Tea and Sympathy
Cast & Crew
At his Chilton preparatory school ten-year reunion, writer Tom Robinson Lee reminisces about his eventful year at the school: As a new student, shy and sensitive Tom acquires a romantic crush on Laura, the wife of dormitory headmaster Bill Reynolds. In the dorm garden outside her downstairs apartment, Laura draws Tom out, learning that he barely knew his mother and has never before been in love, having lived the previous decade in a series of all-male boarding schools. After Tom reveals that he hopes to escort her to Saturday night's dance, which will follow opening night of the school play, Laura tries to teach him to dance, but Tom is too shy. Later, he follows her to the beach, where Laura sews with faculty wives Lilly Sears and Mary Williams. Although Bill and the other boys are roughhousing nearby, Tom prefers to sit with the ladies, and when some of the boys spy him helping them to sew, Tom earns the nickname "Sister Boy." When Laura later drops by to ask Bill to plan a vacation alone with her, he berates her for allowing Tom to sew, and reveals that he has invited some students to vacation with them. Upon returning to the dorm, the boys taunt Tom, even though his roommate, Al Thompson, a star athlete, comes to his defense. On Saturday afternoon, Tom competes in a tennis match that his father Herb has come to watch. When Herb hears the boys mocking Tom, however, he leaves the match, to Tom's dismay. Herb later tries to "help" his son by urging him to cut his hair into a fashionable crewcut and encouraging him to harass soda shop waitress Ellie Martin, as the other boys do. Later, Herb visits Bill, a friend from their Chilton days, and expresses shame that Tom is not "a regular fellow." Laura is distressed to overhear the men's hopes that the evening's bonfire, at which new boys, wearing pajamas, are roughed up by older students, will make a man of Tom. When she later complains to Bill, he reveals that Tom's outcast status is a stain on the dorm and a grievance to Herb, and that rather than becoming emotionally involved, her only role is to provide "tea and sympathy" to the boys. Laura brings up her first husband, a sensitive boy she married when they were eighteen, only to lose him the next year in the war, but the subject infuriates Bill. Upstairs, meanwhile, upon learning that Tom is to play a female in the school production, Herb forces him to decline the role. Tom is disappointed and humiliated, especially after Herb admonishes him to "fight tonight, or else." At the bonfire, the boys march Tom out to the field, but once there, refuse to touch him, a slight more shameful than the hazing that the other boys are enduring. Unable to bear it, Al rips off Tom's top, prompting the others to join suit. As Laura runs off in revulsion, Tom rushes back to the dorm. In her rooms later, Al confesses to Laura that his father has insisted that Al change roommates the following year, and when Laura threatens to besmirch Al's reputation to show him how easily false rumors can start, Al responds heatedly that she has nothing to lose and so cannot understand. Realizing the truth of Al's statement, Laura apologizes. Al then attempts to teach his friend how to appear manlier, but Tom knows that it is too late for him to gain the boys' comradeship, and refuses the lessons. After Al reveals that he will switch dorms, however, Tom, in desperation, considers his friend's parting advice: to visit Ellie, whose bad reputation will give credence to Tom's heterosexuality. Soon after at their apartment, Bill tears up a book of poetry Tom has given Laura. Laura begs to know why Bill hates Tom and what has driven a wedge in their young marriage, but Bill refuses to talk to her, stating only that he does not want Laura to see Tom alone. When Laura then hears Tom making a date with Ellie, however, she tries frantically to detain the boy, inviting him into the apartment and informing him about her husband, who was killed trying to prove his bravery to disbelieving peers. Tom, assuming Laura pities him, tries to leave, prompting her to beg him to dance. Instead, Tom asks why Bill hates him and his father is ashamed of him, and breaks down in tears. When Laura holds him, Tom impulsively kisses her, but runs off when Bill and some boys return early from their weekend mountain climb. Tom sneaks off to Ellie's, where he is awkward and repulsed by her slatternly ways. He tries to kiss her, but after he pulls away, she recalls his nickname and shouts "Sister Boy" at him. Tom breaks down, grabbing a knife from her kitchen drawer to attempt suicide. Ellie screams out to her neighbors, who call the campus police, and Tom is arrested. The next day, the campus hears the story of Tom's humiliation, and although Herb is at first proud of his son, when he learns that Tom pulled away from Ellie, he crumples in grief. Laura, overcome with sadness and anger, tells Bill in private that she blames him for bullying Tom by imposing a rigid definition of "manliness," and insists that real men can be gentle and considerate. She then declares that she is lonely and depressed and wishes she had helped Tom prove himself with her, after which Bill retorts that she wants to mother a boy rather than to love a man. When Laura asks why he refuses to let her love him, Bill storms off without reply. Laura looks for Tom in his room, only to discover a series of half-finished suicide notes. She searches the school grounds, finally locating him alone in the woods. There, Tom expresses his deep shame, and as Laura consoles him, her sympathy and loneliness cause her to reach out for him. As they kiss, she says, "Years from now, when you talk about this¿and you will¿be kind." In the present, Tom visits Bill, who now lives alone in the dorm apartment. Bill, still cold, gives Tom a letter he found among Laura's belongings. In the garden, Tom reads the letter she wrote to him stating that she appreciates the loving novel he wrote about their relationship, but feels that she sacrificed Bill for Tom, because the boy was easier to save than the marriage. Now sad and alone, Laura wishes Tom a full and understanding life, and assures him that, as he wrote in his book, "the wife always kept her affection for the boy."
Jacqueline De Wit
Richard [dickie] Tyler
Mary Alan Hokanson
Harry Harvey Jr.
Dale Van Sickel
Pandro S. Berman
Charles K. Hagedon
William A. Horning
Dr. Wesley C. Miller
Edwin B. Willis
Tea and Sympathy
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
Tea and Sympathy
Manliness is not all swagger and mountain climbing. It's also tenderness.- Laura Reynolds
Ever since then, I've been a sucker for girls in polo coats.- Tom Lee
I think I have one...- Laura Reynolds
Yes, I know.- Tom Lee
Years from now when you talk about this - and you will - be kind.- Laura Reynolds
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.
Released in United States Fall September 1956
Released in United States June 9, 1989
Shown at New York International Festival of Lesbian and Gay Film June 9, 1989.
Released in United States Fall September 1956
Released in United States June 9, 1989 (Shown at New York International Festival of Lesbian and Gay Film June 9, 1989.)