Thursday, July 3, 2008

Summer and Smoke (1961)



Recently I stumbled upon the 1961 film Summer and Smoke, based on the Tennessee Williams play by the same name. The fine performances of Geraldine Page and Lawrence Harvey lured me into watching what must be one of the most consummate tragedies among American dramas. It is impossible not to admire Williams for his skill with the English language, sculpting scenarios and personalities with his words. The problem with so many of Williams' plays, other than the undercurrent of depravity, is the undercurrent of despair. Perhaps that is because addictive behaviors are often so intertwined with despair.

Like much of Williams' works, Summer and Smoke ends in misery. Geraldine Page plays "Alma," a spinster who, while trapped at home with an insane mother and an aloof father, tries to enrich her life with religious and cultural pursuits. The character of Alma in some ways represents the odd dichotomy of American morality, fluctuating between the extremes of starchy puritanism and complete hedonism. Alma is so hyperspiritualized that she cannot deal with the strong feelings she has for the the wanton, free-living young Dr. Buchanan (Harvey.) Her attempts at totally suppressing her fallen humanity only give her the vapors. She has no one to go to for counsel. The doctor aggravates the situation as he teases Alma with a clever psychological seduction, combined with some "pills" to which Alma becomes addicted. Her behavior only becomes more repellent to Buchanan, in spite of his attraction.

The problem with Buchanan is that he is emotionally suppressed, reducing all human relations to the level of biology and his anatomy chart. He is unable to deal with feelings of love for a woman who is his equal; instead he devotes himself to whores and simpletons. He can only interact with Alma by humiliating her or trying to seduce her, not by building a romantic relationship. Although he claims up until the very end that there was never anything between him and Alma, it is interesting how the other women in his life are either jealous of Alma or try to emulate her. The silly girl whom he finally chooses to marry does everything to make herself as much like Alma as possible, admitting that Buchanan talks about Alma "all the time."

Meanwhile, Alma has broken her mind and her will by trying too hard to be perfect on her own. She is unable to accept her heartbreak in the light of faith. With a final glance at the statue of the angel in the park, she goes off into the darkness with a stranger, on her way to becoming "Blanche Dubois." Dr. Buchanan appears to be "saved" but not really. He will never have with his bride the great love he might have shared with Alma, who has been emotionally and spiritually destroyed. Pure tragedy, Summer and Smoke is not without its lessons. Share

7 comments:

Moshea bat Abraham said...

When I was 15, I saw a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I loved it, and immediately checked a bunch of Tennessee Williams' plays out from the library, including that one.

What I didn't realize was that the production I had seen had changed the ending. I don't know where they got their hopeful ending from, but when I discovered how it really ended, it was rather a shock!

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, often Hollywood would change tragic endings, not only of Tennessee Williams' plays, but of other plays as well.

Anonymous said...

Changing the endings : fairy tales too....Little Red Robin Hood's typical version is the hunter saves the grandmother and t he girl--but not the original--wolf eats both.

And was the story of Three Little Pigs revised optimistically?

elena maria vidal said...

I think so. Although I do think the pig with the brick house escaped the wolf.

chiggy said...

I think the best movie about addiction and relationships is “Days of Wine and Roses”. Very powerful with many lessons.

elena maria vidal said...

That one is certainly the best film about alcoholism.

Jonathan Degann said...

Tennessee Williams wrote two endings for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I believe both the original Broadway production and the movie had the second, more upbeat and hopeful one. I think it was Elia Kazan who asked Williams to revise the ending to show character growth. The published version includes both Williams preferred original ending and the one that has appeared in its original productions.