[Film Review] Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)

Come Back Little Sheba poster

Title: Come Back, Little Sheba
Year: 1952
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Daniel Mann
Writer: Ketti Frings
based on the original play by William Inge
Music: Franz Waxman
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Burt Lancaster
Shirley Booth
Terry Moore
Richard Jaeckel
Walter Kelley
Lisa Golm
Philip Ober
Edwin Max
Rating: 7.7/10

Come Back Little Sheba 1952

Daniel Mann’s director debut, a screen adaptation of William Inge’s eponymous play debuted in 1950, stage thespian Shirley Booth reprises her Tony-winning role in the movie, which not only marks her screen debut at the age of 54, but wins her a coveted BEST LEADING ACTRESS Oscar too.

Lola Delaney (Booth) is a middle-aged housewife, her life seems to be on the right track except that her little puppy Sheba has disappeared several months ago, his husband Doc (Lancaster), a former alcoholic, has been sober for a whole year, which is something worth celebrating in the AA meeting, and now she finds a new boarder, an attractive college student Marie Buckholder (Moore), who seems to be quite open-faced and spirited to move in immediately. The Delaneys have no child, although later it will reveal that they had a stillborn baby years ago, thus the presence of Mary instantly gingers up their quiet life, Lola grows maternal towards her, and is more than happy to condone Mary’s flirtation with the jock Turk Fisher (Jaeckel), although she has a fiancé; but for Doc, the youthful Mary becomes a pernicious symbol of temptation, he disparages Turk and struggles with his own impulse towards her, even though the latter only views him as an avuncular elder.

We all know at one point, Doc will have a relapse of his addiction for his sexual frustration, but the set-up of the climax, where Doc whisks away a bottle of Whiskey surreptitiously, then returns with another bottle to cover it, is a cheap move, considering there is no hurdles for him to access liquor, why he has to take the only bottle in their home, instead of buying one outside? The only purpose is to let Lola discover the fact that the bottle is missing, hence it ruins the big day for her, she is organizing a home dinner for Mary and her fiancé, that’s a script loophole which could be avoided if the screenwriter were more considerate. But, the climax is a hallmark collision of two engrossing performers.

Booth is such an unforced and compelling actor, her portrayal of Lola as the salt of the earth, is so full of vigor, accuracy and sympathy-inducing, a kindhearted woman who is wholeheartedly devoted to her husband, kind to everybody else, occasionally enjoys a little dancing on the radio, a little concerned about her past and doesn’t minces words about her real feelings and thoughts. Although she has a very traditional view on how to be a competent wife, when she comments that women must pose naked but men don’t have to for life class, she is certainly not a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. It is so extraordinary that a woman in her age can be granted with such a richly written role to play, where in sharp comparison, nowadays, few paymasters are willing to green-light a project focused on the kitchen-sink drama of a modest woman over 50.

Lancaster, who is 15-years younger than Booth, does seem to be an odd choice to play Doc, he maximally downplays his discernible charisma and charges a poignant gravitas entrapped in his own misery and weakness, but in our eyes, he is much dapper than the ostentatious Turk to win the attention of Mary. Terry Moore, whose private life is far more splendid than her acting career, is the lucky one to be nominated for an Oscar, where her part merely functions as an unwitting stimulus to trigger the declining of Doc’s state, and most of the time, she is too dumb to know what she really wants.

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