The screen version of “The Glass Menagerie,” directed by Irvin Rapper for Warner, in 1950, is the first and arguably the weakest films to be made out of Williams’s rich theatrical work. The movie was both an artistic and commercial flop.
For “The Glass Menagerie,” Tennessee Williams won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Over the years, it has remained one of the most frequently produced Williams play on stage, especially with amateur groups, which find it a suitable play for studying performance.
It’s a simple, but touching story, revolving around a small number of characters: a proud mother, a crippled introspective daughter, a discontented son, and a “gentleman caller,” which is the reason why each character is deeply and richly devised.
Assisted by Peter Berneis, Williams adapted the play to the big screen, and also was present as the movie was made.
The end result is a soft, perhaps too tastefully transferred play, a movie that still looks like a stage production.
Despite exterior scenes in various locations, Rapper doesn’t succeed in opening the play up satisfyingly, though he is more effective in staging the intimate indoor scenes.
The tale is largely set within a small, shabby apartment, in a tenement district of St. Louis, where Amanda Wingfield (played by Gertrude Lawrence) resides with her two children.
We learn that her hubby, a telephone man, “fell in love with long distance” and has deserted her and the family. As a younger woman, Amanda was a southern belle. Besieged by “gentlemen callers, but, alas, now in middle-age she has hard time paying the bills, based on the meager income earned by her son Tom (Arthur Kennedy), a warehouse man who hates his job and find solace in writing poetry as an escape.
Though a woman of vitality, Amanda has become a nagging, slightly pretentious mom, hounding her children to aspire higher than their station and improve on their lot.
While Tom bristles at the nagging, Laura (Jane Wyman) all together withdraws from reality, finding comfort in her “glass menagerie,” a collection of glass figurines, and in listening to music on the old phonograph.
Amanda tries to enroll Laura in a secretary school, but the frightened, insecure girl lasts only one day and only one lesson. Her mother than resolves that if Laura cannot make her own way, she must find a husband to support her and to that extent puts pressure on son Tom to bring home one of his mates from work.
Tom brings Jim O’Connor (the young Kirk Douglas0, a seemingly nice and ordinary man. Unsuspecting, Amanda makes preparations for Jim’s visit, spending the little money she has on decorating the apartment, and setting the scene for a romantic evening—she hopes.
When Jim arrives, Laura immediately recognizes him as the handsome boy she had secretly loved in high school. The two youngsters sit alone in the living room, while Jim tries to engage the shy, gentle, vulnerable girl. He flatters her, proving to her that she can dance—if she tries and wants. He even takes her to a dance hall and insists that she dances with him in public, not to mention granting her her very first kiss.
At first, Jim doesn’t realize that in trying to help Laura, he has gone too far, and now the girl is madly in love with him. But then afraid to hurt her further, he tells her that he is actually engaged.
Laura is crushed, and Amanda rebukes Tom for bringing home an engaged man, berating him for “making up dreams” and “manufacturing illusions,” which is exactly what she has been doing for years.
This is the last straw for Tom, who asks for his sister’s forgiveness before leaving home for good and going to sea—as he had long dreamed to do. In a montage, we see Tom in various ports, “attempting to find in motion what was lost in space.”
However, later on Laura realizes that Jim had actually helped her to get rid of her shyness and that having a lame leg is not the permanent handicap she had thought.
At the end, Laura has become a more confident young woman. Sitting on the fire escape with her mom, she’s awaiting the arrival of another “gentleman caller,” or as Tennessee Williams put hit poetically, “the long delayed but always expected something that we live for.”
Occasionally, the film is warm, compelling, and touching, but there is no escape from the feeling that we are stilled watching a play on the big screen.
Both Kirk Douglas and Jane Wyman might have been too old to play their parts; Douglas was 34, and Wyman, who is supposed to be in her late teens, was 36
Wyman, cast in the movie right after winning the Best Actress Oscar for “Johnny Belinda,” in which she plays a deaf-mute girl who’s raped, has some good moments as the delicate, timid, touchingly vulnerable Laura.
So does Arthur Kennedy, then both a stage and screen actor, as the anguished and conflicted long-suffering Tom.
As the outsider, whose presence affects all three members of the family, Douglas acquits himself honorably (but no more) as the decent-minded working-class lad who walks into a situation innocently, and in the process learns something about himself.
Main problem is the (mis)casting of Gertrude Lawrence, the popular British actress, and not just because of her failure to convey an authentic southern accent.
Production values are modest as befit the work’s intimate scale. Max Steiner’s gentle brooding score contributes greatly to establishing the film’s wistful, melancholy tone.
The weakest aspect of the films based on Tennessee Williams’ plays is their direction, or more specifically, the inability of most filmmakers to find a proper cinematic form for his highly stylized works.
Laura (Jane Wyman)
Jim (Kirk Douglas)
Amanda (Gertrude Lawrence)
Tom (Arthur Kennedy)
Mendoza (Ralph Sanford)
Clerk (Ann Tyrrell)
Woman Instructor (Gertrude Graner)
Produced by Jerry Wald and Charles K. Feldman
Directed by Irving Rapper
Screenplay: Tennessee Williams and Peter Berneis, based on Williams’ play
Camera (b/w): Robert Burks
Editing: David Weisbart
Art Director: Robert Haas
Score: Max Steiner