Monday, August 19, 2013

Pour Yourself Another Shot of Southern (Dis)comfort

Howdy, movie lovers! Since my features on Southern Fried Cinema always garner such an enthusiastic response, I decided to return to the deep fryer for another heapin' helpin' of high caloric corn pone.

Today's flick has everything EVERYTHING a connoisseur of Southern Fried Cinema would want: a filthy rich "Big Daddy" type huffing and puffing all over the place; a sexy drifter of dubious repute; a supporting cast that shags like minks; people fanning themselves while saying stuff like, "I do declare, this heat is wiltin' me faster than a virgin at a prison rodeo"; and a father's obsessive quest to get his prim and proper daughter laid.

Yes, the script might be credited to the fancy-pants works of William Faulkner, but "The Long Hot Summer" (1958) is still deep battered, deep fried, deep dish sex, sex, sex, sex, SEX.

The fun begins when filthy rich, cigar chompin' Will Varner returns to his Mississippi fiefdom after a stint in the hospital. As played by Orson Welles, Will Varner is a scenery gulping combination of Foghorn Leghorn, Boss Hog, Boss Tweed and the Big Bad Wolf in a white suite and a Panama hat. He doesn't ask, he commands; he doesn't cajole, he threatens; and his favorite targets are his tippling son Jody (Anthony Franciosa) and his prissy daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward).

See, after his brush with mortality, Will Varner is obsessed with having a truck load of male heirs ("real men!") and he wants them now. Lucky for him, son Jody is married to Eula (Lee Remick), a gal Welles sizes up by observing, "That's what I like! There's bones there, but they is covered up by plenty o' real woman!" The hyperactive newlyweds take every opportunity to have sex, to the point where Jody barely has the energy to show up for work in the morning.

"I hear my master's voice!" Eula titters when a brief chat with friends is interrupted by hubby calling her back to bed.

Clara is another story. Wearing her hair in a bun of steel, Woodward is the sort of southern belle who reads Jane Austen and sips sweet tea under the spreading magnolias. Clara believes her Mr. Darcy can be found in the form of aristocratic Alan Stewart ("The Six Million Dollar Man"s Richard Anderson). Unfortunately, he's under the thumb of his clingy ma, a woman so possessive she won't let Alan accept Clara's gift of homemade soup when he falls ill. Naturally, Will Varner has nothing but contempt for the genteel Mr. Stewart and believes his failure to propose marriage will leave Clara "the best looking old maid in the country!"

Instead, Big Daddy Varner wants Clara to hook up with Ben Quick (Paul Newman), a sexy drifter with the unfortunate reputation as a barn burner.

Clara doesn't like Ben, of course, finding him loud and uncouth. Ben, on the other hand, senses Clara's need for a "real man" underneath her prissy protestations.

"Get out of character, lady," Ben tells Clara at one point. "Come on, get way out."

In order to get things moving, Will Varner not only gives Ben a job, but he moves him into the family mansion as well. When Clara tells Ben he's "barkin' up the wrong girl", he scolds her for wasting her energies on mama's boy Alan: "If you are saving it all for him, honey, you got your account in the wrong bank!"

Interesting enough, while Will Varner is moving heaven and earth to get Clara laid, he himself is resisting the matrimonial schemes of good time gal Minnie (a pre-"Murder, She Wrote" Angela Landsbury). When Will insists he's too old to get remarried, and offers Minnie a sewing machine instead (!), Landsbury replies, "Look, honey, it's no good you trying to tell me you're too old. I happen to be in a position to deny it!"

With everyone in the cast acting like participants in some hormone experiment, it's only a matter of time before Clara realizes that Ben Quick might not be such a bad choice of a husband after all, especially since Alan is finally forced to admit he won't be asking Clara to marry him--ever.

"The world belongs to meat eaters, Miss Clara" Ben declares. "And if you have to take it raw, take it raw."

I'm not quite sure why this is so, but the opportunity to appear in a movie set in the south unfailingly brings out the sugar-cured ham in even talented actors. As Big Daddy Varner, Orson Welles huffs and puffs till he threatens to blow his own house down. He also never misses an opportunity to pontificate, such as when Clara wants to know why he's so determined to get her into bed with Quick. "I'm gonna get me some men in the Varner family, some good strong strappin' man Varners. That's what I want! Varners and more Varners. Yeah, more Varners still! Enough Varners to infest the countryside! I'm gonna see that happen, sister, before I die. I'm gonna accomplish that, yes ma'am, by means of that Quick, that big stud horse!"

OK, just askin'

Meanwhile, Fransioca and Remick cavort like Li'l Abner and Daisy Mae cross bred with Jethro Bodean and Ellie Mae Clampett. Clara's friend Agnes, on the other hand, is so desperate for a man, she's practically bleary eyed with lust--I was starting to get nervous for the family dog. As the prissy Miss Clara, Woodward tosses her head and acts haughty, but you know she's just putting on an act. In movies like "Summer", smart gals with "standards" are just as eager to shed their knickers as everybody else, they just have funny notions about wanting love and marriage (must come from all those books they read).

The best thing in the movie, however, is Paul Newman as Ben Quick. Simply put, he is a barn burner with an impressive torch. Unlike Welles, Paul can chew the grade-A fat without making a spectacle of himself. This fella has star power to burn and it's clear Newman had seriously honed his craft since his cinematic debut in "The Silver Chalice" (1954), where he played "Basil the Defender", a Greek slave/sculptor who engraved the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper--a movie Paul himself called "the worst movie of the 1950's", but did earn him the coveted Golden Turkey Award for "The Worst Film Debut Of All Time" (in which he beat out John Travolta, no less, in his debut in "The Devil's Rain", where he played some kooky devil worshipper who dissolves into a pile of goo).

In 1985, "The Long Hot Summer" was remade for TV, with Don Johnson in the Ben Quick role. As with 99% of most remakes, this version was a slow moving mess and not nearly as fun as the original. Johnson tried, but he was no match for Paul Newman's combination of looks, talent and charisma. Like the saying goes, never send a boy to do a man's job.

Until next time movie lovers...oh, wait. Did you enjoy this article? If you did, please drop me a line at and let me know. I would be much obliged.

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