The Long, Hot Summer (1958)- Drama with Paul Newman, Orson Welles and Joanne Woodward


William Faulkner's short stories are laced together in this heated battle of wills amongst a powerful man, his family and the local community in The Long, Hot Summer (1958).

Will Varner (Orson Welles) is an impatient widower who wants to ensure his "immorality" by leaving a grand legacy - physically and financially. Thus, he wants his daughter, Clara (Joanne Woodward), to marry and have children yesterday.  He wants his son Jody (Anthony Franciosa) to take over the family business and expand it, but the son only wants the privilege of wealth not the responsibility.

Clara cannot find anyone to marry because her father is an all-consuming, dominating force. She spends her days as a school teacher and her evenings talking on the porch with a beau, Alan Stewart (Richard Anderson), who refuses to commit.

To speed things along, Varner kills two birds with one stone by making the new hired hand, Ben Quick (Paul Newman), his successor in place of his son. This move also produces a ready-made suitor for Varner's daughter. 

The son who wants approval.
 
When Ben moves into the main house with the family, symbolizing his upward mobility in the business, Jody realizes he has been replaced. The son makes a desperate bid for his status in the family in a scene between father and son where Varner lays out his disappointment:


"I put down a big footprint.  I said, 'Here! Step here! Fill it!' You never did." Jody is defeated. Both men are deflated.

Finally Varner says,"You have Lucius dig you up some worms and you go fishing..." These are completely innocuous words, but in the context of a man who is disappointed in his lazy offspring, it slices as sharp and final as the chop of a guillotine. Will they ever reconnect?

Even though they do not connect well with each other, each man has a supportive relationship with a lady. Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury turn in performances as the woman in the son's and father's life, respectively. Though, the two ladies never share dialogue together, they are parallel characters.

Eula and Jody
Remick plays Jody's wife, Eula, whose world revolves around lounging, shopping, being the moral support for her husband and making love all day. Lansbury plays Will Varner's girlfriend, Minnie, who runs a boarding house but ultimately wants to be to Varner what Eula is to Jody. Minnie's subplot involves scheming to get Varner to marry her.

Minnie and Varner
Clara wants a life similar to that of the other ladies. However, she's also repulsed by the idea since she sees these women as frivolous. She's also not keen on being "bought and sold" by her father to a "passing stranger" like one of his horses or trade goods.

Still she tries to emulate the couples around her.  When the others sit on a porch together, there is a free and easy air about them. There are no secrets. Jody and Eula lounge in rocking chairs, eat tea cakes and discuss Jody's career.Varner and Minnie sit on her porch and enjoy each other's company with an ice-cold beverage in the summer heat.

Awkward
When Clara sits alone on a porch with Alan, the director (Martin Ritt) has them sitting rather stiffly and in silence. Alan's hands are crossed over his knees as if he's protecting something. The movie is telling us that they- for better or worse- are not like the other couples. They awkwardly stare at each other for a second, then the two are up on their feet.

The bridge of no return?

Clara is almost always moving. It's only when the two are pacing the porch that they broach the subject of their future together or talk at all. The next time they have a "defining the relationship" discussion they are again walking, this time across a bridge. This latter conversation could push their friendship toward the altar or drive it away from it forever. This is a bridge of no return, in a way.

There are many other pairings in this film besides the romantic type.

Alan and Varner are similar and are also set up as polar opposites. They are two men of power- one by birth, one by choice. Varner is quick to insult Alan as weak, ineffectual, "decayed gentry," mostly because he envies Alan's education, social grace, elan and literal cool. The summer heat never seems to effect Alan; no sweat ever crosses his brow. Varner, on the other hand, is a hardscrabble, crass, self-made man who perspires profusely. They are united -though they would never say so- in their deep regard for Clara.
One way or another, the father says,"You're gonna give me grandsons." Clara has her own ideas.
 
Clara and her father are dissimilar and yet very much alike. She thinks he's crude, yet enjoys the same things he does (and feels guilty about it). They share a few scenes, one in which Clara mentions what the audience is thinking - that the only conversation they ever have together involves talk of Clara's singlehood. The daughter's will is just as strong as her father's, so the upshot is whether she will live life on her own terms and will the two respect each other.

Two hustlers

Varner has another parallel in Ben Quick. They are both shiftless hustlers with few ethics. The director even creates a mirror image at the card table: a man on either side of the table, Varner with a cigar dangling from his mouth, Ben with a cigarette on the edge of his lips, each trying to figure out the other man.
Ben makes his pitch to Clara. She's crossing him out.
When Clara chooses between Alan and Ben, she's really choosing different sides of Varner, in addition to battling the parts of herself that are too much like her father. Who will triumph? That's the question.

The Long, Hot Summer is a fascinating look at a dysfunctional family and community and how they withstand (or wither under) the glaring heat of one man's influence.

Notes:
  • The haunting theme song by the film's composer, Alex North, with lyrics by Sammy Cahn and sung by Jimmie Rogers, became a profitable hit on the Billboard charts.
  • The story is set in Mississippi but filmed in Louisiana.
  • Helen Wallace gives a stirring performance in the minor role of an unnamed woman who potentially becomes a financial casualty during the transition of power between Ben and Jody. Heart-breaking scene.
  • Another movie with Paul Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward (they would marry after Long, Hot Summer)is the screwy comedy, A New Kind of Love (1963).
  • Totally apropos of nothing, there is on the porch a mint-colored chaise with vermillion pillow. It looks as cool and refreshing as daiquiri sherbert with a cherry on top. Love it.

1 Comments:

  1. Java, great review of one of my very favorite films! The cast is exceptional, the atmospheric dripping (with sweat), and I also love that haunting score. It's also one of those movies that's filled with terrific lines of dialogue, such as when Richard Anderson tells Joanne (who's looking for a commitment) how much he admires her: "That's so sad, Alan." I can watch THE LONG, HOT SUMMER every summer.

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