As an animal lover, Judge George Hatch genuinely sympathizes with Lola, but her damn pooch has been missing for only four months. He's spent over 50 years shouting, "Shane! Come back, Shane!" and still waits for this cowboy's return.
"I dreamt about Little Sheba again last night, Doc. I put her on a leash to take her downtown and everybody on the street turned around to look at her. I was so proud. We started walking…and then the blocks started going by so fast, poor Little Sheba couldn't keep up with me. I looked around and she was gone. I looked everywhere, but I couldn't find her."—Lola Delaney
Watching this film version of William Inge's play, Come Back, Little Sheba, it's easy to see why Shirley Booth won five Best Actress awards for her heart-rending portrayal of Lola Delaney. Lola is the sweet, slovenly, but loyal wife of an alcoholic who can't find it within himself to express his love in return. It's an emotionally complex role, easily on a par with Tennessee Williams's Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Alexandra Del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth. Shirley Booth placed her personal stamp on Lola Delaney, elevating both the actress and the character to iconic status.
Facts of the Case
Doc Delaney (Burt Lancaster) is a chiropractor trying to reestablish his practice and reputation, both of which were destroyed by a serious bout with alcoholism. He hasn't had a drink in over a year. In addition to his own Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Doc is a regular volunteer in the Twelfth Step of AA's recovery program. It's the most important step, he says, "because most alcoholics are disappointed men, and I can help them." As a token of his own resolve, Doc keeps a bottle of whiskey in the kitchen cabinet, and the seal has yet to be broken. He's also on call at the City Hospital in the event that the police drag in any skid row denizens on their last wobbly legs. Doc maintains a strict, positive attitude of "forgetting the past so you can live in the present and keep moving ahead." Rebuilding his career day by the day, and supporting others at night, Doc has little time to spend at home with his wife, Lola.
Lola, on the other hand, rarely leaves the house. She sits around all day in a shabby robe, dwelling on the past, a time when she used to be "so pretty and popular." She had no idea she was going to "get old and fat and sloppy." But "those years just vanished into thin air," much like her dog, Little Sheba, who disappeared a few months earlier. Lola decides to help out with expenses by renting an extra room to Marie Buckholder (Terry Moore), a young college art student. Doc doesn't like the idea, but he's charmed by the girl's innocence. Marie would rather have Lola's sewing room because "it's more like an artist's studio." Doc agrees without even asking his wife because, as he says, "It's my house." The sewing room was Lola's escape to better times, but, as always, she takes its loss in stride, kowtowing to Doc's decision.
Although Marie plans in the future to marry her well-heeled boyfriend, she's also a little flirt; she takes up with the local ladies' man, Turk Fisher (Richard Jaeckel). Doc is well aware of Turk's reputation and despises the boy because "he's too coarse for her." When Doc comes home for lunch and finds Turk in shorts, posing for Marie, he tosses him out. Lola insists, "He's a nice boy. And he was just helping Marie study for her schoolwork." Doc reluctantly concedes, warning Lola, "If anything happens to that girl, I'll never forgive you."
The Delaneys' relationship is more than polite; it's strictly formal. Doc calls Lola "Honey" and "Baby," but his words are empty and without passion. Lola dotes on him hand and foot, trying to rekindle his emotions, but earns only a perfunctory peck on the cheek at best. Repressed guilt and resentment plague their marriage. Doc has found an outlet with his dedication to help other alcoholics find their way back—that bottle in the kitchen is his grip on reality, representing the "one-day-at-a-time" mantra of alcoholics. (Keep in mind: There are no "ex-alcoholics.") Lola, however, can't quite cope, and she's caught between two worlds: the present, which she rejects by not cleaning house or even combing her hair, and a past that she's desperately trying to recapture.
When Lola asks Doc, "Are you sorry you married me?" he says, "Of course not." She reiterates her question, "Doc, are you sorry you had to marry me?" And here lies the guilt and the resentment. Lola was a beautiful and popular young woman who dated a lot of men, but swears she had premarital sex only once, and it was with Doc. He believes her, but they had to marry because, "You can't defy convention…or the laws of God." They both feel the shame and guilt of a forced marriage, and Doc detests his present situation: "But I can't give up because I made a few mistakes." He's a chiropractor, but had plans of being a medical doctor. "When my family died and left me all that money, I could have gone back to school—instead of drinking it all away. We could have had a new house, friends, comforts. Maybe we could have adopted a family since you couldn't have any more children." Lola is the logical extension of Doc's resentment, and a daily reminder of the "mistakes" that ruined his present and future life.
Lola bears only the burden of guilt, but it's too heavy an emotional load for her to handle. When Doc is at home, he makes no demands at all; but Lola tries to anticipate his smallest need. Being a true gentleman, Doc still opens doors for her, but she always insists that he go first. All the little things Lola that does for him are gestures of apology; so, in a way, she's also a slave to the past. But she prefers to block out the bad memories and focus on the good times instead. She's very proud of Doc's noble fight against alcoholism, but her supportive comments carry a double edge. "I remember the way you used to be, Daddy, always drunk and getting into fights. I was always so scared. I never knew what was going to happen." Doc, of course, appreciates her pride in his recovery, but internally he fumes because those are days best left forgotten. Lola's support is matched by her darker fear of Doc's violent outbursts, should he go on another binge. He's never physically touched her, but his words have broken her heart: "Please, Daddy, I wish you'd hit me instead of saying those terrible things." (Powerful stuff coming from 1951.)
When Marie rents the room and enters their lives, Lola sees her as an image of the girl she once was. Doc feels fatherly and protective, because Marie could be the child they never had, now blossoming into womanhood. It may be interpreted as an obliquely incestuous remark when Doc tells Lola, "She must spend a fortune on bath powders and salts. The bathroom smells like a lilac factory." Even Turk tells Marie, "That Delaney hates my guts. I think he's just jealous and has a crush on you." But Doc had a strict religious upbringing, and such feelings would "defy convention and the laws of God." I believe Doc looks at Marie as a daughter, and also as the younger and prettier version of the Lola he remembers. He ties Marie to his past in two scenes. After he kicks Turk out of her studio, he wants to know why she's sketching a half-naked man instead of "flowers…or a cathedral at sunset." At another point, Doc encourages Marie's artistic talents and goals by telling her about a favorite painting in his parents' home. "It was a picture of a cathedral at sunset." Doc, himself, is now reveling in the past and mentions the famous medical school he attended. Marie knows, "It's to medicine what Harvard is to law! Why'd you stop going?" That question jolts him back to the present, and you can see the remorse on his face.
When Doc is away, Marie likes to play with the Turk, or rather "toy" with him. She's a real tease, taunting him to steal a kiss or cop a feel. Then she pushes him off, saying, "I think we should make it a point once in a while to just talk…about philosophy, politics or religion." The predatory Turk says, "How about sex?" While these two canoodle, Lola secretly watches from the kitchen, vicariously reliving her past. Doc soon notices Turk is spending entirely too much time with Marie. Lola defends his presence by saying, "I think it's the sweetest time in life. It makes me feels young again." Doc is appalled and infuriated. "You watch them? I suppose you peek through the keyhole and applaud!"
There's a lot of tension brewing in the Delaney household, and the conflicts among these four characters explode into vehement confrontations. But whatever happened to Little Sheba—Lola's pooch who hasn't been mentioned in over an hour? Well, you never really get to see the mutt, because Sheba is an all-too-obvious metaphor for Lola's past. Toward the end of the film, Lola tells Doc about another dream she had about her dog, and it conveniently offsets the one I condensed in The Charge. It's overtly symbolic, and attaches a bright, "feel-good" bow on top of an otherwise grimly realistic package. So let's take a look at the film from a "symb-plistic" point of view.
A flower motif follows up Doc's mention of Marie's lilac scent. One of Lola's few contacts with the real world is her next-door-neighbor, Mrs. Coffman, who is seen trimming her rose bushes, keeping them alive and flourishing on a day-to-day basis. Doc is handling his fight with alcoholism with the same "one-day-at-a-time" resolve. Mrs. Coffman has always viewed Lola as a "good-for-nothing who sits around all day, never even shaking a dust mop." When Lola invites her in to see the elaborate dinner table she's set for Marie and her soon-to-arrive beau, Bruce, there is an elaborate floral centerpiece on the table. Mrs. Coffman says, "It looks like you've done all your spring cleaning in one day!" and notes that Lola has set a fine table. Lola herself has doffed her shabby robe and is wearing a gaudy dress patterned with large flowers. Both the floral arrangement and the dress indicate Lola is trimming away her past and trying to adjust to the present.
Marie is sketching a poster for a college sports event, and has asked Turk to assume the classic pose of a javelin thrower. Marie wants to see as much of Turk's muscular body as possible without "going all the way." Turk has no problem stripping down to his athletic shorts and showing off, but he'd like Marie to get an idea of what's inside those shorts. He's empty-handed and isn't holding a real javelin, so he asks for a prop. Lola "overhears" their conversation and rushes in with a broom to help boost his confidence in front of Marie—and regenerate her own fantasies. You can't miss the decidedly phallic implications in this scene once Turk grabs that broom, leans back, and proudly points that broom handle toward the ceiling. Like Tennessee Williams (The Rose Tattoo), playwright William Inge employed either subtle or sledgehammer symbolism—both writers were praised or condemned as to how they used it. The flowers and javelin can easily slip by, but Little Sheba herself clobbers you over the head. It's Shirley Booth's emotional delivery of her dream monologues, and the melancholy expression on her face that really sells these overwrought lines—and breaks your heart at the same time.
Director Daniel Mann apparently typecast Shirley Booth, because he chose her for the lead in two of his follow-up films: About Mrs. Leslie (1954), centered around landlady thriving on nostalgia; and Hot Spell (1958), a turgid melodrama full of domestic crises. "Domestic" is an interesting word here, because Booth is probably best remembered for Hazel, a TV sitcom that ran for six years during the early 1960s. Hazel was a simple maid who influenced the lives of the Baxter family with off-the-cuff but sagely advice. Hazel also made Booth a two-time Emmy winner. Hopefully, this DVD release of Come Back, Little Sheba will give people a chance to see Shirley Booth in the role of a lifetime.
The other performances are also outstanding. Some critics said Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry) was miscast and too young for the role of Doc. The gray touch-ups in his hair helped to age him a bit, but I thought he did an excellent job of portraying Doc with restrained and detached dignity. When all those years of pent-up resentment finally shatter that demeanor, Lancaster blisters the screen with threatening physical moves, while spewing the cruelest accusations at Lola. Terry Moore (Peyton Place) got a Best Supporting Actress nod for her role as Marie Buckholder. She, too, delivers a dual personality: the innocent young college girl Doc feels obligated to protect; and the little coquette, taunting Turk with promises she has no intention of fulfilling. Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen), best known for his Western and war films, handles Turk with all of the sexual aggression of a 1950s teenager, and the frustration of not being able to chalk up another conquest. Lisa Golm (Possessed) is the only other significant character, playing Lola's neighbor, Mrs. Coffman. It's through her that we learn more about the changes in Lola's life. In only a few short scenes, Golm beautifully turns Mrs. Coffman's initial indifference (even disgust) toward Lola into a "Good girl! Pat-on-the-back" amazement at Lola's sudden grip on reality, and she takes the viewer along with her.
After the successful stage and screen versions of Come Back, Little Sheba, William Inge was expected to share the mantle as one of America's greatest living playwrights, along with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Picnic earned Inge a Pulitzer Prize in 1953, and, in 1962, he picked up an Oscar for his original screenplay for Splendor in the Grass. Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs were successful and critically acclaimed, but Inge's later work failed to draw audiences. He felt he was losing touch, and no longer had intimacy with the characters he'd previously brought to life. He became crippled by depression, and committed suicide in 1977. Inge was a master at capturing the mindset of small-town America, so I wasn't surprised to see that cinematographer James Wong Howe (Hud) did the masterful camerawork for Come Back, Little Sheba. Howe shot Kings Row (1942), another small-town film so controversial for its time that Warner Bros. delayed its release for almost a year. (I'm still waiting for the DVD release of this one!)
Come Back, Little Sheba was director Daniel Mann's first film, and he does an excellent job of working around the inherent staginess that often overtakes screen adaptations of one-set theatrical productions. He "opens up" the play only a few times: Lola in the backyard with Mrs. Coffman; Marie and Turk jitterbugging in some juke joint; and Doc walking Marie to school. Mann proved himself adept crossing genres from comedies such as Our Man Flint to horror films like Willard.
Paramount's DVD is amazingly sharp with excellent contrast. In fact, it's so good you will easily spot the few day-for-night scenes. Long shadows follow certain characters, indicating filming took place in the late afternoon rather than the dead of night. I found no noticeable flaws in the transfer, and the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo renders the dialogue crisp and clear. Except for a few trailers, there are no extras.
Come Back, Little Sheba is pure small-town Americana. The people are middle-class; the story is simple; but emotions run deep. There was a 1977 television production of Come Back, Little Sheba that starred Laurence Olivier and Joanne Woodward. Unfortunately, there was never a home video release, because I'd love to have had the chance to compare the leads. As it now stands, no one can step into Lola's shoddy slippers or don her ratty robe. Shirley Booth is, and forever will be, Lola Delaney.
Not (sniff, sniff) guilty! Grab a box of hankies and pop this one into your DVD player.
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