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When the brawny sugar cane-cutters of Queensland, Australia have harvested the annual crop, they are given a five-month "lay-off" which, according to the 1961 film Season of Passion, they spend in resort towns relaxing, carousing, and hooking up with their loyal girlfriends.
When Roo (Ernest Borgnine) and Barney (John Mills) land in Sydney for their yearly R&R, they are met with a surprise. Roo's gal Olive (Anne Baxter) is faithfully waiting on him, but Barney's girlfriend Nancy has accepted an off-season proposal of marriage from another man. To fill the void, Olive has brought along Pearl (Angela Lansbury), a widow who is trying to get back into the dating pool, but curls her nose at the vulgar behavior of the cane-cutters home on leave.
Once the vacation begins, it is revealed that Roo is broke, and lost his position with the harvesting crew after fighting with one of the younger men, Dowd (Vincent Ball). Barney tries to patch things up between Roo and Dowd, but this only twists the knife in Roo's wounded pride. "People's pride means a lot to 'em," Roo tells Olive in one scene, "You take that away and they got nothing." Eventually, Roo is forced to face his weaknesses, and possible obsolescence. And the adoring Olive -- in her seventeenth "season of passion" -- must acknowledge the demise of her own romantic ideals, symbolized by the dainty dolls Roo gives her each year as a gift, which are piling up on the walls and shelves of her meager apartment.
Season of Passion began as a play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, by Ray Lawler. It was purchased in July 1957 for 134,000 by the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Company, most famous for the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success. The company was formed by literary/talent agent Harold Hecht, producer James Hill and actor Burt Lancaster.
From the beginning, the producers strived to maintain the authentic working-class Australian character of the play, while making it accessible to an international audience. They created a new business entity -- Hecht-Hill-Lancaster (Australia) Pty. -- and shot the film on actual locations at Sydney Harbor, Luna Park and Bondi Beach, as well as at the Artransa Studios in Sydney. But even this offended some purists. One critic in the Sydney Morning Herald complained that shooting the film in Sydney -- as opposed to Carlton, where the play was set -- was, "quite alien to the spirit of Lawler's drama."
Even today, Season of Passion stirs controversy among those loyal to what is considered "the most historically significant in Australian theatre history."
More anachronistic were the Oz accents (or the lack thereof). Feeling the need to court a wide audience, the producers cast established stars with widely recognized names rather than gamble on lesser-known Australian actors. Indiana-born Anne Baxter gamely struggles to maintain the dialect, but Connecticut-born Ernest Borgnine (who had risen to fame in Hecht-Hill-Lancaster's Marty ) doesn't let accents stand in his way, and delivers his lines in the international language of "roughneck."
The lack of a specifically Australian accent works to the advantage of the character of Pearl. The snooty manicurist probably would strive to appear more British and cosmopolitan than her working-class associates, so the role perfectly suited Lansbury.
Upon the film's release, Variety wrote, "Miss Lansbury brings a comic and sometimes sad dignity to bear on the role." Season of Passion was a rare chance for Lansbury to play a character who is young, attractive and sexually appealing. She spent most of her career co-starring as catty villainesses and overbearing mothers. The same year Season was released in the U.S., she appeared in Blue Hawaii (1961) as Elvis Presley's mother. She was 35, he was 26. The following year, she played Laurence Harvey's mother in The Manchurian Candidate even though she was only three years older than him.
Lansbury later lamented, "I've played so many old hags... I didn't want to play all those nasty ladies, but in Hollywood, you're either a member of the working group or not, and if not, you're easily forgotten. I've had high spots, medium spots, and a couple of low spots, but I've always been in there pitching."
On the set of Season of Passion, Lansbury particularly enjoyed working with Anne Baxter. "She reminded me of me. I thought she was a very, very good actress who never made it as a major film star. Yet she took the roles that came her way because she loved to act."
Indeed, Baxter was not the first choice to play Olive. It was first announced that Rita Hayworth (Jay Hill's ex-wife) was to play the female lead. The two male leads were first announced as James Cagney and Burt Lancaster (presumably as Roo and Barney respectively). While one can easily imagine these actors in the central roles, their superstar presence would have greatly diminished the earthy naturalism director Leslie Norman was striving for. Borgnine, Baxter and Mills, underrated performers with solid acting chops, succeed in making Season of Passion an intimate, understated film -- yet one that surprises its viewer with the intense emotional power hiding beneath its deceptively plain surface.
Shooting began in December 1958, capturing the amusing spectacle (at least for viewers in the northern hemisphere) of Christmas occurring in the heat of the Australian summer. In her memoirs, Intermission, Baxter recalls the excessive heat of Sydney in January. "The heat had been unbearable. Angela Lansbury and I had wilted in it. So had John Mills and Ernest Borgnine. The sets were steam baths. The perspiration poured off us but the beer wouldn't come out of the tap in the pub scenes. Too hot. The spigot just foamed at its mouth."
Though proud of the film, Baxter was not apparently enamored with the naturalistic style of the location shoot. "We'd shot in cramped little tenements and a squalid amusement park; filmed a three-night-long sequence on the greasy harbor ferry, and had quickly become steeped in the beery, brawling side of Sydney."
During the filming of one exterior night scene, director Norman wanted to see a backdrop of lights glowing in the harbor. To achieve the effect, residents of the community were asked to sleep with their lights on -- which is particularly amusing in this context, since Season of Passion features a miserly character (Ethel Gabriel) who endlessly complains about her tenants leaving lights burning at night.
Season of Passion received its hometown opening at Sydney's Century Theatre on December 2, 1959, under the title Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. It wasn't released in the U.S. until December 16, 1961.
It first appeared in New York on the bottom half of a double bill, with George Marshall's The Happy Thieves in February of 1962. The New York Times felt the film honored Lawler's original play, and questioned why its release was so long delayed:
"The most striking and rewarding thing about this Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production, which was rather mysteriously kept in mothballs for several seasons, is the simple, natural way it has been transferred from the stage to the screen...without altering the story's substance and heart...Under the direction of producer Leslie Norman, the incidents graphically predict the harsh, if somewhat softened, denouement."
Director: Leslie Norman
Producer: Leslie Norman
Screenplay: John Dighton, Based on the play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler
Cinematography: Paul Beeson
Production Design: Jim Morahan
Music: Benjamin Frankel
Cast: Ernest Borgnine (Roo), Anne Baxter (Olive), John Mills (Barney), Angela Lansbury (Pearl), Vincent Ball (Dowd), Janette Craig (Bubba), Ethel Gabriel (Emma).
by Bret Wood