THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE strikes a particular memory chime with me. Almost fifty years elapsed between the two times I’ve seen it, and as you might guess by the title it’s more geared for audiences tending toward one end of that span.* It’s also a “woman’s picture”, to use the old vernacular, and taken from a Tennessee Williams novella, so we’re not looking for a lot of laughs to pop up over the 103 minutes of the plot.
Williams did cite this as his favorite among the adaptations of his work. While it displays enough moral quandary and social rot to join sorrowful hands with his seedy Southern Gothic stable, this time The Forlorn Set writhe in brightly colorful Rome and take on Euro-flavored decadence. There are only two American characters: the leading lady (Vivien Leigh, fading but still commanding at 47) and an upstart threat (Jill St. John, 21, getting yet another break that should have gone to someone who could maybe speak less like a toy).
Now, mentioning those two actresses in the same sentence, let alone putting them together in anything other than a snapshot, is enough take the air out of a zeppelin**, but Jill isn’t around enough to jack things beyond repair, and Leigh gives the muddled script a fine turn. She’d been off-screen for six years, tormented by her own array of demons, and considered too much trouble to work with (let go while filming Elephant Walk after she had a nervous breakdown, she was replaced by the then-still-manageable Liz Taylor).
Leigh’s ‘Mrs. Stone’ decides to have a fling in Italy, and pursues it recklessly enough that it may be her last. She’s despondent over her wasted marriage, a career in trouble and no sex. Set up by a shrewd and corrupt Countess acting as procurer, she falls for a handsome, ruthlessly shallow gigolo (Warren Beatty). The promise that the 24-year-old Beatty showed that same year in Elia Kazan’s superb Splendor In The Grass is missing in action here, as his Italian accent is pretty bad (the reviews were not hopeful), so director Jose Quintero had to be content with the heavy lifting from Leigh and co-stars Lotte Lenya (the Countess) and Coral Browne. Lenya cinched an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for only her second time on screen, and thirty years since the first, in The Three Penny Opera.
Other roles in the 1961 drama are given to Jeremy Spenser, Cleo Laine, Bessie Love and Ernest Thesiger (his last, he died after filming, just before his 82nd birthday). It was the only film directed by stage titan Quintero, but was not too well received, and box-office was a negligible $3,500,000, 63rd for the year. It’s rather a downer, what with all the nastiness and emotional battering, but the incisive acting by Leigh and Lenya is worth the vapors.
- *My first viewing was part of a Christmas of ’61 trade-off. My big sister took me to an early matinée of Babes In Toyland, but my part of the bargain was to try and sit still through this indecipherable-to-a-six-old-boy drama. All talk! No giants or Annette! We did this tit-for-tat on another occasion two years later, with sister nobly enduring harpies and skeletons in Jason And The Argonauts. Alas, memory fails me on the Grown-Ups Movie end of that long ago sis & bro afternoon in the Los Angeles That Was.
**Scuttlebutt has it that Leigh wouldn’t even speak to St.John during filming. As Glenn Erickson puts it in his review at Cine Savant, “when she’s in the same frame with Vivien Leigh it’s like a fine engraving standing next to a crayon squiggle.”