Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Separate Tables (1958)

While I have noted before that I am not much of a fan of movies set in courtrooms, ones set in hotels I cannot get enough of. When the lodging in question is of the shabby variety, populated by patrons clinging by their fingernails to the bottom rungs of the respectable middle class, and located in a second rate British seaside resort town, I am usually overcome by the second scene with the feeling that I have missed one of my true callings in life by not having passed through the purgatory of a year or so as one of the permanent inmates of such an establishment. Given the currents of the modern society and economy, it is hard to make a rational case either for the utility or attractiveness of this mode of living; but given how many books, plays and movies have adopted this setting as a milieu, creative types have obviously seen in it attractive possibilities related to our civilizational condition that productive and less static activities and pursuits have a tendency to mask and blur.

Separate Tables was nominated for seven Oscars in 1958 and won two (for best actor and best supporting actress). It also has an star-studded cast that is especially heavy on people who have been enthusiastically celebrated on this site. I had never heard of it. Certainly it does not come up at all in most channels of conversation about movie history and lore that I am aware of. It is dated in the sense that it is so heavily steeped in the conventions and themes of its particular time, and has no anticipation of the concerns that in 1958 were approaching rather rapidly. But in my current state of mind I do not look on that automatically as a fault even through a critical lens, and in this instance it accounts for a considerable amount of the charm of the movie.

The film is set in a hotel--functionally really more of a boarding house--in Bournemouth. The way it is presented in the movie it looks rather cozy, but we are supposed to have the impression that most of the characters have ended up there due to some misfortune, and would really rather find themselves in other circumstances. The title refers to one of the hotel's selling points, that you don't have to share a table at meals with other guests, a practice which evidently was still common in England in the 50s (it seemed to have died out there by the 90s, but it was still in practice on the continent, especially in the East). Leading the spectacular cast are Bourgeois Surrender Hall of Famers Burt Lancaster, Wendy Hiller, and Deborah Kerr. They are joined by David Niven, who won the best Actor Oscar referenced above (beating out Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, reviewed here formerly, as well as Paul Newman & Spencer Tracy). I don't know what I was expecting from him--a full-on helping of arch British suavity, I suppose--but in this he plays a pretty sad sack character and really goes to work to endear himself to the sympathy of the audience. Obviously it worked, and not only on me. Rita Hayworth adds more star power and some Hollywood glamour to the proceedings, and the less famous (but far from lesser) players include numerous highly skilled veterans of the British stage, most notably Gladys Cooper as Deborah Kerr's suffocating mother (typical of the popular 50s themes with which this movie is suffused), and Felix Aylmer as the retired headmaster who detects the fishiness of the Major's public school reminiscences (among his other trangressions, the Major--Niven's character, who is not, in fact, a major either--claimed a more exalted background for himself than he had a right to do) when the latter is flummoxed by Aylmer's quoting of Horace.

This is adapted from a play by Terence Rattigan, who was popular in the immediate postwar era but whose overall style, as hinted at earlier, could not weather the transformations towards the edgier theater ushered in during the Angry Young Man period of the late 50s. His middlebrowness, in this movie at any rate, is almost pure, undiluted by any element either of cleverness or edginess or crassness or vulgarity (or visible anxiety about this, for that matter). He was apparently very gay, but nothing of that nature is remotely suggested in this plot that even our super-attuned modern sensibilities can readily discern. None of the characters really rise above being types; they don't possess much depth or roundness. However there are tropes and rituals, and gentle jokes, as well as various fumbling, Freudian-tinged 50sish explorations of human relationships. I liked the couple of the medical student and his girlfriend, though they were minor characters did not appear much in the final cut; I am assuming there was more of an explanation as to how she went from being dedicated to creating art and, it is implied, committed enthusiastically to free love in the opening scenes, to her abrupt decision at the end of the movie to get married and start pumping out babies as quickly as possible. The Deborah Kerr character was kind of ridiculous, especially for her to play, but this is the kind of movie where you go along with it, kind of like when the major gets arrested for harrassing women in a darkened movie theater you go along with the premise that, hey, he's not a bad guy, he's just lonely.

The Burt Lancaster-Rita Hayworth-Wendy Hiller love triangle was not believable in any of its aspects, perhaps because it was overloaded with all kinds of postwar class and emasculation issues that come off as ludicrous now at the expense of any kind of natural feelings. I love Burt Lancaster, and I know the presence of the American stars was probably considered exciting at the time, but he seems kind of out of place in this odd and dated but watchable and often interesting movie.

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