Release Date(s)1952 (November 4, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Imprint Films/Via Vision Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
[Editor’s Note: This is a Region Free Blu-ray release.]
Come Back, Little Sheba, based on the William Inge play, is a close-up look at a twenty-year marriage in which mundane routines have replaced love, sensuality, and true partnership.
Lola Delaney (Shirley Booth) is a housewife who long ago abandoned taking care of herself. Overweight, in old house dresses, hair a rat’s nest, she does little other than dutifully look after husband, Doc (Burt Lancaster). In contrast, Doc wears an impeccable three-piece suit and heads off to his chiropractic office each morning, giving Lola a perfunctory peck on the cheek.
Childless, the Delaneys live alone in a large house in a middle-class neighborhood. Lola has decided to rent a room and posted an ad at the local university. Young art student Marie Buckholder (Terry Moore) comes to look at the room, discovers that a particular room in the house gets a lot of light and would be perfect as a makeshift studio, and soon moves in. Though Marie has a fiancé back home, she’s not above flirting, especially with Turk Fisher (Richard Jaeckel), a jock whom she asks to pose for her.
Doc is a recovering alcoholic about to be celebrated at his Alcoholics Anonymous chapter for his first anniversary entirely off booze, and Lola is extremely proud of his efforts. The presence of Marie and seeing her flirtatious behavior, however, has an unsettling effect on both Doc and Lola. Lola likes seeing young people enjoy themselves but is saddened by the contrast between her own joyless life and theirs, while Doc sees the life he once envisioned as a fading memory and channels his disappointment into jealous overprotectiveness of Marie.
Shirley Booth, who won both the Tony and the Oscar for her Broadway and film performances of Lola, fully inhabits the character. Her performance is two-fold. On the surface, her Lola is cheery, smiling as she takes care of Doc and interacts with Marie, but with an underlying sadness, as if she were happy on the outside and dead within. Whether ambling downstairs half asleep in a seedy bathrobe or pouring juice for Doc at breakfast, Lola is going through the motions of living. She loves Doc dearly but feels shut out of his life and the specter of his relapse is always present.
A housewife, she’s alone most of the day and longs for companionship, whether from the next-door neighbor, the mailman, or radio soap operas. Her hospitality is often excessive, as when she keeps popping in on Marie and Turk when they really want to be alone, or preparing an elegant dinner for Marie and her fiancé, Bruce (Walter Kelley).
Burt Lancaster gives a fine, underplayed performance as Doc. Made up to look older with padding and graying hair, stooped in posture, and without the lilting vocal cadence that characterizes his delivery in most of his screen roles, he suggests a man older than his actual years. Though he’s top billed, Come Back, Little Sheba is easily Booth’s film. Lancaster is off screen for much of the time and has only one big moment, a harrowing scene with Booth when Doc returns home drunk. He certainly shows a range of acting beyond the swashbucklers he was making at the time, and showcases his willingness and ability to take on more challenging roles.
Director Daniel Mann opens up the play somewhat, but most scenes take place in the Delaney house. Initially, the relationship between Booth and Lancaster doesn’t ring true, but by allowing Booth to dominate as Lancaster channels a man whose dreams have evaporated, he makes clear the bond between the Delaneys in the way each is dependent on the other.
Terry Moore’s performance seems overly perky and cute, rendering her character annoying. Marie is young and pretty, with a future full of promise, and loves every minute of her life. As a foil for Lola her purpose, dramatically, is obvious. Some subtlety in Moore’s performance would have made Marie a more authentic character.
Other characters are brought in to allow for exposition and keep the action from being entirely housebound. These include Doc’s AA sponsor Ed (Philip Ober), neighbor Mrs. Coffman (Lisa Gold), and the mailman (Paul McVey). Yet despite director Mann’s efforts to expand the play’s locations, the film still has a stagey look. It’s only Booth’s riveting performance that renders these shortcomings moot.
Come Back, Little Sheba was shot by director of photography James Wong Howe on 35 mm black-and-white film, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The Blu-ray from Imprint Films, which features the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, is sourced from a new 4K scan by Paramount Pictures. Quality is nearly pristine, with no distracting imperfections. Blacks are deep and rich, and the grayscale is excellent. Lighting suggests typical home lighting and there are no overly dramatic shadows. Production design features a cluttered old home with outdated furniture and appliances, giving the impression that Lola has let her housekeeping slide. There’s little in the way of decor to cheer up the surroundings. Lancaster’s make-up gives him an aged pallor and greying hair. The AA meeting is held in a stark hall and, even though the scene represents a celebratory event, the mood skews toward somber.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono LPCM. Optional English subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. The fairly mild soundtrack comes to violent life when Doc, having relapsed, confronts Lola with cruel and hurtful remarks. Frank Waxman’s score can be jaunty and upbeat when Marie and Turk are on screen and sad and melancholy when we see Lola alone. Because the action centers on the Delaney home, ambient sounds of breakfast being prepared, a table being set for a fancy dinner, and a radio playing music serve as background for the dialogue.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio Commentary with Scott Harrison
- Burt Lancaster: Daring to Reach (50:01)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:25)
In this new commentary, British film historian Scott Harrison notes that Inge hated his teaching job. After Tennessee Williams read Come Back, Little Sheba, he urged Inge to get it to people able to get it produced. Come Back, Little Sheba was followed on Broadway by Inge’s Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Bette Davis was considered for the role of Lola Delaney but eventually declined, and the producers waited for Shirley Booth to become available. Booth had won the Tony and Golden Globe awards for her Broadway performance and would go on the win the Best Actress Oscar for repeating the role on screen. She conveyed “a great sadness... a profound emptiness.” Though the outside is emoting, the inside has shut down. She communicates “a deadness behind the eyes” and a “marvelous duality in her performance.” An overview of Booth’s career on stage and screen is provided. A comparison is made between the opening of the play and the opening of the film. Hal B. Wallis had seen Burt Lancaster on stage and was so impressed that he looked for a film project for him. Stooping helped diminish Lancaster’s tall stature. Critics of the time, however, felt that, physically, Lancaster was miscast. Lancaster never saw Sidney Blackmer as Doc in the play because he didn’t want to be influenced by another actor’s performance. Come Back, Little Sheba showed that Lancaster had an introspective side. He had become a star in a series of crime and swashbuckler films, eventually winning an Oscar for the title role in Elmer Gantry in 1960. Come Back, Little Sheba was Shirley Booth’s screen debut.
Burt Lancaster: Daring to Reach – This vintage documentary consists of “talking head” comments on Lancaster, clips from his films, audio excerpts by Lancaster himself, and a retrospective of Lancaster’s life and career, from his early life in Harlem, New York City, to major movie stardom. Actors Rhonda Fleming, Earl Holliman, Peter Riegert, Virginia Mayo, Terry Moore, directors Delbert Mann and Sidney Pollack, and producer James Hill offer their insights. Scenes from Lancaster’s films include The Killers, From Here to Eternity, Come Back, Little Sheba, Sweet Smell of Success, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Birdman of Alcatraz.
Hollywood has often bypassed great stage actors in its screen adaptations, favoring established stars to boost the box office. It’s to the credit of the producers of Come Back, Little Sheba that they took a chance on newcomer Shirley Booth to shoulder the weight of the picture. Lola’s constant concern about finding their lost dog, Sheba, suggests her longing for a time gone by, when life was brighter and filled with promise. The film provides a permanent record of her wrenching, often heartbreaking performance.
- Dennis Seuling