“In these trying times we live in, all that we have is to cling to each other.”
—— Amanda Wingfield
1950 was one of the better years in the wake of moviedom’s 1939 peak, mainly for three momentous films—Sunset Blvd., All About Eve and The Third Man. The Glass Menagerie, which also was released that year, is now generally forgotten, not because it was unfairly overshadowed by these three, but because it was never in their class, not at the time, not in critical retrospect. The first of Tennessee Williams’ plays to be filmed, it is the least remembered and the least thought of by the general public as typical of the playwright, who developed a penchant for darker, more sensational subject matter—hypochondria, impotency, homosexuality, promiscuity and nymphomania.
Menagerie launched a seventeen-year, eleven-work string of his best known, most often-filmed plays. Among them are six of the best literary/dramatic works of the twentieth century, able to stand alongside the greatest of any American playwright. The eighteen plays that followed in the next twenty-one years, however, were of lesser quality; even their titles seem less well-chosen, save one,The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More from 1963.
Unlike so many of Williams’ creations that are shrouded in a musty, decadent Southern milieu,The Glass Menagerie takes place in St. Louis, though often thought of as a “Southern” city. Still, even without the usual depressing Williams themes, the play emerges thoroughly Southern. It has the resonance of the playwright’s Southern background and hints of that gift for language and the creation of mood through dialogue alone, the backbone of the later plays.
For the flaws, phobias and foibles of his many characters—and they all seem to be flawed, either physically or mentally, or both—Williams drew upon traits from members of his immediate family, his mother, father and two siblings. And underlying this was his own personality, which became more and more dominant the longer he wrote.
As Williams said years later of his art, “All work is autobiographical if it’s serious. Everything a writer produces is his inner history, transposed into another time. I am more personal in my writing than other people . . . ”
Whatever its flaws, The Glass Menagerie is an enjoyable, easily watchable film, considering that new ground is being broken, the first Williams play to be filmed. Directed by Irving Rapper, it is artistically photographed by Robert Burks, sensitively acted by its four main players and nostalgically supported by Max Steiner’s low-key score.
Memories of Williams’ own memory—Menagerie is subtitled “A Memory Play”—surface in the character of Amanda Wingfield. Williams’ own mother, Edwina, was, as he saw her, a faded Southern belle living in the past, talkative, over-formal and possessive of her children.
Early in the film, Amanda instructs her grown son, Tom, in table etiquette: “Honey, don’t push your food with your fingers. Must push with something, push with this crust of bread. And chew your food.” When Tom is offended by his mother’s directive and rises from the table, she further admonishes him: “You’re not excused from the table.” When he says he’s going to get a cigarette, she says, “You smoke too much.”
Quite expectedly, of the four characters Amanda is central to the play. In the movie she is played by stage star Gertrude Lawrence in a rare screen appearance, hampered by an unreliable Southern accent. She has been unfavorably compared with Laurette Taylor who had appeared in the Broadway premiere in March, 1945, and, to many, remains the ideal Amanda.
Laura is her shy daughter (Jane Wyman) who walks with a slight limp and escapes into the imagination of her glass menagerie. Failing her first day at secretarial school has only increased her inferiority complex, and she escapes further into her own little word.
Her brother Tom (Arthur Kennedy) is away at sea in the opening of the film. He narrates in flashback the story of his earlier life in the rundown apartment in St. Louis he once shared with his mother and sister.
Amanda, always pressuring and cajoling her two offspring, now encourages Tom to bring home from his workplace in a warehouse a friend who might be interested in Laura. Amanda makes elaborate plans for the meal for this “gentleman caller” (the original name of the play).
When Laura learns ahead of time the caller’s name, Jim O’Connor (Kirk Douglas), she remembers that she had a crush on him in high school and feigns illness and refuses to come to the table. Amanda finally persuades her to join the diners, then arranges for Jim and Laura to be alone afterward.
Sensing the girl’s problems, Jim tries to draw her out of her shell and shows interest in her collection of glass animals, even getting her to dance with him and giving her a kiss. When Laura stumbles, she knocks a unicorn from its shelf and breaks its single horn.
Jim suggests they go to the Paradise Ballroom to dance and mentions he is engaged. Surprisingly, Laura doesn’t take it all that hard. She gives him the unicorn and invites him to return in the future with his fiancée.
It is Amanda who is most upset by the failed match game she had engineered and criticizes Tom for giving his sister false hopes for a suitor. Now Laura seems to have a more positive attitude. Her limp seems to have disappeared and she waits with renewed confidence for another “gentleman called,” this one named Richard, who is seen walking down the sidewalk toward the apartment.
Irving Rapper makes a conscientious effort to lessen the impression of a filmed play, showing Tom on his ship, Laura in a typing class, Tom and Jim in the factory and Amanda and Laura in a department store.
Jane Wyman brings the kind of tenderness and vulnerability that shapes many of her roles, particularly the deaf-mute girl in Johnny Belinda (1948), for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress. Kirk Douglas is calmly sympathetic, suppressing the tight energy he gives to so many of his roles. Arthur Kennedy is straightforward and on the mark. He was an underestimated actor who never achieved the top-star status he deserved, perhaps denied that by so many unchallenging parts.
As an avid spokesman for the play itself, Donald Spoto wrote in his biography of Williams, The Kindness of Strangers, “ . . . nothing [he] ever wrote after The Glass Menagerie has its wholeness of sentiment, its breath of spirit and its unangry, quiet voice about the great reach of small lives.”