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"In retrospect, it wasn't a very shocking picture, but it might have set up a brouhaha at the time. Ostrich-wise, the censors refused to admit the problem of sexual identity was a common one."
Vincente Minnelli, on Tea and Sympathy
A movie which caused a considerable stir with the Production Code office and the ever-feared Catholic Legion of Decency, Tea and Sympathy (1956), based on a landmark Broadway play, now seems too tame to be deserving of such outrage. As director Vincente Minnelli wrote, "the drama told of a young man at a boys' school who's falsely accused of being homosexual because of his off-beat interests in tennis, "classical" music, and poetry, instead of baseball and dormitory bull sessions." After witnessing the cruel taunting of the other boys, the schoolmaster's wife Laura takes pity on the sensitive student Tom and tries to help him, ultimately offering herself to him in an ending that features one of the most famous last lines of American theater: "Years from now, when you talk about this - and you will - be kind."
The play opened on Broadway in 1953 and was a huge hit critically and commercially, running over 700 performances. Directed by Elia Kazan, it starred Deborah Kerr as Laura, Leif Erickson as her schoolmaster husband Bill, and John Kerr (pronounced as it is spelled, as opposed to Deborah's "Car") as the student, Tom. All three were hired by MGM to reprise their roles for the film, but Minnelli replaced Kazan in the director's chair. In his autobiography, Minnelli wrote that the actors knew their parts so well that he needed to lend them little direction: "They'd confronted many kinds of audiences [and] shaded their delineations of their characters over the many times they'd performed it...There was no need to gild it with any ornamentation."
As for the story's content, the mere hint of the presence of homosexuality in any movie raised red flags with Production Code officials Geoffrey Shurlock and Jack Vizzard. Moreover, the climactic act of adultery, if not eliminated from the story, had to be answered with penance for the adulterer. Playwright and screenwriter Bob Anderson therefore tacked on a flashback structure, bookending the main drama with a visit to the school by the grownup John Kerr and his family. He remembers the story that then unfolds, afterwards learning what happened to Deborah Kerr after he left the school; needless to say, her character did not enjoy a happy life. This satisfied the Production Code office but not the Legion of Decency, which threatened to slap the picture with a "C" rating ("Condemned"). In the end, after much arguing, the Legion gave the film a "B" ("Morally objectionable in part for all").
For his part, playwright Anderson wrote in a letter to Minnelli that, "I have always seen the play basically as a love story...Of course the meanings of the play are various, the chief one being that we must understand and respect differences in people. Along with this is the whole concept of what manliness is. I attack the often-fostered notion that a man is only a man if he can carry Vivien Leigh up a winding staircase. I stump for essential manliness which is something internal, and consists of gentleness, consideration, other qualities of that sort, and not just of brute strength."
While the flashback structure that Anderson was forced to add considerably softened the story, the fact that the film was made at all, with any of the sexuality-themed content intact, was a tiny step in the right direction for Hollywood studios. Furthermore, as Anderson said, "we had to make too many changes for censorship, but [the picture] serves its purpose in preserving the performances of Deborah and John Kerr and Leif Erickson."
Famed cinematographer John Alton, best known for his shadowy, black and white film noir lighting, also created some beautiful color films. This is an example of the master at work with a lush color palette, on the fourth of five films he shot for director Minnelli.
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Screenplay: Robert Anderson
Cinematography: John Alton
Film Editing: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Edward C. Carfagno, William A. Horning
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Deborah Kerr (Laura Reynolds), John Kerr (Tom Robinson Lee), Leif Erickson (Bill Reynolds), Edward Andrews (Herb Lee), Darryl Hickman (Al), Norma Crane (Ellie Martin).
C-122m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold