SONS AND LOVERS, the best of the ‘working class’ dramas that Britain produced from the tail end of the 50s to the mid 60s, isn’t a bitter ‘angry young man’ assault like most of the bleak squad, as it has a number of sympathetic characters, and there are some light moments to allay the pain, distress and despair that hovers over the story like its rich, milieu-evoking, black & white cinematography. Put another way, if you’re not already depressed, welcome to the world of D.H. Lawrence: this much-lauded 1960 picture was adapted from his semi-autobiographical novel. *
England, 1911. Stifled by his emotionally draining family life, unfulfilled by his two inaugural romantic entanglements, facing bleak work options, young ‘Paul Morel’ (Dean Stockwell), a talented artist, pines to break free from his home town, a coal-mining community near Nottingham. Snared in the web of so many dashed hopes dashed and warped spirits, the odds are not in his favor.
First condemned, later acclaimed, Lawrence’s once-controversial 1913 novel runs 423 pages, covering its unhappy characters from 1885 to 1911. Directed by Jack Cardiff, the script adapted by Gavin Lambert and T.E.B. Clark, condensed the book’s chronology to focus on the latter part of the story, finessing its complexity into a workable and affecting framework to suit an audience-patience running time of 103 minutes. Lawrence’s more frank sexual episodes stayed in the book along with the assorted narrators ruminations and descriptive passages.
At 23, Dean Stockwell was a 15-year acting veteran, from exemplary child star to recapturing attention as one of Compulsion‘s child-killers, but he was an American, cast in this moody, assuredly Brit Lit ensemble piece as a hook for the US market. He took expected knocks from reviewers, particularly in England. He’s all right, though whether you’d consider him girl-bait is a matter of opinion (at least they didn’t foist Anthony Perkins on it–he was busy where he fit best, Psycho), and his scenes with Paul’s romantic interests, played by the bland Mary Ure and animated Heather Sears, are only moderately effective. Sears intimacy-inhibited ‘Miriam’ is on the tasking side, but Sears conveys confusion, guilt and hurt quite well. On the other hand (or bed), Ure’s liberated free-thinker ‘Clara Dawes’ is a compelling character in search of an actress to match: I’m at a loss to explain Ure’s appeal, which somehow impressed enough to get one of the movies Oscar nominations: from this end of the coal mine, she’s colorless, so remote she’s absent.
Fortunately, everyone else is in top form, with Wendy Hiller as Paul’s loving but suffocating mother and Trevor Howard as his rough-hewn, hard-bitten father shouldering the strongest, most affecting scenes. Abrasive, moving and convincing, their deeply wounding arguments and sad acceptance of their fates walk off with the film, taking it away from their younger castmates by sheer, unadorned conviction and raw force of personality. Hiller, 47, had just nabbed a supporting actress Oscar for Separate Tables, while Howard, 46, received his sole career Academy nomination. His Best Actor nod really should have gone up in the supporting category, as he only has 20 minutes of screen time. He’d at least have had a fighting chance against Peter Ustinov’s scene-stealing win for Spartacus, but there was no way anyone was going to leave Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry go home empty-handed.
Mario Nascimbene (The Vikings) contributes the lyrical music score (his pretty, not overused main theme somewhat echoes the title tune written a few years earlier for Tammy and the Bachelor). A choice supporting cast etch vivid secondary characters: Donald Pleasence (in cheery mode, quite busy that year with 11 movies & 6 TV gigs), Rosalie Ashley, Conrad Phillips, Ernest Thesiger (80, waspish as ever), William Lucas, Rosalie Crutchley (forbidding as Sears repressed, religious nut mother). Cardiff’s assistant director was Peter Yates, later to steer Bullitt.
Jerry Wald produced it for $805,000, and the collective efforts were rewarded with $4,300,000 in the States (#59 for ’60) and at least $1,800,000 in England. Freddie Francis was given an Academy Award for his superb cinematography, and nominations were listed for Best Picture, Actor (Howard), Supporting Actress (Ure), Director, Screenplay and Art Direction.
* As to our opening sentence and “that Britain produced” we’re fudging a tad to include the production with the kitchen-sink clutch (Room At The Top, Look Back In Anger, ad tedium) that were inclusively British Isles affairs, since Stockwell was a Yank, as was producer Wald. Plus, Sons And Lovers sprang from period literature early in the century, and the rest of the sad and surly crowd were birthed from contemporary novels and plays. A well acted lot, certainly, but pretty dismal as entertainment, unless you’re big on bitterness. In any case, Cardiff, Howard and Hiller had to battle Wald and 20th-Century Fox poohbahs who repeatedly insisted on cutting some of the best material. For a change, the adamant director and uncowed actors won out.
Wendy Hiller: “The front office Hollywood was in a frenzy because in Sons And Lovers they’d got a story of mother love that had gone wrong. Well, we know that most mother’s love has gone wrong, but they wanted the nice American dream of apple pie and lovely mothers. But that wasn’t what they’d got and so the postcards (cables) used to come….It should have been forty percent better, but as it was, it was jolly good because it’s a miraculous story. One for all time. Mind you, it should be made again now, and made properly.”
It was remade, first as a TV miniseries in 1980, then as a film in 2002, again for British TV, running 192 minutes, including sex scenes absent from faraway 1960. In fact, Lawrence’s novel didn’t appear in its full unedited form until 1992: fully 10% had been missing in the earlier publications, so the Cardiff crew had been working not just with what they could get away with but also with all that was available at the time.
Jack Cardiff: “The films that I am most proud of – the film, for instance, that I made under great difficulty, Sons and Lovers , I wanted to make it into a good film because the book is marvelous, and I didn’t want to let the author down.”