that he will become 'one of the boys' by the end of the school year or be disinherited. Tom's roommate, Al (Darryl Hickman) does not believe any of the rumours but tries to break Tom of his effeminate walk. He also encourages Tom to have a go at Ellie Martin (Norma Crane); a waitress at one of the local watering holes and the town floozy. If Tom can make it with Ellie she will spread the news of his prowess around campus, thereby satisfying everyone else's expectations. Tom is sensitive and misunderstood by virtually everyone except Laura. She befriends him and eventually thwarts his attempt at suicide (brought on by a 'push comes to shove' sexual frustration). Tom reminds Laura of her first husband who died in the war. He also makes her realize how flawed her current relationship with Bill is. Tom's tryst ends Laura's marriage but makes him 'a man'. Ten years later Tom returns for his class reunion, only to discover a letter written to him by Laura that explains why they were wrong in their passions for each other.
Tea and Sympathy is one of Vincente Minnelli's most awkward and stagy melodramas. The fault is only partly Minnelli's who does not seem very engaged with his subject matter. His awkwardness with Cinemascope (a widescreen process Minnelli once claimed was only good for shooting funeral processionals and snakes) is glaringly on display. He shoots most of the film in static medium shots, his actors moving throughout the frame as they would on the stage. But there is also something to be said about the actors. Most all have been imported from the Broadway smash hit - but each is much too familiar with their roles to the point where tedium seems to have set in. Deborah Kerr and John Kerr sleepwalk through their performances; she blissfully trilling temperance and compassion as more platitude than true understanding, he heavy-handedly hammering away at Tom's angst like a sledgehammer until the character is nothing more than a giant ball of pent up anxiety ready to explode.
As the Production Code strictly prohibited Minnelli from even hinting at Tom's homosexuality, or the play's subtext of Bill's subversive psychologically frigid attitude toward his own wife, we are left with situations and circumstances more odd than compelling. Tom comes off as a prudish mama's boy. Bill is a grumpy ogre rather than a conflicted middle age man contemplating his own sexuality. If these 'deviants' in the film are presented as one dimensional closeted neurotics then the heterosexual element is given even more obtuse short shrift as a pack of bare-chested beefcake whack jobs with ample brawn but little brain power. According to the film, to be 'manly' is to behave as a drunken rabble let loose on an amusement park. The boys flex and preen and talk of nothing but sexual conquests and sports. They paw at Ellie, passing her around the bar, each copping his feel in turn. But these are not men. They're pigs!
Worse, the film lacks Minnelli's usual gifts of staging and camera work. In fact, Tea and Sympathy is a very pedestrian affair indeed. John Alton's cinematography creates some moody touches here and there but on the whole the enterprise suffers from a rather flat and uninspired visual presentation. The final pas deux where Laura and Tom consummate their love is shot on an indoor sound stage that unconvincingly mimics the earthy outdoors. We get rather awkward camera setups that are meant to suggest passion but instead reveal just how artificial and uncomfortable Minnelli is with the idea that Tom's unmentioned homosexuality can be cured by the seduction of a good woman. The moment is thus not pivotal but precious to the extreme, an artful exercise in the mechanics of a flawed romance that utterly lacks the emotional rapture of a lustful clash of wills. In the final analysis Tea and Sympathy is a film with too many false starts and lost opportunities to be appreciated on most levels. Viewed today it is more the creaky relic than a cultural touchstone or artifact, a strange and unsatisfying amalgam indicative of the struggles behind the camera rather than those played out for the audiences’ benefit.
Tea and Sympathy is a Warner Archive release and although advertised as a 'remastered edition' the image is hardly up to Warner's usual standards. Flesh tones are very pasty and orange throughout. I suspect the Eastman stock is in the mid-stages of vinegar syndrome because what we have here is a total implosion of color. Exterior scenes suffer from a strange golden hue. Whites have begun to look jaundice yellow or slightly blue, while reds are more a ruddy orange. Blacks tend to look dark chalky gray or deep navy blue. Age related artifacts are everywhere – dirt, scratches, speckles, etc. Film grain can appear natural, but infrequently we get a gauzy/gritty look that is unnatural and distracting. Occasionally fine detail is nicely realized. But more often than not the image is soft with a diffused 'blurry' look. The audio is stereo surround and adequate for this presentation. A theatrical trailer is included. Not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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