This is one I had seen before, so I can’t call it a Movie I’ve Missed, but it’s been close to forty years since I watched it, and on late night TV at that, cut up for commercials and probably shortened to run in a two-hour time slot, as well. So it was almost new to me.
There’s not nearly as much Tennessee Williams material in this film, which was “suggested” (according to the credits) by a short, one-act Williams play of the same name. While much of the dialogue from the play was used, the screenplay, which was co-authored by Francis Ford Coppola, splits the source material in two and uses it as a prologue and epilogue and invents the long flashback in between that makes up most of the movie, although the storyline is at least extrapolated from bits of dialogue in the original.
The film takes place in the small town of Dodson, Mississippi, where we first meet the 13-year-old girl Willie Starr walking along the railroad tracks near an abandoned and condemned boarding house that her mother used to run. Willie tells the story to a boy about her own age she encounters on the tracks, launching the flashback in which the boarding house is still occupied and Willie’s beautiful older sister Alva has numerous suitors among the railroad men who live there. But then a railroad employee named Owen Legate arrives to cut the runs that go through Dodson and lay off most of the men who work for the railroad, and things begin to fall apart for the Starr family. Naturally, a romance develops between Alva and Owen (they’re played by Natalie Wood and Robert Redford, what else would you expect?), which ruins the plan hatched by Alva’s mother to push Alva into the arms of a well-to-do railroad superintendent with a sick wife.
Things play out in Southern, depression-era, soap opera fashion, and even though I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen, I found the movie really entertaining in an old-fashioned way. I remembered liking it when I saw it before, and I did this time, too. It’s got a fine cast. I’ve always liked Robert Redford, Natalie Wood is beautiful (and it’s amazing how even at the age she was then, you can often see the little girl from MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET in her), and Charles Bronson is good in an unsympathetic role as a brutal railroad worker who plays up to Alva’s mother in order to get closer to Alva. Mary Badham, who played Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, plays Willie. The photography by James Wong Howe is excellent, and I think the screenwriters did a pretty good job of expanding the play (which, admittedly, I’ve neither seen nor read).
Overall, I had a fine time watching this one. If you’ve never seen it, it’s worth a look. If it’s been forty years since you watched it, like me, it’s worth watching again.
THE PULP CALENDAR: December 4
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