Friday, March 6

Good 60s Films: Summer and Smoke

1961 Drama
From Paramount Pictures
Directed by Peter Glenville


Laurence Harvey
Geraldine Page
Rita Moreno
John McIntire
Una Merkel
Pamela Tiffin
Thomas Gomez
Malcolm Atterbury
Earl Holliman

Lovers of Tennessee Williams and his damaged heroines and his beautiful prose should find this an engaging piece although, whether as a movie or a play, it's never been as highly esteemed as some of his other works.  I include it as a quite watchable film from the 60s for just the reasons outlined and because it stars one of my favorite actors and one of America's best-ever actresses.

The film takes a leisurely look at Mississippi life at the start of the 20th century and spreads over 16 years focusing on the relationship between a high-strung spinster, Alma Winemiller, and her wild, spoiled nextdoor neighbor, Dr. John Buchanan. 

It seems Alma has spent most of her life peeking out her upstairs bedroom window into the Buchanan windows, hoping, yearning for a glimpse of John.  She lives with her very strict minister father(Malcolm Atterbury) and a kleptomaniac mother (Una Merkel)who has had a nervous breakdown and is given to sudden outbursts of temperament.  Both parents are aware of Alma's crush on the doctor.  Her father disapproves and the mother makes fun of her daughter.

After a brief opening scene where Alma and John are in the park as children, we see John, after being away studying, returning to the house of his doctor-father (John McIntire).  John plans to spend the summer doing a lot of examinations on the womenfolk while both are prone.  He is randy, undisciplined and smart-alecky.  His father tells him he has no respect for wastrels, drunks or lechers.  John is bothered by his father's admission but continues with more bad behavior.

Alma is delighted he has returned to town.  It may spark up her dreary life with her parents and the singing lessons she has grown weary of giving.  She occasionally sings at public functions but is scared to death when she does so.  John tells her she seems too concerned with putting on airs and gilding the lily.

John tends to show respect for her modesty and backwardness but Alma is inclined to send out mixed messages which drives John wilder.  He takes her to a bad part of town and to a cockfight which causes her to freak out.  She runs outside where John unsuccessfully attempts to seduce her while she's in her troubled state.  He rightfully tells her she is afraid of her emotions but includes that she has a frigidity on the outside but with a fire burning on the inside.  The remark is too close to the core for her to deal with in any sensible way.

It annoys Alma no end that John has taken up with the town tramp (Rita Moreno) and a young virgin (Pamela Tiffin, in her film debut).  His relationship with the tramp results in a drunken party with her friends and family at the Buchanan home while his father is away.  Alma, watching and listening from her home, hears that John and the tramp are going to get married.  Greatly upset, she calls John's father who returns home.  In a rage he beats the tramp's father with his cane and the father (Thomas Gomez) shoots him and he later dies.  When Alma tells John that she made the phone call to his father, their relationship is broken.

A year goes by and great changes have occurred.  The gist is that Alma and John have switched positions.  She is now ready to let her lust flow freely while he has cleaned up his act, decided to be a proper doctor and marry the young virgin.

Williams based this work on the spiritual v.s. lustful sides of relationships and also relationships that are beyond attainment.  Those who have suffered unrequited love may find special meaning in this piece.

I have said before and will say again... Laurence Harvey did it for me as an actor.  When he was in a scene, whether acting or reacting, I could never take my eyes off him.  Despite the character's wild ways, this is a softer role for Harvey and he pulls it all off beautifully.

Page, an exceptional actress, trained with Lee Strasberg's The Actors Studio, and was quite remarkable in character-driven pieces for being able to flesh out a fully-imagined character.  I have always loved watching her act.  Her attention to the most minor details never seemed to escape her sensibilities.  She knew Alma well, having played her on Broadway.  She would receive one of her eight Oscar nominations for this film.

Also receiving one was longtime character actress Una Merkel as the crazy mother.  Merkel usually did comedy and did it well, too, but it was a pleasure seeing her act in a role so dark.  Malcolm Atterbury was appropriately crusty as her husband.  Any film is better with John McIntire in it.

Peter Glenville only directed seven films and we will cover them and him in a future posting.  The film created a definite and appropriate mood and thanks certainly go to cinematographer Charles Lang and the music of Elmer Bernstein.

I think it's only proper that you take a peek at the trailer:


Oh Johnny


  1. What a beautiful movie. Direction, acting, photography, music: another example og the great American professionalism in movies. BRAVO. Carlo

  2. They don't make sultry the way they used to!