Come Back, Little Sheba (1952): Sappy Melodrama with Oscar Winning Performance by Shirley Booth

William Inge’s play, “Come Back, Little Sheba,” which won the George Jean Nathan Award, opened on Broadway on February 15, 1951 and ran for 190 performances. A year later, it was transferred to the big screen by Ketti Frings, who adapted the play, and Daniel Mann, who directed.

Using the paradigm of the outsider, the film starts when a young female student (Terry Moore) takes lodging with a childless couple, showing how her presence precipitates identity and marital crises.

Doc (Burt Lancaster, poorly miscast) and Lola (Shirley Booth) Delaney are a lonely middle-aged couple living a monotonous and wistful life in a commonplace middle-class home. A once-attractive woman (some say a vamp), Lola has turned into a lazy and frumpy housewife, whose highlight of the day is a brief conversation with the postman.

The self-pitying Lola still laments Sheba, her lost dog, which signifies her youth, beauty, and practically everything positive in her life. For his part, abusing his wife, Doc resents the fact that she had trapped him into marriage (under a false alarm of pregnancy), forcing him to forsake his medical studies.

Locked in a sexless marriage, Doc has become a weakling and alcoholic; his eager interest in their sexy lodger reflects his repressed sexuality and frustrated emotions. A violent climax, with Doc threatening Lola with a knife, leads to a (contrived) resolution, and the end suggests, unconvincingly, that the Delaneys may regain their self-respect and achieve a new balance in their marriage.

The overly sentimental Come Back, Little Sheban contains themes–the primacy of passion and the price of repressed sexuality–that recur in most of William Inge’s works, such as Picnic and Splendor in the Grass, both of which were made into successful movies (the former by Joshua Logan; the latter by Kazan).

Nominated for three Oscars: Actress (Shirley Booth), Supporting Actress (Terry Moore), and Editing (Warren Low), the film won the lead acting award for Booth.

Oscar Nominations: 3

Actress: Shirley Booth

Supporting Actress: Terry Moore

Editing: Warren Low

Oscar Awards: 1

Actress

Cast

Doc Delaney (Burt Lancaster)

Lola Delaney (Shirley Booth)

Marie Buckholder (Terry Moore)

Turk Fisher (Richard Jaeckel)

Ed Anderson (Philip Ober)

Mrs. Goffman (Lisa Golm)

Bruce (Walter Kelley)

Credits

Produced by Hal B.Wallis

Directed by Daniel Mann

Screenplay: Ketti Frings, based on the play by William Inge

Camera (b/w): James Wong Howe

Editor: Warren Low

Music: Franz Waxman