Monday, August 7, 2017

'The Long, Hot Summer': Long, But Not So Hot

Paul Newman is the main reason this 'Summer' is so hot!

I love sexy Southern melodramas, so it’s amazing that I somehow missed 1958’s The Long, Hot Summer. Based on several William Faulkner stories, the film features an all-star cast: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles, Angela Lansbury, Lee Remick, and Tony Franciosa. I guess when I wanted to watch Paul Newman sneer and swelter Southern-style, I put Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on instead.

A great cast--with one notable exception--makes 'The Long, Hot Summer' bearable.
Legendary wheeler dealer Jerry Wald was always ahead of the curve in Hollywood. When everyone thought Joan Crawford was washed up, Wald actually hyped that she was making a comeback with Mildred Pierce. Wald repeated the same feat with Lana Turner a dozen years later, with Peyton Place—see Lana as a mother for the first time! Wald saw that MGM snapped up screen rights for Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer-prize winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for a record sum. So, the wily Wald bought several stories by Faulkner, played up similarities to Cat, and called it The Long, Hot Summer.

Like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there’s a crude, fearsome Big Daddy type, Will Varner (Welles.) Ditto Cat’s Brick, there’s a man-child son, Jody (Franciosa.) Jody’s wife is a sexy Maggie the Cat type, Eula (Remick.) Will is a widower, so he doesn’t have a Big Mama to mistreat, but he does have goodhearted town whore to selectively ignore, Minnie Littlejohn (Lansbury.)

Paul and Joanne made beautiful music together--on camera and off!
A minor character in the Faulkner pieces is Ben Quick, elevated to every insolent stud that Paul Newman played. And Joanne Woodward is Clara Varner, Will’s daughter, considered an old maid at 23. Yes, there will be chemistry between the two!
Like Big Daddy Pollitt in Cat, Will Varner comes home from the hospital, but arrives one better—by ambulance, sirens blaring. Unlike Cat’s patriarch, Will Varner gets a clean bill of health. As with Big Daddy, Will wants to pick the perfect offspring to run the family business, and a favored child to produce some grandchildren.

This is where comparisons to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Long, Hot Summer end.  And there are two big reasons why Summer doesn’t sizzle like Cat.
First, The Long, Hot Summer’s story is a warmed-over mishmash that doesn’t go anywhere. Cat’s plot structure isn’t perfect, either.  Yet, Williams’ themes of family, love, mortality, greed, and sexuality are woven well in the Pollitt family’s fighting over their fortune. In The Long, Hot Summer, Jody keeps disappointing daddy Will with his juvenile behavior, Clara refuses to marry just to produce an heir, and Minnie wants Will to marry her. That’s it. There are no overriding themes as with Cat, to elevate Summer above a southern soap opera. Summer’s ending is so ridiculous and rushed, that I hooted in disbelief at the climactic scene which brings about Will and Jody’s reconciliation. And the finale, with all three couples laughing merrily, felt like a southern sitcom.

Welles may be big, but he's no Big Daddy!
Orson and Paul, only a decade a part in age.
The second strike that really sinks The Long, Hot Summer is Orson Welles as Will Varner. Burl Ives created an indelible portrait as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, first on Broadway, then in the 1958 film version. Welles feared being upstaged by the young Actors Studio cast members—so he decided to upstage them. Welles wears such heavy tan makeup that his co-star Angela Lansbury compared it to Orson’s famed Othello. Welles wore a false nose, at times obvious onscreen, plus an unruly, grey wig. With his Halloween film costume and already pumpkin-like physique, I was shocked that Welles was only 42 when making of The Long, Hot Summer. Consider this when watching Summer: Orson Welles was only ten years older than Paul Newman!

Orson Welles certainly set himself apart from the rest of the cast--in every way! With Franciosa, Remick, & Woodward here.
Mocking Method actors and their alleged “mumbling,” Welles mush-mouthed southern delivery sounds like he’s recovering from a stroke. The great Orson Welles gives such a gawdawful performance that he pretty much stinks up this Summer. Will Varner is a character who all the others’ fates depend upon—and Welles plays him as such a cartoon villain. Who cares if he approves of them?

Joanne Woodward and Lee Remick as Southern sister-in-laws.
On the plus side, the young cast is capable. After a few years of getting called a second-rate Brando, Newman gives audiences their first taste of the cool hand Paul persona. Joanne Woodward, often cast as the old maid, is spirited and smart, the hallmark of her screen work. This was Paul and Joanne’s first collaboration together, and with director Martin Ritt, as well. Lee Remick, a year before her breakthrough in Anatomy of a Murder, is mostly decorative—but has moments that show she should have played Maggie the Cat sometime in her career. Tony Franciosa is intense in the thankless son role. Angela Lansbury is fun as good-time girl Minnie, who for some reason loves Will Varner. Richard Anderson, later famous for The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, plays Alan, Clara’s suitor—until Newman’s own Ben Quick comes along. Alan is referred to as a “sissy” and “mama’s boy,” and much is made of the fact that he has dated Clara for six years without proposing—what do you suppose that means?!
Richard Anderson: the suitor who has "courted" Woodward for six years! Hmm!

For the record, while Jerry Wald got the jump on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by about six months, The Long, Hot Summer only did modestly well at the box office. The main reason I’d recommend The Long, Hot Summer is for the scenery: both the Louisiana locations, (subbing for Mississippi,) and the up-and-coming cast, especially Paul Newman, in their youthful prime.
Paul Newman, when he was cool and fresh as a slice of watermelon!


  1. I love this movie. The theme song alone ties the romance up in a big southern sensuous bow. For a moment throw out the technical critique and enjoy the mood and the flow and the muddy rug and the picnic lunch in the summertime

    1. There's always things to enjoy about a movie, even if you didn't like it overall. I love that area of the country, so the location scenery was great. And the ensemble cast, all future big names, were great. And I liked Woodward's forward thinking character, too! Thanks for writing, Rick

  2. Paul was just searingly beautiful during this time. Joanne's severe bun with bangs! Egads! Loved your commentary on Mr. Orson Welles who was truly AWFUL in this. I mean embarrassingly bad. Not sure what the scoop was with Richard Anderson's character. I think I need to see it again sometime. Isn't Constance Ford buried in the cast somewhere or did I dream that up out of want?? LOL

    1. Indeed, regarding Paul! Joanne played a lot of intelligent old maids : ) Orson looks like a tomato in that red robe, with a V emblazoned on it! And Constance Ford would have been great as Minnie, instead of Angela ; ) Cheers, Rick

    2. Also, Poseidon, I don't know if you do FB, but if so, friend me at Richard L. Gould Jr.