Monday, June 30, 2014

Movie Review: Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)

Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster in Come Back, Little Sheba, 1952. Burt's doing his best to look boring and dull.

Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster in Come Back, Little Sheba, 1952. Burt's kneeling. Shirley Booth was not a giant.
I recently watched the 1952 movie Come Back, Little Sheba, starring Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster, and based on William Inge’s play, which opened on Broadway in 1950. It’s a pretty dated and boring movie, but it’s important in Lancaster’s filmography as it was his first real dramatic acting role. Lancaster had appeared in film noir dramas before, but Come Back, Little Sheba required him to show that he was more than just a muscle-bound action star. Since his film debut in The Killers in 1946, Lancaster had been slowly expanding his acting range, and the role of alcoholic Doc Delaney in Sheba was a “stretch” part for Lancaster, the kind of role that he sought again and again in his career, as he wanted to show the full range of his acting talents.

The plot, meager as it is, centers around Lola Delaney, a housewife played by Shirley Booth, and her dull marriage to Doc Delaney, a recovering alcoholic. The Delaneys take in a boarder, Marie, played by Terry Moore, a young girl who is a student at the nearby university. The Delaneys have had a difficult existence, as Doc married Lola because she was pregnant. Lola’s father disowned her; she lost the baby and was unable to have any more children. Doc had to drop out of medical school and couldn’t continue his studies, thus he is a chiropractor and not a full MD. And then he became an alcoholic and drank away his inheritance from his mother. Both Lola and Doc enjoy having Marie live with them, as she provides vicarious entertainment for them. Doc develops something of a crush on Marie, and doesn’t like the jerky jock Turk (Richard Jaeckel) that she flirts with. Marie shows kindness towards Doc and only has good things to say about him. 

One of the problems with Come Back, Little Sheba is that there’s no dramatic tension whatsoever. You’re watching these characters meander through life, but you’re not really wondering what will happen next because nothing does. The title refers to dog the Delaneys had that ran away, and Lola keeps blindly hoping that the dog will return, even though it’s been gone for months. (I can’t really blame the dog for running away from the Delaneys.) 

Booth had previously played Lola on Broadway, and won a Tony. She would go on to win the Oscar for Best Actress, making her one of just 9 performers to win both a Tony and an Oscar for playing the same role. Booth does a good job, but her character is so annoying that it overshadows her artistry. Booth’s grating voice predates Jean Stapleton’s squawking tones as Edith Bunker on All in the Family, which doesn’t make Lola any more pleasant or sympathetic. Booth’s overwrought performance looks very dated now; whereas Lancaster’s comparative underplaying still holds up well. The movie shows very clearly how acting styles have changed in the last 60 years. 

Booth and Lancaster are a completely mismatched couple. Booth was 15 years older than Lancaster, and she was the right age for the part. She was 53 when filming began in February, 1952, and Lancaster was only 38. Lancaster does well in the role, but to be honest, he was completely miscast. Lancaster was too strong, too virile, too tall, and too young for the part. The role called for someone who was more of an everyman, someone like Lee J. Cobb, or Karl Malden, although they both would have been too young for the part as well. The most ridiculous line of the movie is when Booth says something about Doc not being athletic. Nope, not true, your husband is Burt Lancaster; he’s a former trapeze artist. 

One way in which a more everyman actor would have brought different shadings to the role is Doc’s crush on Marie. It should probably be more of a hopeless infatuation, and this would have worked better with an older, more plain-looking actor in the role. As it is, you half expect Terry Moore to start making out with Doc because he’s Burt Lancaster in the prime of his life.

Lancaster did a fine job playing Doc, and communicating Doc’s quiet battle against his alcoholism. Lancaster clearly had a strong affinity for Doc, and he said “It was a part I wanted to play more than any other I ever got close to. Doc Delaney is the most human, if imperfect, kind of guy ever written into a play or script.” (Burt Lancaster: Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies, by Tony Thomas, p.54) Although he never said as much publicly, the role of Doc no doubt touched some sort of a nerve with Lancaster, perhaps in part because his second wife Norma, the mother of all 5 of Lancaster’s children, was an alcoholic. In order to play Doc Delaney, Lancaster buries all the handsomeness, all the charisma, and all the physical energy that made him such an electric performer. He wore padding while playing Doc to make himself look heavier and grey was added to his hair to make him look older. Lancaster always conformed to the part; he didn’t try to change the role to fit his image or to play to his strengths. Throughout his career Lancaster played roles that didn’t trade off of his good looks or his charisma. He does it in Sweet Smell of Success, The Leopard, Seven Days in May, Judgment at Nuremburg, and Atlantic City, to name just a few. The amazing range of characters he played is what makes his career so interesting and so varied. 

Terry Moore does a fine job as Marie, playing a girl who is torn between the handsome but shallow Turk and Bruce, her steady boyfriend from back home. Moore was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role. On a side note, Moore claimed that she was secretly married to billionaire Howard Hughes in 1949. Her claims have been disputed, but Moore wrote two books about Hughes.
Come Back, Little Sheba was director Daniel Mann’s first movie, and it shows. Mann had directed the play on Broadway, which was why he was chosen to helm the film. The film is terribly edited, as camera angles change for no reason in the middle of scenes. The continuity is also poor, as, to name just one example, Lancaster is seen opening a car door twice-because the camera angle changes for no reason. Amazingly, the movie was nominated for an Oscar for Best Editing! Fortunately, it didn’t win. 

Come Back, Little Sheba is a rather dated relic now, more than 60 years after it was released, but it’s still of interest because of the performances by Booth, Lancaster, and Moore.


Tom said...

I watched Come Back recently too, but had a different reaction. Far from being boring, I found it to be a fascinating character study. The

For one, I thought the movie held up pretty well actually. The dialogue surprisingly includes some harsh language ("slut" and "sex" particularly) making this rather edgy for its time. Also, a modern viewer may relate to Lancaster's struggle with alcoholism. The film's depiction of an AA meeting (milestones shared, serenity prayer, etc) is as they do it today.

Second, I disagree that Booth's performance is overwraught - her character's personality is, but not the actor's performance. Lola is meant to be an old fashioned, traditional, housewife and Booth captures that perfectly just as Jean Stapleton did with Edith Bunker. I personally know people who have almost the same doting, chatty personality and yes they are of a certain age.

Though I suspected Lancaster might relapse, I wasn't sure how Booth would handle things. In the beginning she was a bit kooky, and I wasn't sure if would be revealed that she had a mental illness. Rather, she's just like Edith Bunker, a slow-witted, longsuffering, loyal housewife. The end of the movie reveals that they both love and need each other; they have no one else.

As for Lancaster being miscast, I'm not sure I agree. He and Booth both looked about the same age to me. And Lancaster was pretty good, especially when he comes home drunk.

Mark said...

Hi Tom,
Thanks for your comments, I'm glad you enjoyed "Come Back, Little Sheba." I agree with you that Booth's character's personality is overwrought-there's really no other way to play the character.

I think Lancaster gave an excellent performance as Doc, I just think a more "everyman" actor like Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, or Martin Balsam might have been better in the role.

Thanks again, I'm always happy to hear from other old movie fans. It looks like you have a lot of blogs-that must keep you busy!

Anonymous said...

Not boring...a real look at true American life. Engaging and interesting for All the performances (and story!) alone.
Far superior to 90% of the films made today. I think the reviewer is very young.

Mark said...

Dear Anonymous,

It seems our opinions differ on "Come Back, Little Sheba." I don't know if I would call myself "very young" anymore, as I am 34 now, and I was 33 when I wrote that review. Burt Lancaster is one of my favorite actors, and here are some of my rave reviews of his movies:

And here's my essay about some of the classic leading men of the post-war generation:

Anonymous said...

I didn't think the movie was boring, but rather a fascinating character study. Booth was amazing in it, she really dug deep (well deserved Oscar) and Lancaster did OK, although he struggled to really get under the skin of Doc Delaney. I always find it amazing that he did The Crimson Pirate, which is a great, fun movie, and Come Back Little Sheba back to back. He certainly pushed himself.