If ever there was a cinematic-dedicated sidebar to “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it,” it would have to be applied to the post-war fascination with America’s degenerate gentry from Dixie.
It’s easy to understand, since the country was rocked by the emergence of Tennessee Williams, specifically his groundbreaking shocker, A Streetcar Named Desire.
The slowly laxing censorship in Hollywood seemed an ideal time to test the waters – to see just how far one could go before being condemned by the Legion of Decency (to many, a badge of honor). For some reason storylines that would never have made it out of the studio readers’ mitts had they been set in New York, Chicago or L.A. seemed to be totally acceptable when transposed to the lazy, humid stomping grounds of Stanley Kowalski and Temple Drake. It was 20th Century-Fox to initially conclude that this was a new, bold way to mine box-office gold…and so began the unofficial down ‘n’ dirty The South Shall Writhe Again genre…or Droolin Drawlers As Per Zanuck of the North.
The first of these seamy steamy epics was 1949’s Pinky, originally assigned to John Ford. Ford got the job by way of The Grapes of Wrath. Fox should have re-screened Tobacco Road, as the embryonic rushes had Zanuck blow his cigar-chomping top. This sensitive story of a light-skinned black woman passing as white was shot like a Stepin Fetchit primer. Ford was instantly catapulted from the project, hastily replaced by Streetcar‘s Broadway director, Elia Kazan, who would soon helm the screen version of Williams’ play while concurrently fulfilling a new long-term Fox contract.
While Wonderbread Jeanne Crain essayed the African-American lead, it was authentic black actress Ethel Waters who dominated the proceedings. Two years later, she would play the surrogate matriarch in the movie adaptation of Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding, guiding tomboy Julie Harris through girlhood.
It’s important to mention Waters, as she more or less performs similar duties in Martin Ritt’s 1959 flick THE SOUND AND THE FURY, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.
While not the actual star of the picture, Waters does manage to remain the only dignified thespian in the show. THE SOUND AND THE FURY is based on the 1929 William Faulkner novel of the same name, but it is here that the printed word and celluloid imagery veer off – hoping to reap the rewards of the previous year’s smash, The Long, Hot Summer (culled from Faulkner’s Ben Quick stories) and the nation’s obsession with Tennessee Williams.
This deliberate attempt to have its cornpone and eat it too was concocted by Ritt and Long, Hot Summer screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. The movie stagnates like a swamp sandbar between the two authors’ styles and features a cast of characters just a smidgeon more conservative than the flesh-eating peckerwoods from the same studio’s later Wrong Turn franchise. These disgusting examples of humanity are admittedly and simultaneously repugnant, but, in a non-smell-o-vision environ, ever so entertaining.
To be fair, THE SOUND AND THE FURY doesn’t stop at Williams – it throws every cheap Southern cliché at the audience with the possible exception of Tallulah Bankhead. It even offers the Harper Lee prototype of the genre – the mentally-challenged Boo Radley character, essential to the modern stripped-naked South, here impersonated by an uncomfortable-looking Jack Warden.
McCullers’ Waters-Harris relationship is twisted by making the tomboy, now a blossoming woman, intent upon satiating her ever-pulsating hormones (the town of Yoknapatawpha County is accurately described as one constantly beset “…by Civil War and female disorders…”). This rebellious personification of estrogen with chitlins on the side is enacted by none other than Joanne Woodward. It’s a strange choice, since it follows the actress’ Oscar win in The Three Faces of Eve and her first mega-successful teaming as the nearing-thirty spinster in the aforementioned Long, Hot Summer. The reason I term it as strange is because Woodward’s Quentin Compson is supposed to be a high school teenager. Incredibly, her considerable emoting abilities almost pull this off. Quentin’s budding sexuality is enhanced by her sneaking off to the big city to watch the prostitutes. These nocturnal pubescent maneuvers promote an insidious strain of biological whorefare and cause nothing but grief for Waters and the patriarchal head of their decaying manse, Jason – played by Yul Brynner. Cajun Jason and his ho’ aged mother, upscale lowlife Francoise Rosay, have invaded the family by osmosis – Rosay previously having wed, bed and likely eaten the widowed Mr. Compson (think Margaret Dumont on goofballs). Inhabiting their allegorical decrepit plantation-style abode, the Compsons are Erskine Caldwell’s worst nightmare. Jason rules the roost with a cayenne fist, living large – while holding down a menial position at town-honcho sleazeball Earl Snopes’ emporium (Albert Dekker in the role he was destined for). Frankly, you know things are upside down and inside out by the mere fact that Brynner plays this part with a wig while drunken half-brother (and former leading man) John Beal goes double-take toupee-less.
Aside from the overt sexual shenanigans are the cringing racist rants, presided over by no less than Jason himself. As indicated earlier, Jack Warden is the local hands-big-as-hams tetched denizen; he’s also yet another Compson bro, reputedly made witless by his estranged slut sister Caddy’s cushion-pushin’ escapades. This further explains Woodward’s lusting for all things…well, woodward, as Caddy is also Quentin’s mother.
Warden’s constant companion is Luster, a diminutive African-American lad who serves as the giant’s tenuous connection to modern culture, hygiene and wearing shoes at the dinner table. Brynner refers to them as the Bear and the Monkey – a horrific epithet that can serve no useful purpose than to possibly get him elected to the current GOP House.
Quentin’s pole-y grail is realized with the arrival of the annual summer geek-fest carnival (Games, Thrills, Freaks heralds a banner – yet another parallel to Compson home life, as Jason refers to their impoverished clan as a menagerie).
Showcased within this touring company of pit-stained grunting Neanderthals is none other than Stuart Whitman, more hairy than ever and bearing the appropriate surname of Busch, subtly first seen straddling a gargantuan phallic-shaped ride. Soon he and the crawfish Kardashian are dry humping on the Compson porch – a lustful display made incredibly perilous, due to the approximately forty gallons of Whitman’s dripping hair tonic; that Quentin doesn’t fatally slide off the veranda remains a valiant and enviable nod to her balance and stamina.
Just when you thought that things couldn’t ever become more inappropriate – another zinger from left field is pitched by the arrival of the years-absent Caddy, apparently detoured to Yoknapatawpha County by the same streetcar named desire that deposited Blanche DuBois in New Orleans.
That the original Blanche came with a plethora of baggage is a given; this one comes with an additional ton – literally appended to 1951’s Leigh. Yup, it’s Margaret Leighton, another attractive aging British actress who no doubt played the Williams part “across the pond” forever. Leighton not only perfectly mimics Leigh’s UK-accentuated mint julep drawl, but wears the same makeup, blonde tresses and pathetic heart on her sleeve. The last word in floozy Southern belle ding-a-ling chic, Leighton’s Caddy soars way beyond Blanche DuBois and way beyond Vivien Leigh – emerging as a sort of uber skank hybrid, a veritable Harlot O’Hara, whose credo is nothing less than “tomorrow is another lay.” That Williams (or Leigh) didn’t sue Fox for plagiarism is astounding; I kid you not – Caddy even spouts too-close-for-comfort dialogue, shamefully exclaiming that during her absence she was “…cared for by the kindness of strangers.”
This outrageous plot device by Ritt, Ravetch and Frank is all the more jaw-dropping to Faulkner purists; in the book, Caddy Compson never appeared in real-time narrative; she was only discussed or revealed in flashbacks. The luckiest recipient of this blasphemous revision is Faulkner’s notorious scumbag Snopes, who gets to vigorously shag Leighton in an after-hours encounter at his store. While this certainly might constitute the movie’s ultimate “Meanwhile, back at the Blanche” moment – it isn’t the picture’s most OMG car-wreck sequence. This comes when Jason discovers Whitman’s dangling participle in the process of conjugating some of Quentin’s irregular verbs. Baiting him off the Compson premises (presumably by threatening him with a bottle of Vitalis), Brynner confronts Woodward in possibly one of the most lip-biting scenes in American cinema (or, at the very least, 1950s American cinema). Brynner, whose character has essentially been one of a father-figure to Woodward, decides to show her what a real man can do. He grabs the young woman, rubs up against her, kisses her long and firm on the lips, moaning-groaning…tongue-penetrating…etcetera, etcetera – leaving his “daughter” breathless.
The movie ends with Quentin’s narration suggesting that a whole new slew of exciting adventures await her. Um-hmmm…likewise Jason, perhaps moving from Quentin to San Quentin. Then again, this is the Hollywood South – where the old adage “breeding tells” takes a second place to “Yeah, but inbreeding sells.”
The problem with THE SOUND AND THE FURY, aside from the obvious, is that it trailed The Long, Hot Summer – in comparison a far more desirable foray into the works of Faulkner. There was no sense of decay and revulsion in the former; most relevantly, Summer was date-friendly. I mean, just consider the two casts: FURY (Brynner, Woodward, Leighton, Waters, Warden, Dekker) as opposed to Summer (Paul Newman, Woodward, Tony Franciosa, Lee Remick, Orson Welles, Angela Lansbury). Get what I’m saying?
Nevertheless THE SOUND AND THE FURY is snake-and-mongoose engrossing. In addition to Summer alumnus Ritt, Ravetch, Frank and Woodward, FURY also reunited producer Jerry Wald and composer Alex North. We must also note the stellar contribution of new-to-the-group d.p. Charles G. Clarke; his excellent CinemaScope photography, perfectly lends itself to Blu-Ray 1080p presentation. The digitally-restored (formerly faded) DeLuxe color is not only crystal clear, as indicative of the format, but eye-popping (to match the scenario’s eyebrow-raising). The 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio is another big plus, as it contains one of North’s finest scores. Since, like all Twilight Time titles, it is accessible as an IST (Isolated Score Track) filmmusic buffs may want to purchase this title just for the soundtrack. No foolin’, here’s an instance where the sound easily trumps the fury.
THE SOUND AND THE FURY is the ideal collectable home video release. Not that it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. Not by a long shot. But it’s unquestionably a bizarre obscurity from an infamously repressed period whose mores were about to explode into a freer yet equally ludicrous era. Also, it’s a title that the first time you see it you kind of are “Uggghh!” Truth be told, like so many of its characters, it sort of creeps up on you. And granted, in reference to the title’s source, it’s less of a tale told by an idiot than one encompassing a whole slew of them; indeed, the thought of movie Quentin and Caddy delving into Macbeth would probably never progress past page one and their giggly fantasies involving its author, specifically the shaking Willie’s spear…or any combination thereof. The acting and production, however, are of such high quality that the overall picture improves with repeated viewings. Believe me, the second and third time around, the flick becomes increasing more palatable. That said, you might just want to keep a tube of penicillin handy.
THE SOUND AND THE FURY. Color. [1080p High Definition; 2.35:1 CinemaScope]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio.
Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. Limited Edition of 3000; available exclusively through www.screenarchives.com. SRP: $29.95.