The bad old days when Hollywood emasculated Broadway

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The movie studios brought lots of hit plays to the screen in the 1950s, but in most cases, the material was seriously watered down in the process.

Broadway has never operated under the censorship that was imposed on Hollywood films from the 1930s through the 1960s, so popular plays such as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “The Bad Seed” were able to delve into adult material that was altered when the time came to make movie versions.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” lost the homosexual angle that explained why Brick was having problems with his sexy wife Maggie, and “The Bad Seed” lost its chilling finale in which the title character — a killer child — triumphs over her horrified mother (the kid was suddenly struck by lightning in the movie version!)

In 2011, The Warner Archive  released a DVD of the 1956 film version of the Robert Anderson play “Tea and Sympathy” with Deborah Kerr and John Kerr — no relation — repeating their acclaimed stage performances.

The play was about a private school boy (played by John Kerr) being taunted by his peers for behavior that made him appear to be gay.

The student is effete but as straight as his peers. In order to reassure him that he is “normal,” the macho dean’s compassionate wife (Kerr) decides to have mercy sex with the boy, uttering one of the most famous exit lines of the 1950s, “Years from now, when you talk about this — and you will — be kind.”

Even on Broadway in the 1950s, a play about an actual gay teen being persecuted by fellow students was unthinkable, but Anderson’s heart was in the right place (the play was a well-meaning liberal variation on the Oscar-wnning 1947 movie “Gentleman’s Agreement” in which a Gentile-journalist-posing-as-a-Jew, played by Gregory Peck, was the victim of anti-Semitism).

The movie version of “Tea and Sympathy’ is a fascinating mess in which the wife is “punished” for her sins — adultery could not be presented in anything but a negative light in a mid-1950s Hollywood film — and the rumors about the student become as vague as the similar charges against Brick in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Both Kerrs are good in the movie, but it’s a “problem drama” without a problem.

Joe Meyers

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