The Glass Menagerie (1950)
Reviewed in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of the late Jane Wyman's 95th birthday.
Director: Irving Rapper. Cast: Gertrude Lawrence, Arthur Kennedy, Jane Wyman, Kirk Douglas, Ralph Sanford, Gertrude Graner, Ann Tyrrell, Perdita Chandler, John Compton. Screenplay: Tennessee Williams and Peter Berneis (based on the play by Tennessee Williams).
Twitter Capsule: Ensemble works well. Visuals, if a bit stagy, avoid preciousness. At sea with frame story and finale, though.

Photo © 1950 20th Century Fox
The Glass Menagerie is a beautifully constructed play, distilled to essences yet expansive in nuance. If the writer's next effort hadn't been A Streetcar Named Desire, maybe the most galvanizing play that an American has ever produced anywhere close to the realist tradition, I might think about Menagerie a lot more often than I do. I suspect the 1951 movie of Streetcar, a cultural monument in its own right, casts a similar shadow over 20th Century Fox's filming of Williams's memory play, which premiered the year before. Or maybe the abundance of top-flight pictures produced in 1950 swallowed this one up. Or maybe this project simply got draped in that same cloak of invisibility that clings so oddly to the film versions of other big-time midcentury plays that you'd expect to have a higher profile, like 1951's Death of a Salesman, with Fredric March. Or maybe to last in the collective memory, you need to offer more than a smartly cast, well-produced reading of sturdy material. The Glass Menagerie has a lot going for it, even if director Irving Rapper (Now, Voyager) misses several opportunities to take the characters deeper. His hurtling through a modified ending casts a retroactive pall on the production rather than the spirit-lifting glow that this finale is apparently pursuing. Knowing how seldom Menagerie is even exhibited anymore, I found myself feeling protective of the film's modest but genuine virtues until, suddenly, I wasn't.

Even if I prefer Williams's more Fauvist canvases of desire, unreason, and violence, like Orpheus Descending and Sweet Bird of Youth, Menagerie offers its interpreters on stage and screen a remarkably flexible, unfussily prismatic structure. It has the economy and even the narrative inevitability of a short story, but when you're rendering the piece even halfway right, each of its four characters, including the most late-arriving, variously suggests himself or herself as the heart of the piece. The feelings and philosophies of frustrated factory worker Tom Wingfield (Arthur Kennedy), his fragile sister Laura (Jane Wyman), and their flapping and pecking mother Amanda (Gertrude Lawrence) arrest the audience at different times and recede at others, though never fully. We care about all three characters at all times, and when Amanda finally realizes her ardent dream of procuring, through Tom, a "gentleman caller" for the timid Laura, in the shape of hardy, loquacious co-worker Jim O'Connor (Kirk Douglas), the fellow's garrulous gospel of self-confidence is simultaneously a welcome shot of energy, a compressed kernel of thematic revelation, and a bit too much to handle, like red-robed Maureen Stapleton blazing through a refrigerated family reunion in Woody Allen's Interiors.

Rapper's Glass Menagerie eschews the gloopy, dream-play nostalgia that swamps a lot of productions. Both the interiors and the exteriors convince as hard-luck, working-class idioms in a poor but not a destitute part of St. Louis, and cinematographer Robert Burks, who brought a lot of tight spaces to febrile life for Alfred Hitchcock, works well with the more mundane realities of this environment. He successfully flexes the Wingfields' shared apartment, which is barely bigger than the shoeboxes Tom makes at his job, into both a claustrophobic trap and a driftless space in which man, mother, and sister often seem miles apart. The film accommodates a few heightenings of tone and technique: the sudden track-in to a close-up on Jim as he belatedly recognizes Laura, for instance, or the unsubtle but effective styling of Laura's speed-typing class at a local business college as a kind of fascist training ground, with amped-up sound and a female instructor dressed like a commandant. The most impressively sustained movement in the whole film is one of the most emotionally aggressive. Kirk Douglas, still in his pre-headliner days, a period when his love of big-time theater was as foregrounded as Hugh Jackman's is today for big-time musicals, is so solicitous of Jane Wyman's Laura but also so energized by his own motivational speaking that, before you know it, he's passed from indifference to charm to being an unwitting bully with his well-intended advice. Crucially, this transpires without the direction or either performer editorializing on the characters; there is no villain in this scene. We simply aren't positive this is who or what we want for Laura, which supplies a valuable ambivalence to a vector of plot that can feel too sentimental, and consequently makes its resolution more interesting.

Regrettably, this is one of the only interesting things about the conclusion, which otherwise is botched almost to incoherence. Worse, the failures have the effect of telescoping what has been neglected or unwieldy in Rapper's direction from the beginning. When Jim admits to Laura something he might have admitted much earlier, we have nothing to refer to in the prior performance to explain why this information, of all things, would never have been swept into his high-velocity currents of talk. Wyman, top-billed and virtually unavoidable casting for a good-hearted but vaguely stunted girl-woman in a 1950 movie (and at age 33, no less), is dependably delicate without being mawkish. Even within that moon-faced acting style she prefered, though, Wyman forestalls opportunities to show us a more complicated portrait of Laura's disappointment—assuming that she is disappointed, or that that's all she is. Meanwhile, even though Tom has heard very little of Jim's secular sermonizing, his response to the evening's abruptly downcast turn feels like a vociferous follow-through on Jim's encouragements. This long-stymied character feels suddenly, virtually free of the guilting influences that have blocked Tom's exits on many other nights—and this one, improbably, feels too much like any of those other nights. This Glass Menagerie is never very successful at stitching the Tom of the retrospective framing device to the real-time events that fill most of the movie, and since the process of launching him out of this dingy nest feels so truncated, it amplifies without enriching that awkward gap in the structure. The movie clouds whatever portholes its retrospective narration and Tom's career as a nostalgia-prone Merchant Marine might have opened into the characters or the ways they think and feel.

The most unusual performance in the movie is the Amanda presented by Gertrude Lawrence, whose very appearance in the film gives it a kind of curio value. A dissolute legend and vexing collaborator whose life got the widescreen, high-gloss treatment in Julie Andrews's unendurable Star!, Lawrence appears here less than two years before winning a Tony for The King and I in 1952. Three months after that, she died of liver cancer, at age 54. The whole film is cast well, but she is both the least practiced film performer and the most interesting marriage of actor to role: a still-young woman who already feels swept into the tide of middle-age, and an essentially disappointed person, cleaving to past glories, positive that she deserves better than she's getting. By reliable accounts, Lawrence was more or less possessed of the same feelings during filming, pushing hard for the soft-focus flashback sequence in which Amanda's tales of being courted simultaneously by 17 suitors in Mississippi come uncomfortably to life: D.W. Griffith by way of Robert Aldrich. The sequence diminishes our sense of how this oft-repeated legacy plays in the household as near-certain apocrypha. I wish we didn't have to look at this, and not just because it's so indifferently blocked, hazily lit, and cosmetically tacky, you wonder if Rapper was sabotaging the sequence in an attempt to make it unusable. Worse, though, I missed the chance this sequence eliminates to learn about Amanda from observing the way Lawrence tells this suspiciously tallish tale, and to learn about Tom and Laura from the ways in which they listen, or don't.

Lawrence is given to pushing back her hair as a gesture of fatigue, lending her voice a Kim Stanley brittleness as a sign of unbearability, and indulging other mannerisms that may strike some viewers as dated or undisciplined. At the same time, she's convincingly weary and convincingly vigorous, often at the same times, which is a key asset to any Amanda and one that's hard to pull off. Maybe it isn't a perfect film performance, but it's a fully compelling one, even in its shortcomings. For Shirley Booth to pull down every film prize ever commissioned for her similarly purple, only semi-modified staginess in Come Back, Little Sheba, and yet for almost no one to even realize that Gertrude Lawrence was more than credible in a barely-seen Glass Menagerie during the same period entails an imbalance in fortunes that just doesn't add up. Lawrence has one of her best scenes in a department store, haggling with the customer-service agent over her canceled line of credit, in a rare example of opening up a play for film without doing obvious violence to its dramatic integrity. Amanda is dogged, funny, and sympathetic in this scene, and Wyman's Laura is gratifyingly bored and embarrassed: helpful additions on all counts to the movie's emotional palette. Later, Lawrence's close-ups while she eavesdrops on Jim and Laura alone are forcefully tense, and unnervingly shot. She is scared and hopeful and jealous, and though none of these amount to stunning reinterpretations of what's right there in the script, they add some new notes to a reading of Amanda that's largely been concentrated in waspish micromanagement.

That's the catch with this Glass Menagerie: it has several moments that pack an emotional punch, but neither the actors nor the directors excel at keeping multiple threads or tones in play at the same time. We're often gripped or moved by what we're seeing, but I wish we felt a little more challenged. By the final act, when it's most important that we see all of these facets crystallizing into one intimidating onyx of love and resentment, the movie simply stops, hustling Tom out of the house and away from a real reckoning with his own story. The script, doubtless against its writer's wishes, gets slapped with a ludicrous, "Gentleman Callers of the Future" epilogue that serves nobody on the screen or in the audience. When The Glass Menagerie works, as it frequently does in this adaptation, it's a bracing and very moving miniature. During and after this peremptory wrap-up, however, it just feels small. It's a bad habit to undersell the virtues of a movie's first 90 minutes because the last 15 go so badly off-track, but in a play that's all about backward glances and about truths admitted and denied, it's a hard impulse to fight, a hard reality to deny. Grade: B–

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