The film is based on a play by Tennessee Williams. It concerns a Korean war veteran named George Haverstick (Jim Hutton) who is a patient in a hospital being treated for frequent “shakes” he experiences. During his stay, he falls in love with Isabel (Fonda) a young nurse who works the nightshift. This all happens over the opening credits. The story really begins as the couple exit their small wedding ceremony with the local justice of the peace.
But things get off to bad start when Isabel is surprised to see George pull up in their wedding car, a hearse. George insists it’s a station wagon and an argument begins. Things go from bad to worse as the two have their first meal as husband and wife in a roadside greasy spoon and their wedding night in a run down motel. Norman Bates ran a better establishment, let’s put it that way. While Isabel is certainly up for consummating the marriage, George has fears about his whether he can perform and ends up drinking himself to sleep.
The next day, the two head for Tennessee to visit a war buddy of George’s, Ralph Baitz (Tony Franciosa). Ralph’s six year marriage is having problems of its own. He has finally told off his pompous boss/father-in-law and quit his job. He thinks his wife will be thrilled that he stood up for himself, but instead, she decides to leave…and on Christmas Eve.
When George pulls up at Ralph’s home, he unloads his wife and her bags and then drives away. Oh, he comes back eventually, but not before Isabel and Ralph have had a lot of discussion about their various problems. When George does return, there is a lot more arguing…all the while, Ralph keeps trying to get the newlyweds to patch things up. Plus, he has to deal with his in-laws who come by to snatch their daughter’s things, believing that Ralph intends to sell them off and skip town.
I realize that description doesn’t make the movie sound all that interesting. It is a hard movie to describe as it is very talky and there really isn’t all that much stuff that actually happens. As I said, the film is based on a stage production. It definitely has that feel…heavy on dialogue, limited locations and such. The film also tackles some provocative subjects…especially for 1962. Most notably, George’s fears regarding his ability to perform sexually.
Though all the actors do a great job, it’s Fonda’s performance that really makes the movie work. She covers a wide range of emotions in the film, sometimes making sudden leaps between them. Her performance is at times funny, at times heartwarming, at time heartbreaking. I’ll be honest, Jane Fonda has never been a favorite actress for me, but this performance did a lot to change my view of her acting talents.
This was the debut film for director George Roy Hill, who would later direct such classics as “The Sting” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” He had some background working on stage and it’s put to good use here, but he also approaches the material with a good cinematic eye. Despite the limited number of characters and locations, the film does not end up with the claustrophobic feel that some stage productions have when adapted to the screen.
This is a film that really should be a standout in Jane Fonda’s filmography. Why it’s been forgotten over the years truly baffles me. It’s definitely more of a keeper than her workout videos.