Friday, 20 February 2015

"The Restless Years" - The Story Of Two Outsiders Who Find Love

Dear readers, I've been on a blogging hiatus for quite a while, so I decided to make a return by reviewing a film that has become a personal favorite of late, "The Restless Years" (1958), directed by Helmut Kautner, and produced by Ross Hunter for Universal studios.

At first glance, it appears to be something of a low-budget, watered-down version of "Peyton Place" (another book and film that I happen to love), but this effort is more intimate, providing a closer look at the main characters, and their home lives.  Filmed in black and white CinemaScope, it was based on a play entitled "Teach Me To Cry" by Patricia Joudry. Ross Hunter immediately envisioned it as a vehicle for his latest discovery, Sandra Dee. Dee, a former child model, had done a screen test with John Saxon, a young actor who was rising in popularity after his break-through role as a troubled youth in "The Unguarded Moment" (1956). Before appearing in this film, Dee was first loaned to MGM for "Until They Sail" (1957), opposite Paul Newman, Joan Fontaine, Jean Simmons and Piper Laurie.

Sandra Dee as Melinda Grant
It was 10 years ago today that Sandra Dee passed away, at a relatively young age, after battling health issues for many years. Her performance is sensitive and natural, projecting an innocence, yet seemingly wise beyond her years. Her character, Melinda Grant, is an outsider in the small town of Libertyville, where she lives with her reclusive mother, Elizabeth (Teresa Wright), who desperately tries to conceal the fact that Melinda is in fact, illegitimate, the result of a romance with a musician who once played at an old, abandoned bandstand that overlooks the town. However, the ruse that Elizabeth is widowed fools no one in town, especially Melinda's peers at the local high school. Shunned, the lonely young girl puts on a brave face for her mother and pretends that she is popular, although she is somewhat hampered by the fact that Elizabeth, the town seamstress, insists on making her daughter's clothes which makes Melinda appear younger than her age. 

John Saxon as Will Henderson
Enter Will Henderson (John Saxon), whose salesman father Ed (James Whitmore) has returned to Libertyville, hoping for a fresh start, but Will's mother, Dorothy (Margaret Lindsay) is never satisfied with Ed's attempts to support the family and always wants more.
Will is also on the outside looking in at school; he's ignored and ridiculed by Bruce Mitchell (Jody McCrea) and Polly Fisher (Luana Patten), two of the popular kids who also make a point of tormenting Melinda for her illegitimacy. At a school dance, Will and Melinda catch each other's eye and decide to go for a walk, but Will notices that Melinda is somewhat evasive, especially when he mentions the bandstand. Later, as Will is driving Melinda home, Bruce Mitchell and his friends attempt to run them off the road.

Luana Patten and Jody McCrea as Polly Fisher and Bruce Mitchell
It is inevitable of course, that Will and Melinda fall in love, stirring up gossip both in town and at school. Melinda is fearful of her mother finding out, and her fear of hurting Elizabeth causes her to refuse the lead in the school's production of "Our Town", but encouraged by Will and her teacher, Miss Robson (Virginia Grey), she reconsiders, causing Polly to seethe with jealousy since playing the role herself seems to be the only way to get her own distant and uncaring mother to show an interest in her life. Will is also dealing with his parents insisting that he drop Melinda and try to make friends with the students who come from more prominent families (it is somewhat appalling how they expect him to make friends in order to help his father's career and status).

James Whitmore and Margaret Lindsay as Will's parents
Having said that, Ed and Dorothy are not entirely unsympathetic; they do eventually see that they can't expect their son to ensure their success in business. Saxon, who was still quite new to movies at this point (his official debut came in 1955's "Runnin' Wild"), is believable as a young man trying to find his place in the world and laments that his family can't stay in one place long enough for him to feel like he belongs. In Melinda, he finds a kindred spirit who only wants to be loved and accepted.

Teresa Wright as Melinda's mother, the reclusive Elizabeth Grant
Teresa Wright gives a memorable performance as the neurotic Elizabeth, who longingly waits for a letter that never comes and fears her daughter will make the same mistakes she herself did. Wright was an ingĂ©nue in the 1940s, not to mention a fine actress to boot, an Oscar-winner who was known for her serious approach to her work and for refusing to take part in publicity that she felt was inappropriate, such as posing for cheesecake photos. She began playing mother roles far too early, and this movie is an example of that. However, she excels in the role and I can't think of another actress who could have played the part.

Will and Melinda rehearsing for the school play
One of my favorite scenes is when Will and Melinda go to the bandstand so that Melinda can rehearse her role as Emily in the upcoming play. She changes into the beautiful costume made by her mother, and as they rehearse, the kiss in the scene becomes very real. But Will, fearful because he is aroused by Melinda, stops it from going any further. It really is a powerful little scene, and Will proves that he is indeed worthy of Melinda because he doesn't want to hurt her. Unfortunately, Polly just happens to be passing by and sees what she thinks is a compromising situation and decides to use it to her advantage.

The locker room confrontation on Parents' Night
On Parents Night, confrontation ensues. Melinda, having persuaded her mother to attend, is accosted by Polly, who attempts to blackmail her into dropping out of the school play. When that fails, Polly sends Bruce after Will, and then all hell breaks loose. Do things turn out all right in the end? Does love prevail? Speaking as someone who is originally from a small town, it is true that everyone knows everything about everybody, and if they don't, they make something up. Rumors do seem to swirl in small communities much more than in other places. The movie does convey that quite well, and in spite of being shot on the Universal lot, it does seem to capture a small-town feel.
Sandra Dee and Luana Patten taking a break during filming

Luana Patten turns in a very good performance as Polly, who conceals her own personal pain behind a snobby, vindictive front. Patten was a child actress who began in Disney films, but progressed to playing love interests in Westerns, dramas and rock 'n' roll films - in 1956 she appeared alongside John Saxon and Sal Mineo in the low-budget "Rock, Pretty Baby". By 1970, she had retired, and like Sandra Dee, she died at a relatively young age, from respiratory failure in 1996. 

Sandra Dee and John Saxon
There's something special about the onscreen chemistry between John Saxon and Sandra Dee. In all, they appeared together in three films, the others being "The Reluctant Debutante" (1958) and "Portrait In Black"(1960). In 1991, they co-starred in a stage production of "Love Letters". Saxon told Dee's son Dodd Darin that he felt an immediate affinity with Sandra because they were both from the East Coast, assuming personas for their careers that was far from what their childhoods had been.  He also sensed that something was not quite right in Sandra's life, but he couldn't quite figure it out. There were things she talked about that he didn't understand at the time. Years later, when he discovered that she had suffered through sexual abuse by her stepfather, many things began to make sense.

Melinda wonders why her tormentors decide to be nice to her
I think anyone can relate the theme of "The Restless Years" and the emotions it evokes. If you ever didn't feel like you fit in, especially in those perilous years of adolescence where being accepted by your peers matters more than anything, or adults who don't understand you and assume the worst, you'll identify with this film.  By today's standards, the fact that Melinda is illegitimate doesn't seem shocking at all, but for the time it was. Even in seemingly "respectable" places there was always a dark underside, as much some tried to hide or deny it.

"Kiss me once, before it's too late"

Of course, it can also be argued that it is a product of its era, but that's also part of its charm. There didn't have to be outstanding special effects, foul language, extreme violence or explicit sex scenes to get the point across. That's the beauty of this type of film, the kind that just is not made anymore. Times have changed, but emotions and love haven't.  There will always be people who appreciate films like this, and the studios should really restore these movies and release them.

Young love blossoms on the bandstand
Universal just recently released "The Restless Years" as part of its Vault series, but unfortunately, they chose to release it in non-anamorphic widescreen, meaning if you zoom in the image is blurry. While I have a bootleg copy that is not top quality either, you would think that Universal would have done a better job with this release. Given that it was filmed in CinemaScope, more effort should have been made for the DVD print so one can appreciate the glorious black and white cinematography.

Having said that, I'm grateful that it has been given an official release; perhaps one day it will be available in a restored format on DVD. It's long overdue and it deserves that much, especially for fans of Sandra Dee and John Saxon.

The special dynamic between these two actors lights up the screen
Sandra Dee's stardom only lasted for about ten years; when the studio system ended, she found it increasingly hard to adjust to freelancing, and she was worn down emotionally from her painful past and divorce from singer/actor Bobby Darin. John Saxon has remained active as an actor and often appears at conventions. Yet, I have always sensed that he has a special place in his heart for Sandra and those early years at Universal. Judging from interviews, he respected her greatly and later tried to encourage her to get out more, and perhaps be open to love again. However, her lack of self-esteem and self-confidence prevented her from breaking free of her past. The affection and mutual respect between them is evident when watching them onscreen in those three films.

John Saxon, Sandra Dee and director Helmut Kaunter
I had wanted to see this movie for years, and when I finally did I was not disappointed. Sandra Dee was a sweet soul who had more talent and human value than she gave herself credit for. I wish she could have had a happier life,  but at least we have her films to remember her by. John Saxon is also a treasure, a man who has continued to show range and versatility. He's had  very long career of which he should be justly proud, although I'm sure he wishes that Sandra could have had the same. "The Restless Years" is an engaging time capsule and seeing the beauty of Sandra Dee and John Saxon is worth the price alone!


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