When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
Categories: Classic Film

In the book Intermission, Anne Baxter’s memoirs of leaving Hollywood — running away with her new husband to live on a ranch in the Australian bush — the first chapter finds Baxter in a pink bikini, relaxing on the sandy bank of a river near Sydney after completing her work on the movie SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL (released in the U.S. as SEASON OF PASSION), a film she describes as being about people who never grow up.

I had read her book, but knew nothing about the movie she described when I decided to catch it on cable last week.  The longer I watched it, the more I was engrossed in this movie’s uniqueness.  The characters, setting and dialog are all grounded in the kitchen-sink genre of theatre that came out of England in the early 1950s, dramatizing working-class folk who are unaware of their thoughts and feelings and their dreary circumstances.  Wiki states the play  SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL was a breakthrough drama of Australian realism, developed by Ray Lawler in a progressive Melbourne theatre group in the 1950s — the same theatre company that gave birth to Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna Everidge around the same time.  The play was exported to Broadway and the West End, was dramatized on the BBC, and was even made into a West German TV drama.  In the 1970s, the play’s author Ray Lawler wrote two prequels to the play, showing the same people eight and fifteen years before the curtain rose on the characters in SEVENTEENTH DOLL.

Good-Time Gal Anne Baxter welcomes Ernest Borgnine and John Mills to Sydney for their annual blow-out vacation from their farm work up north.

The play both gives an insider’s view into the workings of Australia’s urban working-class while delivering observations and emotions that are universal.  No wonder the play is revered globally.  Yet in its translation to cinema, the filmmakers made some alterations:  the locale is changed from Melbourne to Sydney which facilitated the ‘opening up’ of the play by shooting scenes at Bondi Beach and Sydney’s grand old amusement park, Luna Park.  Also a happy ending — that makes sense and doesn’t comes across as artificial — was added as a coda.

Angela Lansbury completes the quartet of gifted actors.

Angela Lansbury completes the quartet of gifted actors.

The film is a creation of Burt Lancaster’s production company, Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Productions.  As with the company’s other productions (MARTY, THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE, SEPARATE TABLES, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS) the film’s strengths are in performance and the literary qualities of the script.  The direction supports this, giving a gracious expanse to the actors and letting their lines be delivered in reasonably long takes.   SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL has some ‘theatrical’ qualities but never becomes ‘un-cinematic’ since the choices of camera lens, plus the beats and intentions of the staging and camera moves, furnish a subtle vocabulary to the emotions of the characters and a sustained filmic texture to the (basically) living-room drama.  [The “doll” in the title refers to the annual gift that Roo (Ernest Borgnine) brings Olive (Baxter) when his season of farmhand work is through and he shacks up and parties with her until it’s time to return to the farm.  They’ve had this agreement for 17 years and both characters are pushing forty.]

SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL was an unexpected treasure to come across:  great actors giving strong, intelligent performances in a unique story with remarkable dialog, brought to life with savvy direction.  It was a satisfying experience.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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