BOOTLEG FILES 464: “The Glass Menagerie” (1950 film starring Jane Wyman and Gertrude Lawrence).
LAST SEEN: The entire film is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A long-unavailable film version of a beloved play.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Someday, maybe.
Question: how can you screw up perfection? Answer: watch the 1950 film version of Tennessee Williams’ landmark play “The Glass Menagerie.”
Williams originally wrote “The Glass Menagerie” while he was under contract to MGM as a screenwriter. The screenplay was based on an unpublished short story and Williams felt it would be an ideal vehicle for Ethel Barrymore (in the role of the domineering mother Amanda) and Judy Garland (as the frail, disabled daughter Laura). However, the studio brass thought the story was too downbeat and was unwilling to cast musical star Garland in a dramatic part. MGM allowed Williams to retain the rights to the screenplay, and he worked to adapt it for a theatrical presentation.
“The Glass Menagerie” premiered on stage in Chicago in late 1944 and moved to Broadway in March 1945, where it created a sensation. While the brilliance of Williams’ writing was rightly celebrated, a great deal of the production’s success was due to the stunning performance by Laurette Taylor in the central role of Amanda. Taylor’s appearance on stage was one of the great comebacks in show business history – she was one of the theater’s reigning stars in the 1920s, but her career was derailed in the 1930s by alcoholism and she had been absent from Broadway since the 1938-39 run of “Outward Bound.”
MGM reportedly contacted Williams after the show’s Broadway run and tried to acquire the screen rights to “The Glass Menagerie” for $425,000, but Williams rejected the offer. Instead, he sold the rights to producer Charles K. Feldman for $150,000, for release through Warner Bros.
Unfortunately, problems arose almost immediately in regard to the film cast. Ideally, Taylor would have been allowed to repeat her stage triumph on screen, but she passed away four months after “The Glass Menagerie” concluded its Broadway run in 1946. Williams pushed anew for Ethel Barrymore as Amanda, but the Oscar-winning stage and screen legend was uncomfortable over the prospect of inheriting a role that became too-closely related to Taylor. Another stage legend, Helen Hayes, was also considered, but nothing came of this. Williams then tried to convince Feldman and co-producer Jerry Wald to consider Lillian Gish for the role of Amanda, but the producers were not interested in the one-time silent film star.
Since Feldman and Wald were working with Warner Bros., they assumed that the studio would allow their reigning diva, Bette Davis, to play Amanda. But the studio was eager to get Davis off their payroll and they refused to provide her with the plum role. Feldman and Wald managed to arrange a screen test for Tallulah Bankhead, but studio executives were uneasy about Bankhead’s reputation for heavy drinking and raucous partying, and she was passed over.
Instead, the role went to the least likely candidate: British actress Gertrude Lawrence. Lawrence had only made a handful of films and was better known as the star of musical comedy theater. Feldman and Wald put her through extensive screen tests, and they were surprised at the intensity she brought to her tests. Even Williams, who was not supportive of casting Lawrence, was caught off-guard by her tests and voiced his support. Lawrence was signed, while Jane Wyman – a Warner Bros. contract player who just scored an Oscar for her role in “Johnny Belinda” – was cast as Amanda. Rounding out the cast was stage and screen star Arthur Kennedy as Amanda’s brother Tom.
Almost immediately, things began to go awry. Lawrence was uncomfortable with her make-up and costuming, and she feared that audiences would imagine that she really looked like the disheveled character she was playing. At her insistence, a new scene was written that offered a flashback visualization of Amanda as a young belle being wooed by more than a dozen suitors at a fancy ball. But the 48-year-old Lawrence could not pull off the illusion of youth in that flashback, which made the entire scene ludicrous. It also didn’t help that Lawrence was unable to fasten her voice around a credible Southern accent. Instead, her voice swung all over the place, with an accent that occasionally dripped of Dixie but frequently betrayed her British roots.
Even worse, Lawrence and director Irving Rapper steered Amanda away from the poignancy of the theatrical version to a broad and exaggerated concept of a pushy mother. Bosley Crowther, reviewing the film for The New York Times, noted this bizarre interpretation in his review. “Where she should plainly be a woman of strangely pathetic gallantry – silly, confused and unendurable, yet eager for her children and always brave – Miss Lawrence and the screenplay make her a farcically exaggerated shrew with the zeal of a burlesque comedian to see her diffident daughter wed,” he wrote.
Rapper was also unhelpful in his direction of Wyman. At 32, the actress was too old to play Amanda, and the decision to saddle her with an oversized blonde wig did not fool anyone into thinking this mature (and, quite frankly, movie-star gorgeous) woman was a timid and retiring young adult. As Amanda’s long-suffering brother, the 35-year-old Kennedy was also too old for his role. He steamrolled his way through the part with little care for Williams’ poetic dialogue, and many of his line readings are just plain awful – his confrontational scenes with Lawrence are truly embarrassing. In comparison, the only natural presence belonged to up-and-coming actor Kirk Douglas, who offers the right degree of oleaginous charm as the “gentleman caller” whose visit is meant to instill confidence in the shy Laura.
But perhaps the greatest insult was Warner Bros.’ insistence to tack on a happy ending that suggested Laura would find true love by a new boyfriend – and, by extension, Amanda would be gratified to know her daughter found a soul mate. This happily-ever-after coda came out of nowhere and was nothing less than ridiculous. Although Williams shared screenplay credit with Peter Berneis, he disassociated himself from the film and berated the new ending. “They managed to botch it all up,” he lamented. “It was a mess.”
Indeed, no one was happy with “The Glass Menagerie.” Warner Bros. kept the film on the shelf for nearly a year before releasing it. Most critics zeroed in on Lawrence’s miscasting as the fatal flaw, but movie audiences were unimpressed on the entire endeavor and stayed away from its release. For no clear reason, 20th Century Fox acquired the rights for a 1959 re-release, but that was also a box office flop.
The belief that “The Glass Menagerie” was such a mess may have contributed to the numerous remakes that followed: three radio versions during the 1950s (including a 1954 production with Jane Wyman revisiting the role of Laura), two made-for-television productions (a 1966 version starring Shirley Booth and a 1973 version with Katharine Hepburn), a 1989 theatrical release directed by Paul Newman and starring Joanne Woodward, plus a 2004 Indian film version and a 2011 Iranian film version.
To date, the 1950 film has never been commercially available in any home entertainment format. The full version is available in an unauthorized YouTube posting, although this presentation has a few moments where the sound and picture inexplicably disappear.
In a weird post-script, the failure of “The Glass Menagerie” helped to change film history. Gertrude Lawrence’s experience in Hollywood during the film’s production was so unsatisfactory that she wanted to remain on stage. As a result, she rejected an offer to play Margo Channing in the film “All About Eve.” As everyone knows, the role of Margo went to Bette Davis, who was prevented from playing Amanda. “All About Eve” turned into the biggest film release of 1950, and Davis (whose career had hit the skids after being dropped by Warner Bros.) rode this triumph to one of the greatest comebacks this side of…well, this side of Laurette Taylor!
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