Over the years, Tea and Sympathy (and the memory of its original Broadway production) seem to have fallen from the dizzying heights of groundbreaking success to a benchmark for campy classicism. Well, maybe that’s not quite true, but the fact remains that this film is not nearly as well regarded as it deserves to be.
Told in flashback, the film begins by introducing us to the seventeen-year-old Tom Lee, a new senior at a boys prep school. He enjoys theatre and gardening, and even has hopes of becoming a folk singer. To the other boys at his school though, Tom is seen as effeminate and different; he is taunted by his peers, and even his housemaster Bill Reynolds refuses to speak up. Only Laura, the beautiful and kind wife of Reynolds takes notice of the young boy. As Laura’s concern grows into affection, she becomes more than just an onlooker in his life, administering more than just the required dose of tea and sympathy.
Even before seeing this movie, I had always believed the character of Laura Reynolds to be the definitive Deborah Kerr role. On paper, the part seemed perfect for her, and watching it for the first time, I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Kerr brings such a poignant sensitivity to this role; towards Tom, she is gentle and wonderfully understanding. The ideas of Laura’s unhappy past and deep-rooted emotional uncertainty also simmer quietly under this brilliant performance, making it all the more touching and memorable.
As Tom Lee, John Kerr’s portrayal is charming in a clunky, vulnerable kind of way. Stumbling down the path to adulthood, I never really thought of him as a closeted homosexual as many others viewers seem to do. To me, it was always obvious that Tom was in love with Laura, and had been for quite some time. While there are homophobic undertones, the film, and the play too, are more about identity and being different in a frighteningly conformist society. Deborah Kerr, in a letter to Minnelli, puts it perfectly:
“It really is a play about persecution of the individual, and compassion and pity and love of one human being for another in a crisis”.
I have read a number of reviews in which the writers have commented on the apparent ‘staginess’ of the film, referring both to the direction and the acting of the leads. Moreover, Tea and Sympathy has often been quoted as a ‘watered-down adaptation’ and a ‘product of the Code’. While I do believe these statements to be true to an extent, I also think it would be wrong to dismiss the film or write it off as such.
Firstly, the question of theatricality and the film’s seemingly conspicuous proscenium arch. Personally, I don’t really see it. More than ever, Minnelli’s meticulous direction helps to enhance the original play. In particular, two scenes come to mind as being particularly remarkable.
The first of these scenes begins with a surprise visit from Tom’s father, Herb. He and Bill discuss the boy and his ‘peculiarities’ and Laura listens from inside the kitchen. The whole shot is framed exquisitely; the two men in the garden are seen from a window, and Laura stands in the foreground.The rectangular window, a symbol for convention and heterosexuality, represents the society which shuns Tom. It is only Laura, a sympathetic and gentle character, who cares and shields him from the unpleasant real world.
Just after Herb leaves, Bill Reynolds goes on to tell his wife about the whole ‘pyjamas bonfire’ affair taking place that night; an age-old tradition where the older boys rip off the clothes of the new students. As all the other younger boys get pounced on, a group of seniors surround Tom, forming a circle and ‘protecting’ him from harm. In some ways, it is exactly the opposite of what we usually see when a ring is created. This image, our hero trying to break free and just become a ‘regular guy’, whatever that may be, is a truly heartbreaking and powerful one.
Following the luminous, almost dream-like sequence in which Laura offers herself to Tom and utters that unbelievably quotable line “Years from now when you talk about this – and you will – be kind,” we return to the present day. This borderline ruinous framing device that features grown-up Tom happily married and Laura ‘punished’ for her bad deeds, feels tacked-on (which it was) and moralistic (which it had to be).
Nevertheless, I see this film for what it was at the time and definitely still is: a beautifully sensitive representation from one of the most talented directors in Hollywood. It is far from the archetypal lush and empty MGM picture, but instead quite a daring film, questioning many aspects of the rigid set of American ideals that governed the 1950s.
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I really enjoyed this film. I really do hate when anybody gets bullied in life, especially when it is done by a group. I really think we have done a 360 as a society and have become more accepting of any type of person today and that is a good thing.
But as a society have we maybe gone too far in our progression to escape the rigid conformity of the America in the 1950s? Have we actually lost our ability to be individuals without even knowing it? Somehow in the process to reject the negativity of conformity I think we have actually become less distinguishable if that is possible. This in my opinion is reflected in our movies.
All too often today we get the same cookie cutter type films with very little emphasis on the actual quality of the script and or story. There are actually really no movie stars today like we had back in the hey day of the 30s and 40s. Just cookie cutter actors and actresses in these modern movies that basically rely on special effects and an audience who IMO seem to be very attention span deficient.
Is it possible to return to that special time in the American cinema back in the 30s, 40s and 50s? I don’t think so but thank God we have most of it preserved on DVDs and we can go back and enjoy movies like Tea And Sympathy.
I really think this film takes a close look at the human suffering that is sometimes kept deep down inside by all of us as human beings from time to time. Unfortunately sometimes there isn’t a Mrs. Reynolds who comes along and provides the much needed comfort we as human beings all seem to need at some point in our lives. How would Tom’s life have turned out without the intervention of Mrs. Reynolds? I really do believe an act of kindness or concern for a fellow human being can go a long way in life. In this fast paced society we live in today we all need to take a deep breath once in awhile and just provide a helping hand. A kind word, a smile, a random act of concern or kindness can really have a positive effect on somebody who is in need of it at the time.
Tea And Sympathy was a nice movie and makes one appreciate the special moments one has had during the course of one’s life. Those special moments don’t come along very often. We should always cherish these special moments and be grateful we have these good memories that we as human beings can always reflect upon. Without memories then what is life really all about? Whether they are good or bad memories we must realize these memories ultimately shape us as human beings.
I think the classic films seem to trigger our emotions and memories deep down inside. I think that that is why we love these movies so much. Thank God we have them. I am glad I saw Tea And Sympathy Rachel, it was a real moving film.
I’m glad you enjoyed this one —Tea and Sympathy is one of my favourite Deborah Kerr films! I also agree entirely with your comment about today’s society. It is obviously a wonderful thing that we have become so much more accepting of all people. However, we have now seemed to crossed that fine line between an honourable open-mindedness to this overtly PC society in which we feel every word is closely scrutinised by everyone else. These days, people are practically frightened out of being themselves!
I do love this era of classic Hollywood, so much so that it’s actually very easy to forget that nothing is as perfect as cinema almost always seems to portray. That is what makes this movie so great; the subtle problems of a particular time and place are captured with a genuine grace and poignancy.