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Tea and Sympathy was based on the play of the same name by Robert Anderson, who also wrote the screen adaptation. Lead actors Deborah Kerr, John Kerr (who is unrelated to Deborah) and Leif Erickson recreated their roles from the 1953 Broadway production of the play, for which Deborah Kerr had won the Donaldson Award for best actress of the year and a special award for the best actress in her Broadway debut, and John Kerr had won the Donaldson Award and the New York Critics Award for best actor.
Director Vincente Minnelli's autobiography quotes a letter from Anderson stating that the play's themes included: "An essential manliness which...consists of gentleness, consideration...and not just of brute strength. Another point, of course, is the tendency for any mass of individuals to gang up on anyone who differs from it...Also a major point is that when a person is in terrible trouble, we have to give him more than tea and sympathy."
According to information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the play's inclusion of homosexuality, adultery and prostitution precipitated years of debate with the Production Code Administration, which at the time prohibited depictions of adultery and any depiction or inference of "sex perversion." After the play's success, several studios, including Samuel Goldwyn's company, Warner Bros., M-G-M, Twentieth Century-Fox and Columbia, approached PCA heads Joseph I. Breen and Geoffrey Shurlock about how to write a screenplay adaptation that could receive a seal. In numerous memos dated late 1953 found in the film's PCA file, Breen and Shurlock replied that the basic story was unacceptable. During a October 29, 1953 meeting between Shurlock, Goldwyn, Anderson and the play's New York director, Elia Kazan, Anderson stated that he would not change any of the "offending" elements. In the months that followed, several revisions were suggested to Shurlock by many writers, including making "Bill Reynolds" seem threatened by "Tom Robinson Lee's" interest in "Laura," rather than titillated by him; adding a punishment for Tom and Laura (which Shurlock rejected, saying it martyred them); and clarifying that Tom is not homosexual but merely different from the other boys.
Daily Variety reported on December 16, 1953 that Anderson was considering forming an independent company in order to produce a film version of the play without a Code seal. That version was to be directed by Kazan and be supported by The Playwrights Company, the theater group that had produced the Broadway play. That article asserted "If `Tea' goes out without a Seal-as it is bound to do if done independently-the film will constitute another test of the Code and the extent to which exhibitors are willing to buck it." Later that month, Goldwyn was quoted in a Variety piece as complaining that the Code was "behind the times." [The first major production to be released without a Code seal, The Moon Is Blue, was released in July 1953.] In April 1954, New York Times noted that Anderson still planned an independent production, to be filmed on the East Coast.
M-G-M bought the film rights to the play in July 1954. According to a September 1954 Daily Variety article, Anderson was paid $100,000 for the rights and would receive another $300,000 if he provided a script that gained approval from the Code. On April 28, 1955, after a revised script was once again denied a Code seal, the studio appealed the decision with the MPAA. By late August 1955, Shurlock and staff member Jack Vizzard agreed to a page-by-page review of the script, and on September 1, 1955, Sherlock sent a letter to M-G-M head Dore Schary assuring him that the script, if filmed exactly as written, would meet Code standards. After a September 25, 1955 New York Times article stated that the play's main themes had not been significantly altered, National Catholic Legion of Decency leader Rev. Thomas F. Little sent a letter to Loew's, Inc. asking to see the script for himself. Shurlock responded to Little that his office was dismayed by the New York Times article and that Schary had "disavowed its implications." After including Little's suggestion that Laura's final letter state that Tom is happily married, the film was awarded a Code seal on July 20, 1956, and the Legion eventually gave it a "B" rating.
The final film version differed from the play in that it removed the suggestion that Tom or Bill held any latent homosexual tendencies and did not include a scene in which Tom swims in the nude with a gay music teacher. In addition, the film adds a flashback framing structure, in which Tom returns to a school reunion and, after reminiscing about the past, reads the letter from Laura expressing her remorse at having slept with him, an act that destroyed her marriage. The play ended with Laura's famous line, "Years from now, when you talk about this-and you will-be kind." In the film, the line ends the flashback.
Although, as noted above, Erickson recreated the role of Bill from the Broadway production, on October 31, 1955, a "Rambling Reporter" item in Hollywood Reporter stated that at that time, M-G-M wanted Burt Lancaster to play the role of Bill. An April 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item listed Dick York as the film's star. According to a July 1956 New York Herald Tribune article, the beach scene was filmed at Zuma Beach, CA.
Upon its release, the film garnered mainly positive reviews, although the Los Angeles Times review asserted that the film would disappoint fans of the play. The New York Times called the film "strong and sensitive" but pronounced the letter at the end "prudish and unnecessary." For her performance, Deborah Kerr received a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress of 1956.