TOYS IN THE ATTIC batted a barrel of despair around the Southern Gothic belfry in 1963, in a well-acted but terminally unhappy saga, directed by George Roy Hill. In his second feature (first was the comedy Period Of Adjustment), Hill guides a diverse cast through the miseries of Lillian Hellman’s semi-autobiographical play, adapted for the screen by James Poe. Both sadists and masochists will revel; those not inclined will appreciate the acting but be glad when its 90 downer minutes wrap up.*
His intentions are good but they always founder. When ‘Julian Berniers’ (Dean Martin) arrives back at the family place in New Orleans with his younger, adoring but not-too-swift wife ‘Lily Prine’ (Yvette Mimieux), his spinster sisters are both pleased and skeptical. He’s mysteriously loaded with cash, and high with Big Plans. Peacemaker ‘Anna’ (Wendy Hiller) is guarded but hopeful, while tasking chatterbox ‘Carrie’ (Geraldine Page) is fit to be tied (as in straight-jacket) since she harbors affection for her baby brother that goes a relative too far. Carrie resents Lily, not least because ‘Albertine’, Lily’s ice-cool, better-off mother (Gene Tierney) cohabits with a Black man.
So, incestuous gumbo, racial animus, spurned love, bitter memories, shame, jealousy; leaking venom and lurking danger waiting to wreck everyone’s hopes —sounds like Dixieland picnic material.
I confess to having resistance that must always be overcome with Geraldine Page: she’s quick as a fox and interesting, but so mannered I’m always aware of The Performance, more than the character, and it doesn’t help that the character here is so annoying, finally hateful. It’s just a chemical reaction: she can remind me of neurotics I’ve known and hope to never encounter again. Wendy Hiller is always tops, Mimieux gives a good account, Tierney is quietly forceful. I thought Dean Martin was very good, one of his best dramatic outings.
Shortsighted critics flayed Martin, and audiences tired of several years worth of down-South suffering didn’t respond enough to see it earn but $2,600,000, 76th place for the year. Jason Robards had played ‘Julian’ on the stage, and some lazy snob prejudice attached to Dino’s take. Call me a heretic, but Robards early film work tended to be in-your-face: Martin is more likable and sympathetic here.
The film has an arresting beginning, with a nifty credit sequence, Joseph H. Biroc’s fine black & white camera work and a moody score from George Duning.
With Larry Gates, Frank Silvera, Nan Martin and Helen Cleeb. Bee-eyes can catch a glimpse of Roy Thinnes as an ambulance attendant. Heavy-going after that, with a particularly unpleasant conclusion that feels so gratuitously punishing that you wonder why the hell anyone would want to share such a bleak story. Applause for the actors, but one tough sell on the enjoyment factor.
* Near-roof closet Dept—-the phrase “toys in the attic” did not originate with the 1975 Aerosmith album: like “bats in the belfry”, the old saying does duty as a euphemism for insanity. Hellman’s 1960 play ran 456 performances. Screenwriter Poe, meanwhile, paid his bills for years with this kind of material: he scripted Hot Spell and Tennessee Williams Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, both in 1958, then Sanctuary (Faulkner) and Summer In Smoke (Williams again) in 1961.
This was Geraldine Page’s third Dixie-cooked emotothon in a row, following Summer And Smoke and Sweet Bird Of Youth. Though not as feted as Miss Page, who at 39 had logged three of her eventual eight Oscar nominations, the fetching Miss Mimieux at 21 was not shy herself when it came to on-screen agony: within three years she’d been raped in Where The Boys Are, tortured by the Gestapo in The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, mentally afflicted in The Light In The Piazza and had her fiancee murdered in Diamond Head, plus, the Morlocks wanted to cannibalize her in The Time Machine. Giving her tear ducts a break, her next part after ‘Toys‘ was in Looking For Love, a musical.
Along with its lackluster receipts (which saw it post a loss of $1,200,000), the biggest hit was taken by Dean Martin, who had not only risked getting raked over for his acting, had been the films Executive Producer, so no doubt, casual airs or not, he had a good deal of hope riding on this. Contrary to what too many lazy reviewers regurgitate, Dean did do more dramatic parts after this (The Sons Of Katie Elder, Airport, a few others), but none that were up to his earlier post-Jerry work in Some Came Running, Career, The Young Lions, Rio Bravo and Toys In The Attic.
Another poignant note can be struck for the excellent character actor Frank Silvera, who has a small but key part here as the African-American lover (unstated) of Tierney. Jamaican-born, mixed-race Silvera had skin tone that lent itself to playing Latinos, Italians, Tahitians, Arabs and Indians—this may be the only big screen part where he actually played someone with African ancestry.