I say all this as full disclosure. One of those films was This Property is Condemned and one of those actors is Natalie Wood. So I may not be entirely objective about this 1966 screen adaption of a Tennessee Williams play and despite all its flaws, I will likely love it until I land in the bone orchard like its heroine.
The play provides only the loosest framework for the film – opening credits say “suggested by a one act play by Tennessee Williams.” That disclaimer of sorts may have been added because it’s true or to appease Williams, who reportedly tried to disown the film, or both.
Williams’ short play features two characters: Willie, a young girl, and Tom, a boy. The play opens as Willie, dressed in ragged, cast-off clothes and dime-store jewelry, walks along a railroad track, balancing on it like a tightrope, carrying a beat-up old doll and half a bad banana. Tom happens upon her and she tells him about her beautiful sister Alva who died of “lung affection” like Camille, once shown at the local movie theater. (If you’ve seen or read about the Greta Garbo film, you’ll see the plot similarities.)
The only details we learn from the play is Alva was the “main attraction” in their mother’s house. The house, sounding a lot like a brothel, was full of music and frequented by all kinds of railroad men, who made up Alva’s many beaux. “Mama ran off with a brakeman … My old man got to drinking.” And disappeared. Alva’s men abandon her when she gets sick – “like rats from a sinking ship!” exclaims Willie. Now, Alva lies dead in the “bone orchard.”
From that most spindly skeleton, Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Coe and Edith R. Sommer, the credited screenwriters, hung a melodrama about Alva Starr (Natalie Wood), her manipulative mother Hazel (Kate Reid) and younger sister and narrator Willie (Mary Badham), who in the Depression run a rooming house frequented by a variety of railroad men, including Mama’s boyfriend, a taciturn and threatening J.J. (Charles Bronson), who is far more interested in Alva than he is in Hazel, and Sidney (Robert Blake), an avid and awkward admirer of Alva.
Into that walks Owen Legate (Robert Redford), a character made of whole cloth, not even hinted at in the play. Legate is a mysterious stranger, a bit smug and standoffish, who rents a room for just a week. Turns out Legate is there representing the railroad. His job is to go from town to town, laying off workers. But to Alva, Owen is everything all the other men are not and someday he’ll leave and go places she’d like to go. He’s her escape and before she finds out he is just a hatchet man for the railroad, Alva is already in love.
Alva is written in the same vein as some of Williams’ other heroines. She’s a bit fey and tormented and crudely handled by boorish men. She daydreams, telling tales of visiting the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, mostly to create an alternative life to make bearable the one she lives in. But she’s not insane, not close to it, like many of Williams’ female leads. And she’s capable of cunning, as when she marries J.J. in a fit of anger at her mother for exploiting her and destroying her relationship with Owen.
That bit of revenge leads to inevitable tragedy. Alva escapes to New Orleans to find Owen, they reunite and share about 10 minutes of domestic bliss until Mama arrives for her own bit of payback. Mama tells Owen Alva is already married, Owen is crushed and a desperate Alva runs out into a storm. That’s the last we see of her. The movie ends as it begins, with Willie walking along the train tracks, narrating the story as she does in the play.
I don’t know why Williams allegedly hated the movie and wanted his name off it, but I can guess. Owen Legate is not a Williams’ character. The film makes him out to be better than the men he’s there to lay off. Redford plays it smug at first, but shows affection towards Willie and defends her from local bullies, and while he doesn’t treat Alva with respect, really, he also does not treat her like a piece of meat like all the other men do. He tries to bring her back to earth, telling her that her daydreams are just fantasies and his travels are no more romantic than her dead-end small town life.
But where Stanley Kowalski, who does the same to a fragile Blanche DuBois in Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, is coarse and cruel, Legate is made out to be Alva’s knight in shining armor, in a way the antithesis of a Williams’ character.
The love affair between Owen and Alva is the stuff of soap operas, too. Alva flirts, Owen insults, Alva gets angry, they fight, they embrace, they screw, they break up over a misunderstanding (an obvious plot device that makes little sense), they reunite, they even run towards each other on a crowded New Orleans street and into each other’s arms. A secret tears them apart. The End.
The filming was reportedly rife with problems. If you want to read a rundown of it that also puts the movie in a historical perspective – stuck awkwardly between the end of one Hollywood era and the beginning of the next — read a great 2010 post by Susan Doll at the TCM blog, Moviemorlocks. In it, Doll says the film was originally to be made by John Huston with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. When the director dropped out so did the stars. Wood got on board, then Redford, who suggested Sydney Pollack, less known at the time than he is now. Doll also writes that Pollack was handed 11 versions of the script and had to cobble together a screenplay from the best parts of each. It was Coppola’s fifth credit as a writer. Coe was from Mississippi so presumably was on board to add some verisimilitude. And Sommer was a writer with the soap opera The Guiding Light, probably accounting for some if not most of the film’s romantic tropes. David Rayfiel is listed as an uncredited writer at the IMDb. He worked with Pollack and Redford on several other films, including Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were and Three Days of the Condor. (The great James Wong Howe did the cinematography.)
The IMDb also says Wood tried to commit suicide during the filming, in late November, 1965. I found a similar claim at Biography.com, the web site of the same-named TV channel. And maybe the most well-known fact (or myth) from the film is that Wood had trouble playing drunk in the scene that leads to her marrying J.J. so the actress got drunk instead of pretending.
For all its faults, though, This Property is Condemned has some wonderful performances. Mary Badham, best known as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, gives the most real, least caricatured performance as Willie. And she’s in it much more than I remembered. Kate Reid has only a few scenes but she’s incredible as Hazel, a woman desperate to keep her beautiful daughter around to attract the men that pay the bills. In a better written script, a more Williams-like script, Hazel might have been less a villain and more a victim, a woman past her prime trying to survive when the world only values Alvas. Wood is affecting, too. The part isn’t easy. All the conflict revolves around and is directed at her so she can’t falter. She has a lot of melodrama to play and yet I always feel for her. To be honest, I think there are better actresses than Wood, but none seem more vulnerable on screen. Redford has a thankless role so I won’t fault his affectless performance. He’s there more to set the plot in motion than to illicit feeling.
Until this blogathon, I didn’t realize This Property is Condemned was based on a play, much less a Tennessee Williams play. I can see why Williams rejected the film. And through an older eye, I can even see why critics and moviegoers might not love it, but it will always be one of a handful of films that hold a special place for me.