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The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone(1961)

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Among the big-screen treatments given the prose of defining American dramatist Tennessee Williams, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) is generally relegated to minor status. Stretched to narrative length from one of the author's novellas, the film was widely regarded as glossy and disposable at the time of its release. While the years haven't proven the critics thunderously wrong in that regard, they've provided enough context to make the film, recently released on DVD by Warner Home Video, an intriguing watch for the contemporary viewer.

The narrative concerns the losing battle with the years waged by fading footlight diva Karen Stone (Vivian Leigh), who's abruptly pulled out of her latest production after being stung by critical and audience indifference. A planed Roman getaway with her older magnate husband (John Phillips) swiftly turns tragic when he suffers a fatal heart attack on the flight over. The stricken new widow opts to remain in the Eternal City, leasing a sumptuous apartment and maintaining marginal human contact therein.

That's the case until she's targeted by the Contessa (Lotte Lenya), a social butterfly who covertly makes a handsome living by steering companionship to lonely older ladies of means. The Contessa wrangles an introduction for Paolo di Leo (Warren Beatty), one of the more promising pieces of horseflesh in her stable of young Italian gigolos. His intentions are obvious to Karen, but the Paolo is intrigued by her depth, and accordingly persistent.

Giving in to her own loneliness and desperation, Karen submits to the handsome youngster's attentions. It seems that Paolo, too, regards her as more than just another job, as he is far slower in milking her for financial favors to satisfy the Contessa. The matter of how long the relationship can be sustained upon these questionable underpinnings provides the dramatic thrust for the rest of the film.

As adapted by screenwriter Gavin Lambert, it all unfolds in a manner that's frequently overwrought, never more so during spans when a sonorous voice-over is used to convey Karen's turmoil. (The bulk of the project was filmed on London soundstages, and those are body doubles in long shot you're seeing in all that pretty location footage.) For his first filmmaking assignment, stage director Jose Quintero did a creditable job, and while the pace of the proceedings is kind of languorous, it's never visually static.

With respect to the performances, the still strikingly beautiful Leigh is splendid in showing the disintegration of her character's brave façade in the face of uncertainty. Given what has since come to light about the waning years of the fragile actress's too-short life, though, it's tough to consider her work here on its merits without viewing it through the prism of her personal experiences. The young Beatty drew the bulk of the heat from the critics of the day, so much so that he pondered retirement from acting. They were being less than fair; whatever points you want to award the Italian accent he affected, the role's requirements (beyond having a studly mien) were modest, and he rose to the occasion.

The film's most flavorful work comes from Lenya, with her cunningly parasitic Contessa being her first screen effort since rendering husband Kurt Weill's songs for G.W. Pabst's The Three Penny Opera (1931). Also noteworthy are Coral Browne as the old friend trying to throw Karen a rope to her prior life, and Jeremy Spenser, silently shouldering the story's central metaphor as a soulful if scruffy young admirer who stalks Mrs. Stone from a distance. Other familiar faces smattered about the proceedings in small roles include Bessie Love, Ernest Thesiger and a young Jean Marsh.

The restoration job on the print (in the original theatrical 1.78:1 aspect ratio) is nice, if not eye-poppingly so, and the clarity of the Dolby Mono audio is very acceptable. Beyond the original theatrical trailer, the extras package consists of a new 12-minute featurette, Looking for the Light in All the Dark Corners. It delivers probably about as much delving as the movie merits; Williams biographer Donald Spoto holds forth on Karen Stone as the author's most obvious alter ego of all his creations, and Beatty biographer Suzanne Finstad shares perspectives and anecdotes on the actor's efforts to lobby Williams for the role. Jill St. John, who had an early role as the starlet offering personal and professional enticements to Paolo, shares respectful reminiscences of working with Leigh, who had been aloof to her on the set. Warner has also made the DVD available as part of the Tennessee Williams Film Collection, an impressive set that boasts new special editions of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958), as well as the DVD debuts of Baby Doll (1956), Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) and The Night of the Iguana (1964).

For more information about The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, visit Warner Video. To order The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, go to TCM Shopping.