Wednesday, November 6, 2013

TCM Star of the Month November 2013: Burt Lancaster

Now that we're in the first full week of a new month, we get a new Star of the Month on TCM, which in this case is four Wednesdays (actually, into the morning hours on Thursday) of movies starring Burt Lancaster. He might be best-remembered for making love to Deborah Kerr on the beach in From Here to Eternity, which is airing tonight at 11:45 PM. He also won the Best Actor Oscar for Elmer Gantry, which is airing next week. So this week, I'd like to mention a movie which seems to be out-of-print on DVD, which coincidentally is also one for which it's not Lancaster who is remembered: Come Back, Little Sheba, at 10:00 PM tonight.

Lancaster does get top billing, as "Doc". Twenty years ago, he was in medical school, but unfortunately, his relationship with Lola (Shirley Booth) took a wrong turn, and Doc was forced to marry Lola and drop out of medical school. Instead, he became a chiropractor, which at the time wasn't the most respectable branch of medicine out there, if it was considered real medicine at all. Doc dealt with having his dreams crushed by turning to the bottle, eventually becoming an alcoholic. But all that is in the past, as for the last year of so Doc has been attending AA meetings, which is where we are at the point the movie opens.

Lola, for her part, has a nearly meaningless existence, especially since the disappearance of her dog Sheba. She of course had to get married to Doc because she had gotten pregnant by him, but the pregnancy went wrong and left her without the ability to have any children. So, for the last 20 years, she's been trapped in a childless, and at times loveless, marriage. Lola wants something to brighten up her life, and so for a change of pace she's decided to rent out a room in their house to a college student -- bring in somebody fresh and bring in a few bucks. Doc doesn't like that at first, because he doesn't want the stress and the pangs to drink that such stress brings.

And then Doc sees the student to whom Lola is showing the house. That student is Marie (Terry Moore), who is studying art at the local college, and is the embodiment of young femininity. Marie gets Doc's juices flowing, even though it would be highly inappropriate for the two of them to have a relationship. Besides, Marie isn't in love with Doc; who other than Lola could be? Marie likes Bruce, a fellow college student, although she's also got another college man following her. Needless to say, all this gets Doc very jealous, and threatens to drive him back to the bottle.

Come Back, Little Sheba is one of those little movies that looks more as though it's just trying to be a character study in the lives of a couple of relatively ordinary people rather than anything grand. But as with a movie like Marty or The Catered Affair, a movie that tells its story about such people well rises above its apparent "little movie" status and becomes truly great. Thanks to the acting of Shirley Booth, Come Back, Little Sheba achieves that greatness. In some ways, Lola seems to be pathetic, what with her having no life and little to no prospects of a good life now that she's well into middle age. You'd think she would have retreated into the bottle, much like Joan Crawford's Mildred Pierce mentions at the beginning of the movie before the flashback that she's learned to drink over the last several months. But back in the early 1930s, when Lola would have gotten married, it wasn't as though there was a lot of opportunity for somebody with her social status and predicament. She's making the best of a bad situation, which isn't very much. Booth makes the character not particularly sympathetic -- you can easily see why Doc is so bitter -- but understandable. Doc, for his part, isn't particularly sympathetic either, what with his ogling Marie. Lancaster too does a good job with Doc; it's just that Booth is even better.

Come Back, Little Sheba isn't always an easy movie to watch, what with its dark themes of alcoholism and a couple that, as with the family in the recently-mentioned Primrose Path, would get the label "dysfunctional" had they been in the 1980s. But it's an extremely well-made movie, and one well worth watching. Amazon lists a couple of DVDs for sale, but they all seem to be out of print, and it's not available from the TCM Shop. This is a bit of a surprise considering that Booth won the Oscar for her portrayal of Lola, but some of the studios seem not to have any idea what to do with their old movies.

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