Skillfully adapted by Isobel Lennart (1915-71, she wrote the play “Funny Girl” and the screenplays for “Anchors Away,” “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” “The Sundowners,” etc.) from Tennessee William’s Christmas comedy about adults with adult problems (consummating marriages, stagnating in boring jobs bossed around by jerks, managing neuroses and real estate…), the 1962 movie “Period of Adjustment” is remembered, if it is remembered at all, as a breakthrough role for Jane Fonda. It was also the first movie directed by George Roy Hill, who had directed it on stage and went on to direct “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” and “Slap-Shot” (all with Paul Newman).
The first half hour of the movie shows events that are told in the stage-play: nurse Isabel (Jane Fonda) dancing attendance on George Whittaker (Jim Hutton) at a VA hospital, her chagrin that they are setting off from the wedding in a big, black 1939 hearse with 140,000 miles on it, and land in a bar with no other female customers, then in a dingy motel on their wedding night; and her outrage that George quit his job without telling her. The story of a quick romance and rocky start of George and Isabel’s marriage is intercut with Dorothea (Lois Nettleton) urging her husband Ralph (Anthony Franciosa) to apologize to her father (Ralph McGiver), who is his boss in a Memphis-area dairy company. Drunk the night before, Ralph had told his father-in-law what he really thought of him. Hung-over, Ralph is more than usually irritated by his son whom Ralph is alarmed will grow up to be a sissy.
Instead of apologizing, Ralph quits his job and Dorothea, who was visiting her mother (a smarmy Mabel Albertson), decides to stay in her parents’ house. With his own marriage and life in complete chaos, Ralph is happy to receive a visit from his Korean War Air Force buddy George and welcomes Isabel. Ralph is less disconcerted than Isabel that George drives off after depositing all of Isabel’s luggage except what she wanted, a zippered blue bag. Isabel sputters out her dismay about the marriage that has failed in every respect to match her dreams. Having been abandoned by a spouse toward whom he is ambivalent (having married her for the prospects of inheriting the family business), Ralph is soothing. (Isabel is not ready to be soothed. When Ralph tells her: “They don’t make them any better,” she retorts: “If they don’t make them any better than George Haverstick, they ought to stop making them!”)
When George eventually returns (with a bottle of champagne to share with Isabel, who does not drink…), Ralph tries to talk some sense into George, while George spins fantasies about returning to west Texas and raising stately longhorns. (Property and commercial concerns are almost as recurrent in Tennessee Williams works as couples clawing at each other: indeed, clawing for anticipated inheritances is a Williams leitmotif.)
Besides Dorothea’s parents’ eagerness to retrieve their daughter and everything they gave the couple, there is a group of male carolers agreeing to stop for a drink at each household until they are very rowdy, and a police station in which Jack Albertson calmly listens to charges of “planned embezzlement” (i.e., Ralph selling off some of the couple’s possessions). He sends everyone, including the inebriated carolers, home. Ralph drives the hearse and has it out with Dorothea in the front seat. There is an intercom turned on, so that George and Isabel hear the painful revelations. A certain solidarity against Dorothea’s parents merges with cringing at what they hear, and in the end, all four are trying to be more considerate of their partners (and of the other couple). They have learned some things about themselves and their partners, and—it being a romantic comedy, and a Christmas Eve one at that—the movie ends with optimism that the thin-skinned human beings will build on their hard-won insights and live less unhappily ever after.
Although Fonda seems to me to overplay, the part calls for silliness and a hysterical breakdown (when calling home to Daddy). Her accent is consistent; whether it is Texan, I will leave to others to assess. It seems more Southeastern to me, as does Franciosa’s. Franciosa is very good in a nuanced portrait of a man who loathes himself for selling himself to a man he detests and for failures as a husband and father. (Franciosa was near the end of a half-decade string of good screen roles that began with one in Isabel Lennert’s screenplay for the charming romantic comedy directed by Robert Wise “This Could Be the Night”).
Jim Hutton was good at screwball comedy and at the spluttering vulnerability often called for in screwball comedy leads and the cover of brutality for insecurity often called from in Tennessee Williams plays. John McGiver naturally looked puffed-up and was a master of pomposity. Lois Nettleton was affecting in the difficult role (of a kind Geraldine Page played in other Williams plays and films) of a woman whose mousiness and lack of pulchritude disappointed her parents and who is painfully aware of that she was “saved from spinsterdom” without much love.
I think that Lennart and Hill did an excellent job of taking the play out from its one set, of showing some of what the stage George and Isabel tell, of getting Dorothea onscreen more and much earlier than she gets onstage, providing additional motivation for Dorothea’s father’s resentment (specifically, that he played the part of sh_t-eating son-in-law to get the business himself), keeping the best lines, and pruning dull patches from the play. Paul Vogel’s black-and-white cinematography is crisp with some deep-focus echoiong Gregg Toland’s (in “Little Foxes,” another play set in the South about greed and marital ambivalences).
Not much was censored (or self-censored): the suggestion of a homosexual neighbor, the words “horny” and “excited” (in the priapic sense). There is still a coded discussion of potency and impotency, and though the Production Code stipulated that married couples had to have twin beds, at the end each couple is together in one bed (not in the same room).
(The meaning of the line I’ve taken for my review’s title, as explained by Ralph, applies widely in William’s work: “If you took the human heart out of the human body and put a pair of legs on it and told it to walk a straight line, it couldn’t do it. It never could pass the drunk test.”)
©2003, Stephen O. Murray