Tea and Sympathy (1956)

Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Cinematography John Alton

Tea and Sympathy (1956) is an adaptation of Robert Anderson’s 1953 stage play directed by Vincente Minnelli and produced by Pandro S. Berman for MGM in Metrocolor. The music score was by Adolph Deutsch and the cinematography by John Alton. Deborah Kerr, John Kerr (no relation) and Leif Erickson re-created their original stage roles. Also in the cast were Edward Andrews, Darryl Hickman, Norma Crane, Tom Laughlin, and Dean Jones.

Seventeen-year-old Tom Robinson Lee (John Kerr), a new senior at a boy’s prep school, finds himself at odds with the machismo culture of his class in which the other boys love sports, roughhouse, fantasize about girls, and worship their coach, Bill Reynolds (Leif Erickson). Tom prefers classical music, reads Candide, goes to the theater, and generally seems to be more at ease in the company of women.

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The other boys torment Tom for his “unmanly” qualities and call him “sister boy,” and he is treated unfeelingly by his father, Herb Lee (Edward Andrews), who believes a man should be manly and that his son should fit in with the other boys. Only Al (Darryl Hickman), his roommate, treats Tom with any decency, perceiving that being different is not the same as being unmasculine. This growing tension is observed by Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr), wife of the coach. The Reynoldses are also Tom’s and Al’s house master and mistress. Laura tries to build a connection with the young man, often inviting him alone to tea, and eventually falls in love with him, in part because of his many similarities to her first husband John, who was killed in World War II.

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The situation escalates when Tom is goaded into visiting the local prostitute Ellie (Norma Crane) to dispel suspicions about his sexuality, but things go badly. His failure to lose his virginity causes him to attempt suicide in the woman’s kitchen. His father arrives from the city to meet with the dean about Tom’s impending expulsion, having been alerted to Tom’s raffish intentions by a classmate. Assuming his son’s success, he gets one of the film’s biggest send-ups as he boasts of his son’s sexual triumph and time-honored leap into manhood until the Reynoldses inform him otherwise. Laura goes in search of Tom and finds him where he often goes to ruminate, near the golf course’s sixth tee. She tries to comfort him, counseling that he’ll have a wife and family some day, but he’s inconsolable. She starts to leave, then returns and takes his hand, they kiss, and she utters the film’s famous line, “Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind.”

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The film opens and closes ten years into the future, when the adult Tom, who is now a successful writer and married, returns to his prep school. The final scene, new to the Hollywood version, shows Tom visiting his old coach and house master to ask after Laura. Bill tells him that, last he’s heard, she’s out west somewhere but he has a note from her to him, which she enclosed in her last letter to her ex-husband. Tom opens it outside and learns that she wrote it after reading his published novel, derived from his time at the school and their relationship. After their moment of passion, she tells him, she had no choice but to leave her husband, as Tom wrote in his book, “the wife always kept her affection for the boy.”

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Reception

Bosley Crowther gave a positive review and felt the movie was faithful to the play despite obvious Motion Picture Production Code alterations. Crowther also felt the post-script (original to the movie) with “an apologetic letter from the ‘fallen woman’ ” was “preachy […] prudish and unnecessary” and recommended that cinemagoers leave after the line “Years from now, when you talk about this—and you will—be kind.”

Deborah Kerr said in regard to the screenplay that “I think Robert Anderson” has done a fine job.”

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Comparative Acting Styles

Those who had the good fortune to see Deborah Kerr onstage in the Elia Kazan production of “Tea and Sympathy,” will attest to her unforgetable performance. Kerr not only played it on Broadway but also toured with it, a treat for all attendees. Now nearly a half century later, her performance on film, which was very much influenced by her stage style, begins to show a little wear around the edges. It must be difficult to change one’s approach after having played a role so successfully night after night. In this case, her inflections, accents, phraseology, pauses, gestures and the like are essentially theatre-based, designed to play to the whole house up to the balcony. In the intimacy of film, this becomes a bit much in the long run, and results in a much more broad, deliberate and stylized Kerr than in any of her other film work. Her character tends to emerge now more as a busy-body, snooper, peeping tom than was ever intended, and certainly it did not come across that way when the film was first released. A landmark film of sorts–for a major studio to tackle a sensitive subject in a major production–“Tea and Sympathy” benefits from a sincerely written script by Robert Anderson, solid direction by Vincent Minnelli and a secure supporting cast. Visually Deborah Kerr is beautiful, and is totally committed to both the play and her role. During her lengthy film career, Kerr certainly contributed a wealth of finely crafted performances.

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