Long Hot Summer, The (1958): Martin Ritt’s Small-Town Melodrama, Starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Lee Remick

In the small-town melodrama, The Long Hot Summer, the anti-hero Ben Quick, played by Paul Newman in a star-making performance, ultimately becomes the legit hero.

Described as the “meanest and lowest creature,” Ben is charged with burning barns, but there is no proof of it. Forced to leave town, he is an outsider who needs to begin a new life, not unlike the hero (William Holden) of “Picnic” (1955).

Grade: B (***1/2* out of *****)

The Long, Hot Summer
The Long, Hot Summer.jpg

Theatrical release poster

The town of Frenchman’s Bend is dominated by Varner, a powerful man by virtue of his size, energy, land, and businesses. A shrewd monster with a gargantuan appetite for life, Varner owns the whole town: the cotton gin, the hardware store, the gas station, and the general store. He introduces himself as “the justice of the peace and election commissioner, a farmer, a money lender, and a veterinarian.”

“Our town is the most nowhere place in the whole state of Mississippi,” Eula (Lee Remick), Varner’s daughter-in-law, says, “It laces you in as tight as a corset.” There is not much to do, or as Eula puts it: “As far as social amusements, there are “none.” For entertainment, the girls go to Jefferson for shrimp and a movie, but there aren’t enough men to go around. The ideal for women, as Agnes says, is to “rush home and get dinner for some big handsome man, and put kids in a bathtub.”

Clara (Joanne Woodward), Varner’s daughter, is a nervous woman, and “mighty finicky” about her reputation as a teacher. She is more romantic and optimistic than Agnes, determined to wait “so long as my good looks and sweet temper hold out.” Clara feels that, “the last, desperate resort is strangers,” but “we haven’t come to that yet.” The film, however, shows otherwise, that there is a great urgency of the town (and the South) in finding strangers to redeem it.

As in other films, one-parent families represent the norm, and the young protagonists suffer from “parental problems.” Ben has never been able to disassociate himself from his infamous barnburner father, whom he has not seen since he was ten but still hates. His counterpart, Jody Varner (Anthony Franciosa), has also been unable to free himself from his domineering father, and Clara gave up on her father when she was nine. Both children feel ambivalent about their father. “I’m all mixed up inside as regards that man,” says Jody (bearing a name that is more typically a woman’s name). And the virginal Clara knows that her father hates “skinny women and unmarried women” and she is both.

Clara’s father has been scaring off all her suitors. The current one, Alan Stewart (in Picnic, the name of Madge’s rich fianc was also Alan), is a mama’s boy; his mother is always concerned he doesn’t eat or sleep enough. Slim, weary, and pale, Alan suffers from inferiority complex. Going out with Alan is “like eatin’ supper with a first cousin.” Aware of her loneliness, Clara tells Alan: “Girls get fidgety and talked about and looked at sideways, when they don’t have gentlemen callers.” When this doesn’t help, she confronts him more directly: “Do you want me the way a man wants a woman” But his reply, “I want to help you,” both disappoints and embarrasses her.

Varner is also impatient with Alan, demanding to know, “Do we get the major part of your attention” When Alan explains that his widow-mother relies on him, Varner bursts out, “Widow, hell! Your old man ain’t dead, he just disappeared.”

Varner is jealous of the Stewarts, because, as Clara says, “quality is the one thing he can’t buy, and he knows it.” Every conversation between Varner and Clara runs along the same lines; he reminds her that her mother was 18 when she got married. “Where’s my crop” insists the insensitive father, “What follows me” Warner wants “a long line with my blood in their veins.” “Have you mingled Or did you keep to your room readin’ poetry all this time” Jabbing his finger at her, Varner says: “Time, Clara! Time’s passing!” Varner is determined to get some “strong, strappin’ men to feed iron into this family’s veins.” When he mentions Ben–“that big, stud horse”–as a candidate, Clara protests that he is selling her with no regard for her feeling.” Mistrusting his son’s business instincts, Varner tells Jody: “I’m a stronger man than you are, still, I’m a better man than you are still”; Jody has heard the same speech ever since he was six years old. A weakling who indulges in sex, Jody is immature and lacks ambition. “I love women, too,” says his father, “but I took time out to build this place and leave my mark.” It is the kind a business that “you don’t “never give it a rest.” “Where do you go looking for it, Poppa,” asks Jody helplessly, “if you ain’t got it in you” Upset about the business deal with Ben, Varner puts the latter to test: if he sells the wild horses he will become a partner.

Gradually, Varner comes to respect Ben, even learns a lesson from him. Varner admits that Ben’s “style, brass, and push,” are not dissimilar from the way he operates. Indeed, “free as a bird,” Ben sees the town as “full of possibilities.” With wits, intelligence, and hard work, he progresses from a store clerk to its owner. As his name indicates, Ben Quick is fast and efficient. “One minute we’re pickin’ him up on Highway 47,” says Eula, “and the next he’s drinkin’ wine out of your momma’s old French crystal glasses.” As in Baby Doll, the Old South is losing its privileged position to the new, upwardly mobile class. The critic Bruce Kawin charged the screenwriters for misinterpreting Faulkner’s black comedy about materialistic success, turning it instead into “a Horatio Alger bedtime story.” True, in the end, it is Ben who imparts Varner new strategies about how to conduct successful business operations.

Like Peyton Place, the film takes a therapeutic approach to its problems, affirming its belief in direct confrontation. When Mrs. Stewart claims that her boy doesn’t need “any traffic” with Varner, he tells her he doesn’t want the community to know his daughter has been “jilted” by her “sissy son.” Agnes also rebels against her domineering mother, “transporting” out of town. She is going to New York, she says, “to study yoga for peace of mind, drink a lot of malted milks to extend my figure, and buy some black underwear to see what happens.” At 28, she is given to anemia and fainting spells, which the family doctor has diagnosed as “purely and simply a case of frustration.” When Clara asks Ben for aspirin, he says, “I don’t have headaches myself, because I don’t have problems.”

Like Cary’s headaches in “All That Heaven Allows,” Agnes’s anemia and Clara’s headaches derive from sexual repression. The film also makes strong associations between fire (burning barns) and sexual desire, a recurrent motif in such films (Beyond the Forest, Splendor in the Grass). Ben, the sexual stud, is charged with barn burning (“Flame follows him around like a dog!”) and, in a weak moment, the sexually-hungry Jody sets his father’s barn on fire.

Clara thinks that Ben is like her father, “one wolf recognizes another.” “The world belongs to the meat eaters,” says Ben, “if you’ve got to take it raw, take it raw.” He pokes fun at her way of life: “You sit on your side porch with your skinny little friend drinking lemonade–and that’s that. You’re 23–those are the golden years–and you’re being asked to play a waiting game.” Ben is beyond gossip, though he is aware that people will talk if Clara marries “a dirt-scratchin,’ shiftless, no-good farmer, who just happened by.” “Let them talk,” he tells Clara, “But you’ll wake up mornings smiling.” Varner is “a man of purpose,” single-mindedly committed to “the survival of the family name,” for which purpose he will use “whatever instrument happens to be at hand.” “Who says marriages are made in heaven,” Varner tells Ben.

Reflecting dominant ideology of the 1950s, marriage is also perceived as an economic transaction by Minnie Littlejohn (Angela Lansbury), Varner’s mistress. Minnie resents him for keeping her “hidden and put away, like a wool blanket in the summer.” Varner has been good to her. Minnie has a pearl necklace, Zenith radio-TV combination, Hoover vacuum cleaner, but it is not enough–she wants to get married. Holding that “women have to stand up for themselves,” Minnie takes care of the wedding arrangements herself: setting a date, ordering a six-layer cake.

In the end, the rule of the patriarch is maintained through the new equilibrium of the three relationships: Eula and Jody achieve maturity, and two new marriages are underway.

Ensemble of Stars

Joanne Woodward ended up marrying her co-star Newman, whom she had met several years earlier in the N.Y. theater (while Newman was married)

Newman met director Martin Ritt as a student at the Actors Studio, where Ritt was a teacher-assistant for Elia Kazan. Newman, who was under a contract with Warner, was loaned to 20th Century Fox for a fee of US$75,000. His contract earned him US$17,500 for each ten-week shot.

He traveled to Clinton, Louisiana, before the shoot to study the mannerisms, accent and speech of Southern men in order to create an authentic characterization.

Welles’ character was inspired by Big Daddy Pollitt from Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  He agreed to take the role due to tax debt of US$150,000; he stated years later, “I hated making Long Hot Summer. I’ve seldom been as unhappy in a picture.”

Credits

Produced by Jerry Wald.

Directed by Martin Ritt.

Screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., based on two stories, “Barn Burning” and “The Spotted Horses,” and part of the novel The Hamlet, all by William Faulkner.

Director of Photography, Joseph La Shelle, A.S.C.

Art Direction, Lyle R. Wheeler and Maurice Ransford. Music by Alex North, conducted by Lionel Newman.

Song “The Long Hot Summer,” by Sammy Cahn and Alex North.

Film Editor, Louis R. Loeffler.

CinemaScope. Color by Deluxe.

Color Consultant, Leonard Doss.

Running time: 115 minutes.

Release date: April 3, 1958

Budget $1.5 million
Box office $3.5 million (US/Canada rentals)

Cast

Paul Newman as Ben Quick

Orson Welles as Will Varner

Joanne Woodward as Clara Varner

Anthony Franciosa as Jody Varner

Lee Remick as Eula Varner.

Angela Lansbury as Minnie Littlejohn

Richard Anderson as Alan Stewart

Sarah Marshall as Agnes Stewart

Mabel Albertson as Elizabeth Stewart

J. Pat O’Malley as Ratliff

William “Bill” Walker as Lucius

Francis Sibley as the bass player in the band

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