Thursday, July 3, 2014

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (MGM 1958) Warner Home Video

In the mid-1950’s Hollywood turned hopefully, or perhaps – desperately – to the only commodity its arch nemesis, television, was incapable of sharing with its audience: sex. In point of fact, movies were little more than one step ahead of their competition where sex was concerned; the Production Code of Censorship ensuring nothing of a gratuitous or shocking nature ever appeared on the movie screen. Kisses were timed down to three second pecks and even married couples were forced to sleep in separate beds.

Ah me, the naiveté of the 1950’s. In some ways, I would have those times again. There is something to be said for the Victorian rigidity applied to movie culture then. It not only precluded what was once deemed as the ‘moral corruption’ of the average ticket goer, but it also forced filmmakers to be extremely devious – nee artistic – in the way they conceived to communicate lasciviousness and push through these boundaries to make more provocative and thought-provoking statements about life. At the same time that television began to dissuade audiences from going to the movies, the industry en masse took a more proactive interest in the works of certain playwrights and authors to whom these boundaries did not apply. 
Perhaps the most popular was Tennessee Williams; an unassuming southerner who possessed a particular yen for telling (and retelling) tales of the south; not fine fictions of the gallant cavaliers and their ladies fair, but of the dry rot, wormwood and post-antebellum decay of once proud families struggling to maintain their façades in the great tradition; their stolidity and solemnity intruded on by deliciously wicked family secrets, and – yes; even the specter of a strong belle, forced to trade her love-starved sanctity to achieve an end by whatever means her wily intellect could devise. To be sure, Williams’ particular brand of ‘southern gothic’ was more tart cider than smooth mint julep, and, not easily, or even immediately, embraced by the public at large until the debut of The Glass Menagerie in 1944.
Even then, with Menagerie’s overnight Broadway success, and the subsequent trailblazing efforts put forth on A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth, Hollywood paid little attention until the mid-1950s. After all, given the tawdry subject matter, it must have seemed daring to downright impossible even to attempt a big screen translation without having to severely water down William’s prose. However, at war’s end, the public’s appetite for more realism from their popular entertainments began to tug at the reigning codes of censorship. Moreover, directors like Elia Kazan, Otto Preminger and Richard Brooks were bravely challenging the precepts of the Code and discovering more than a few cracks and loopholes they could take advantage of in order to tell more daring stories on celluloid.      
“Maggie the cat is alive!” – so declared a sexually frustrated Elizabeth Taylor in Richard Brook’s all-star adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958); perhaps the cinema’s finest of any of this playwright’s stage works transposed to the screen. Alas, the morphing from one media to the next was not without its artistic sacrifices; the irascible Brooks having a hell of a time fighting both Hollywood’s censorship and MGM to preserve most of the play’s incendiary exploration of social mores, sexual ambiguity and unadulterated greed. To his credit, Brooks managed to imply a great deal of subtext without having his characters show or even overtly admit to anything.
Richard Brooks holds a rather dubious distinction in Hollywood; namely, while virtually all who worked for him could certainly recognize his innate talents as a visual storyteller, none particularly cared for the man himself; an unabashedly brittle and caustic creative genius, who gave commands – rather than suggestions to his cast and crew – and damned well expected them to be strictly observed. Brooks tolerated nothing on his set. He did, however, have to bite his tongue, even as he chafed at certain caveats in preparing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for its big screen debut: first, in MGM’s decision to cast Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in the leads. Brooks would have preferred Ben Gazarra, who originated the role of the closeted homosexual, Brick Pollitt on Broadway. Briefly, Metro toyed with the idea of recalling Lana Turner to her alma mater; the actress’ downward spiral reversed a year earlier with the release of Peyton Place. There are also memos suggesting plans to entice Grace Kelly back; Kelly having departed Tinsel Town for Monaco and her new life as its princess.
Eventually, Elizabeth Taylor beat out the competition. For a while it looked as though the real sparks in Cat on A Hot Tin Roof would be behind closed doors. For Taylor could be just as reticent and entrenched in her ideas as Brooks. Alas, timing and the ill wind of fate conspired against this perfect storm; Taylor narrowly escaping death by contracting a virus, precluding her from accompanying husband/producer Michael Todd to New York.  When Todd’s plane crashed, killing everyone on board, Taylor’s personal life went into a very public tailspin, delaying production for nearly one month. Eventually picking up the pieces of her life, Taylor was noticeably thinner and more contrite than confrontational on the set; Brooks empathetically guiding her with an uncharacteristic ginger touch. In fact, Taylor would later recall Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as ‘therapy’ for getting over Todd’s untimely passing.
Brooks had less kind things to say about Paul Newman, whom he never entirely warmed up to, despite Newman’s very fine performance. Newman’s great strengths during this early period were undeniably his drop-dead good looks and his meticulous method training at the Actor’s Studio. Alas, Newman was to question everything from his character’s motivations to the positioning of the camera; perhaps, not out of vanity or any desire to challenge Brooks, though ultimately the pair did not hit it off as they should. Brooks also encountered minor protest from his cinematographer, William Daniels who informed his director of a chosen camera angle revealing too much of Elizabeth Taylor’s cleavage. Asked by Brooks what was wrong with that, Daniels reportedly replied “We don’t make movies like that at MGM!”   
Brooks worked with co-writer, James Poe in a meticulously symbiotic union on the necessary revisions in order to satisfy the code; removing all references to Brick’s homosexual attraction to his best friend, Skipper. Henceforth, Brick’s sexual frigidity toward Maggie turned inward to suggest, though never clearly iterate, a psychological impotence over Brick’s understanding of a presumed affair Maggie had with Skipper in his absence. In viewing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof today, Brooks’ changes seem a tad strained; his inability to ‘explain’, in any concrete way, Brick’s refusal to bed a startlingly attractive and sinfully flirtatious wife, a very ‘queer’ curiosity indeed.  Brooks did attempt to maintain just enough of Tennessee William’s original intent, dropping hints to the audience that flew under the code’s radar; as when Brick angrily informs a frantic Maggie, “You agreed to accept that ‘condition’!” Barring any outline of exactly what ‘that condition’ was, Brick’s antagonism and Maggie’s vexations remained more an oddity of the southern Gothic style than an exploration of their ongoing dilemma.
Evidently, none of this baffled movie goers. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof went on to ring cash registers around the world. Brooks, whose reputation in Hollywood and at Metro had already been begrudgingly secured, was now elevated as an untouchable in the foreign markets  – given auteur status by the progressive French. Brooks took it all in stride. Indeed, he could afford to be magnanimous for the moment; basking in the film’s worldwide popularity. In hindsight, and given the external stringencies imposed on its production, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a miracle of taut and tenacious human sexuality; by far one of the most hot and heavily anticipated dramas about love and desire to emerge from the decade. Despite the picture’s immediate critical praise and popularity, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof incurred the ire of its source – Tennessee Williams.
The outspoken playwright made no attempt to censure his own thoughts about the movie, claiming it set the progressive cause against film censorship back fifty years.  Williams was also unimpressed by Brooks’ rewrite of nearly his entire third act: now, reconciliation achieved between Brick and his stubborn/ailing father, Big Daddy (Burl Ives in a career-changing role). In the play there is no suggestion things will ever be the same between father and son. Indeed, the play ends with Big Daddy’s imminent death from pancreatic cancer; the movie, on a more light-hearted note of sexual reawakening between Brick and Maggie, after Brick has learned Maggie never cheated on him with Skipper.
One of the film’s necessary revisions to the play was Big Daddy’s prior knowledge of Brick’s prediction for young men. Discovering his son’s proclivity had forced the old patriarch’s hand to quickly shore up all looming suspicions by rushing Brick into a marriage of convenience to conceal the obvious. Therefore, Brick’s resentment of Maggie stems from his abject hatred of his own father; the lengthy debate over ‘mendacity’ and Brick’s disgust for all lies and liars further blunted in the movie, since Big Daddy is virtually oblivious there are even marital issues between Brick and Maggie that need to be overcome. To his credit, director Brooks sets this confrontation in the basement of Big Daddy’s estate; the equivalent of the inner most part of one’s secret self; surrounding Newman and Ives with relics from the past; including an oversized poster of Brick in his prime as a college athlete, juxtaposed against his present condition as an emotionally and physically crippled alcoholic.
On stage, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was basically a two room drama. However, in their usual zeal to will a super colossus out of any intimate story, MGM could not help but invest in William A. Horning and Urie McCleary’s utterly spectacular production design. In the movie, the Pollitt estate has gone from seedy backwater southern plantation to Tara-esque moonlight and magnolia glamorous; the garden alone, with its weeping bowers draped in angel-hair moss and plastic kudzu enough to make a Clayton County farmer severely blush. Thankfully, the gloss never overpowers the razor-back intensity in this drama. Nor does it outshine the central performances, mostly because Richard Brooks knows instinctually where to place his camera for maximum effect; Tennessee William’s dialogue always punctuated by expertly timed close-ups and two-shots that simply crackle with an even more provocative, if unspoken, naked electricity.
Our story begins inauspiciously on the high school track in the wee hours of morning; a drunken Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman) imagining the roar of adulation from the stands as he attempts to conquer the hurdles while heavily under the influence. It is a fool’s folly, and one for which fate has a more brutal and sobering reality in store. Brick wipes out and breaks his ankle, the cheers inside his head instantly vanquished as he clutches this painfully fresh wound. Fast track to the next afternoon; Brick still hasn’t learned his lesson, pouring out his discontent at regular intervals from a fresh bottle of brandy. It’s cause for concern for Big Momma (Judith Anderson) who blames Brick’s wife, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) for her son’s alcoholism; also for the fact they’re childless after more than a year of marriage.
Maggie attempts to goad her stubborn hubby into driving down to the airport to collect Big Daddy (Burl Ives) and Big Momma after a routine investigation of Big Daddy’s health seemingly has turned up no cause for alarm. However, Brick will have none of it. He won’t even sign the card or acknowledge the gift Maggie has bought for his father; a present to kick off the surprise birthday party Brick’s elder brother, Gooper (Jack Carson) and – more directly, his odious baby-maker of a wife, Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) have concocted to broker their favor with Big Daddy and hopefully sway his decision as to who will inherit the estate. Maggie can see right through Gooper and Mae. Truth to tell, Gooper is not altogether invested in the scheme either; contented in his lucrative law practice. As time goes on, we see it is Mae, not Maggie, who is the real conniver in the family; producing one ungrateful child after the next to impress Big Daddy (who believes in large families).
At the airport, Momma proudly informs the gathered clan there is nothing wrong with Big Daddy except his temperament, which is decidedly out of sorts and rather cruel in spots. Electing to ride back to his estate with Maggie, Big Daddy pauses a moment to oversee his vast holdings, renewed in his vigor and self-proclaimed superiority. Back at the house, Maggie attempts to teach Gooper’s eldest daughter, Dixie (played with uncivilized aplomb by Patty Ann Gerrity and whom Maggie un-affectionately refers to as a ‘no-neck monster’), who has her hands buried, elbow deep, in some fresh strawberry ice cream, some manners. Instead, the girl flings gobs of the melting goo onto Maggie’s ankles. In retaliation, Maggie gleefully smears the child’s face in the ice cream.
A short while later, Maggie tries to force Brick’s hand on the birthday card she intends to include with her gift. Brick is adamantly resolved not to attend the party or even face his father. Maggie next attempts to appeal to Brick’s desire. Alas, Brick prefers the stain of cold-hard liquor on his lips to Maggie’s desperate kisses. In a private moment, Maggie learns the truth from Dr. Baugh: Big Daddy’s prognosis is dire. He has months, maybe even weeks to live; his body riddled with cancer. The truth has been kept from everyone – even Big Daddy. Maggie now sets it upon herself to make Brick understand the importance of reconciling with his father before it is too late, determined not to break Dr. Baugh’s trust. However, this being a Tennessee Williams’ play, the inevitable discovery of Big Daddy’s fate slowly begins to seep into the collective consciousness of the family; beginning with Mae, then Gooper, then Brick, and finally, Big Momma; the only one utterly distraught by this revelation.
Only Big Daddy is left in the dark, forcing Brick to be the reluctant bearer of bad news. In the meantime, Maggie does battle with Mae and Gooper in the living room; the pair endeavoring to convince Big Momma to sign over power of attorney to Gooper, thus making him the head of the family. This, however, would fly in the face of Big Daddy’s wishes for Brick – his one-time preferred son and still somewhat regarded as the fair-haired heir apparent. In their harrowing confrontation below stairs, Brick reveals to Big Daddy the depth of his inner torment over a presumed affair Maggie has had with Skipper; a former high school buddy who has since committed suicide. Under duress, Brick also gives his father his real diagnosis.
In the play, Brick assumes guilt over Skipper’s suicide because Skipper was unable to face his own homoerotic feelings toward Brick, and quite possibly, over Skipper’s fear their clandestine flagrante delicto would be uncovered. The movie cannot imply as much. So Richard Brooks has concocted a fairly thimble-headed scenario; Maggie’s part confession/part exoneration of Brick’s fears, revealing to the family and her husband no such affair between she and Skipper actually occurred. Skipper was a coward and afraid of life. He killed himself because he believed Brick had deserted him. Discovering his wife’s marital fidelity is intact cures Brick of his impotence, as well as his rage toward her. Maggie lies to the family that she is pregnant with Brick’s child and Big Daddy confirms the story against Mae’s strenuous objections, by suggesting “that girl has life in her body!” The couple hurries upstairs where we may assume Brick will be only too eager and willing to sire the future heir apparent.
As a play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was Tennessee Williams’ personal favorite. Less enthusiastic about the film incarnation, Williams, arguably, never forgave Richard Brooks his meddling with the plot. Nevertheless, and despite code-induced hindrances encountered along the way, Brooks saw to it the devil was still in the details. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may not strictly adhere to Williams’ exquisitely manufactured plot points. But it is an expertly constructed movie in which Brooks cleverly and carefully orchestrates at least one finely crafted moment for each character to shine: rich character studies, peppered in contempt, avarice and smoldering sexual repressions. These are implied with telling glances and highly suggestive body language for which the Production Code knew not how to classify and/or prevent from reaching the movie screen.
The magnificent cast outshines these changes; particularly Elizabeth Taylor, who captures all of the incensed immediacy and unashamedly physical want of Maggie ‘the cat’ Pollitt. In truth, Taylor’s performance was considered something of a ‘comeback’ after the disastrous Raintree County (1957); the costliest MGM movie ever made in America and one of the studio’s biggest blunders, Taylor’s antebellum belle succumbing to madness before the final reel. To cast Taylor in yet another incarnation of the southern vixen on the cusp of going to seed must have seemed like artistic suicide. But time, experience and the loss of Michael Todd all conspired to will a more earthy, genuine and frightfully venomous performance from the star, one immediately catapulting Taylor back into the upper echelons of stardom.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is equally accredited with ‘making’ Paul Newman a star; a bit of an exaggeration. For although Newman had been kicking around Hollywood since the early 1950’s, his credits amounted to little more than bit parts on television, and a disastrous big screen debut in The Silver Chalice (1954); miscasting Newman’s undeniably urban/contemporary persona in the toga-clad era of ancient Rome with decidedly laughable results. Newman was to rebound from this staggering disappointment with Someone Up There Likes Me (1956); superb as Hell’s Kitchen prizefighter, Rocky Graziano. And although the picture was a success, it did little to make Newman a household word. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof did precisely that. 
Reviews of this film often overlook three enormous contributions to its supporting cast. Yet without them, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof quite simply does not exist. First, to Dame Judith Anderson’s multifaceted turn as Momma Pollitt: an emotionally scarred frump. Anderson evokes Momma’s genuine insecurity lurking behind her mask of faux boisterousness. For Anderson’s devoted wife and mother is nothing more than a wounded animal; Anderson reveling in the depth of her alter ego’s despair in a scene where Big Daddy callously admonishes her doting concern for him. Here, Ives’ burly brute shares some fairly unvarnished truths about how little their marriage has meant to him. In a moment’s twinkle, Anderson’s comforting adulation turns to stone-cold desolation; her haunted eyes reflecting the full breadth of innocence lost long ago, replaced with abject sorrow for the sacrificing of her youth, mirrored in the flickering embers from candles on Big Daddy’s birthday cake.  
The second performance to generally go unnoticed is Jack Carson’s Gooper. Chronically relegated to playing ‘the heavy’ throughout the 1950’s, Carson herein is once more set up as the unflattering flipside to ‘the hero’ of the piece; his beefy black-haired and pie-faced ogre the perfect counterpoint to Paul Newman’s fine-boned and muscular attractiveness. But Carson’s performance reveals a far less sinister and intensely more fragile little boy lurking underneath this fairly robust façade. When Carson’s Gooper implores his mother to give him power of attorney over Big Daddy’s holdings he does so, not out of spite, jealousy or even bitter resentment towards Brick, but with a soft, quavering voice and moist, wounded eyes, illustrating his entire life sacrificed in service to Big Daddy’s reality; in effect, pleading for parental love and affection where, arguably, none has ever existed before.
Lastly, we tip our hats to Burl Ives, who transformed his timely public image as an ensconced grand old folksinger into this dark, ruthless and inconsolably encrusted curmudgeon. Ives’ Big Daddy is not so much a paterfamilias as a devious puppet master, placating his wife’s fraught affections while having his fun on the side; calculating the whims and the destiny of one son – Gooper – and despising him for his unquestioning compliance – while seemingly allowing Brick unprejudiced forgiveness no matter his indiscretion. Big Daddy could sooner turn on Gooper – who has done everything asked of him (and then some) – than he would ever think to with Brick; perhaps, a child more suited to his own hardheartedness and outlook. 
This triumvirate of back story performances sells Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a high stakes, peerless melodrama.  This Cat’ sizzles as few movies of its vintage (or many since, for that matter) have. Tennessee Williams’ raw indictment of this southern clan remains somewhat at odds with MGM’s uber glamor and surface sheen sophistication. Yet, despite William’s strenuous objections to the changes made, this Cat on a Hot Tin Roof endures as the cornerstone to most peoples’ understanding of his masterwork. Many is the underprivileged never to have witnessed Cat with the stage’s more incendiary inferences intact. In the final analysis, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is must see entertainment: superb beyond good measure and a truly great movie besides.
Warner Home Video’s Special Edition DVD exhibits exemplary image quality; anamorphic with pronounced, refined colors, nicely balanced contrast and a minimum of age-related artifacts. Previous versions have suffered from extreme color fading with pasty, yellowish flesh tones. This newly remastered DVD corrects all of the aforementioned shortcomings. The image is bright and mostly razor sharp. Still, this one would definitely benefit from a 1080p Blu-ray upgrade. Warner Home Video…are you listening? Perhaps an Archive release in the works? Pretty please! The audio herein is mono. For a dialogue driven movie, it’s sufficiently rendered. Extras include an informative audio commentary by film historian and Tennessee William’s biographer, Donald Spoto. There’s also a short featurette on the making of the film. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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