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Film Friday: "Separate Tables" (1958)

In honor of Deborah Kerr's 94th birthday, which was on Wednesday, this week on "Film Friday" I though I'd to tell you a little bit about one of my personal favorite films of hers.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Delbert Mann, Separate Tables (1958) revolves around a group of lonely residents of a small British seaside hotel, including the plain and overly protected Sybil Railton-Bell (Deborah Kerr) and her domineering mother Maude (Gladys Cooper), who disapproves of her daughter's friendship with the pompous Major David Angus Pollock (David Niven). Mrs. Railton-Bell is determined to have the major expelled from the hotel, after finding an article revealing his arrest for indecent behavior to several women at the local theater and that his military stories and ranking are fraudulent. Meanwhile, the glamorous Ann Shankland (Rita Hayworth) arrives at the hotel looking for John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster), a drunken American writer to whom she used to be married. 

It soon becomes clear that a spark of passion still remains between John and Ann, but he doesn't give in to her charms, as he is now engaged to Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller), the hotel proprietress. When Mrs. Railton-Bell holds a meeting with the other long-time residents to discuss her proposal to expel Major Pollock, John walks in and tries to get Sybil to disagree with her mother, but she becomes hysterical and flees. The next morning, both Ann and Major Pollock prepare to leave the hotel. Although Sybil is still upset about Major Pollock's questionable behavior, she is sorry that he is going away and worries about what will happen to him. She offers him money, but he refuses, telling her that they are so much alike because they are afraid of people.  Pat tries to persuade John that he and Ann are still in love, before telling Major Pollock that he is welcome to stay on at the hotel. At breakfast, John sits down at Ann's table and apologizes to her, after which she admits she still loves him and fears a life of loneliness. When Major Pollock sits at his own table, everyone lays judgmental eyes on him, but John bids him 'Good Morning,' prompting the other guests to do the same. Outraged, Mrs. Railton-Bell demands that Sybil leave the dining room with her, but she refuses and also addresses the major. When Pat informs him that his taxi has arrived, Major Pollock dismisses the car and declares that he will remain at the hotel.

Sybil Railton-Bell: In spite of what he's done, I don't want anything bad to happen to him. I just want him to be happy. I want him to find another friend at his other hotel, help him to forget his fright.

Born in London in 1911, Terence Rattigan established himself as a successful playwright at the tender age of 25 with the hit West End comedy French Without Tears, which starred a young Rex Harrison. A troubled homosexual, Rattigan's plays were typically set in a repressive upper-middle-class background, confronting issues of sexual frustation, failed relationships and adultery. One of his most critically and commercially acclaimed works was Separate Tables, a pair of interlinked, one-act stories that concerned four desperately lonely people residing at the same seaside hotel in Bournemouth, England. The first story, entitled "Table by the Window," told of the relationship between John Malcolm and Ann Shankland, while the second, "Table Number Seven," was centered on Sybil Railton-Bell and Major Pollock. Directed by Peter Glenville, Separate Tables opened on the London stage in 1954 and starred Eric Portman and Margaret Leighton, who doubled as the principal characters in each play.

Following a successful run on Broadway in 1956, Separate Tables was bought for the screen by Hecht-Hill-Lancaster (HHL), an independent production company formed by Burt Lancaster in association with his agent Harold Hecht and his friend James Hill. They initially hired Laurence Olivier to direct Separate Tables and share the four pivotal roles with his then wife, Vivien Leigh. When it was decided that a film version of Rattigan's story would be more marketable with four stars instead of two, Lancaster took over the role of the drunken journalist and Rita Hayworth, Hill's newest love interest, was cast as his former wife. After arguing with Lancaster on how the character of John Malcolm should be played, Olivier bowed out of the project, taking Leigh with him. Fellow British actors David Niven and Deborah Kerr, fresh from co-starring roles in Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse (1958), were then signed as the bogus Army major and the repressed spinster who helps him find redemption.

Rita Hayworth and Burt Lancaster
To replace Olivier behind the camera, the company hired Delbert Mann, who had made a name for himself in live television in New York before winning an Academy Award as Best Director for his first feature film, Marty (1955), also produced by HHL. Mann was initially apprehensive about being able to helm the English setting properly, but Hecht helped convince him otherwise. The producer also allowed Mann to rehearse for three weeks with the entire cast of Separate Tables, apparently "all on salary, with a catered lunch served each day by the Brown Derby Restaurant."

My first instinct was that I was quite the wrong kind of director, and I'd never even been to Bournemouth or experienced that totally British small-hotel life; but Harold Hecht sent me there to research it, and within half a day I'd found prototypes of all the characters Terry [Terence Rattigan] had written about, all living there in retirement homes the old schoolmaster, the little lady who played the horses, the retirement Army man [...] Our main problem was getting a screenplay which would turn the two original plays into just one narrative line, and we had about five attempts with different writers, including Terry himself, before we finally got it right.
(Delbert Mann)

David Niven and Wendy Hiller
From the beginning, the atmosphere on the set of Separate Tables was quite tense and troublesome. When shooting began in November 1957, Lancaster and Hill began to taunt Wendy Hiller, who appeared as the hotel manageress, with "crude remarks, sniggering jokes, filthy language and suggestive innuendos." According to Mann, the cool-headed Hiller "just withdrew, pulled herself within and didn't respond to them like a true lady." Hayworth, for her part, was overawed by her celebrated English co-stars and insecure about playing Lancaster's aging ex-wife, a role that "spoke to some of her own fears of growing old and lonely and alone."

David Niven, on the other hand, was delighted to be working with such a "dream company" and portraying what he considered to be one of Rattigan's best characters. However, he became increasingly apprehensive as the production moved closer to the film's climatic scene, when his Major Pollock, now exposed as a liar and convicted molester of women in darkened cinemas, must walk into the hotel dining room knowing that the other guests, all of whom sit at separate tables, have heard about his disgrace. This five-minute sequence took four days to shoot, during which time Niven "trembled with nervous tension," overwhelmed by all the "expressions of embarrassment, fear, guilt and shame" that he had to perform. "There was this whole line-up of the British stage [...] all staring at him, and when he'd finished they all applauded. I think that was maybe the best moment of his whole acting career," Mann later recalled.

I think [David Niven] caught that major because in some many ways he understood him [...] as a character and as a person David felt that he was on familiar ground that he too in his own life had always been acting and pretending, 'dressing up for the grown-ups,' as he used to say.
(Deborah Kerr)

Rita Hayworth and Deborah Kerr
In the meantime, Lancaster and Hill began to use their power as co-producers "to ensure that there was more and more footage of the parallel plot involving the two American stars." When principal photography wrapped up in early January 1958, Lancaster and Hill took over the editing from Hecht, Mann and Marjorie Fowler, cutting out some of Kerr's earlier scenes from the film's final version. During post-production, a cheesy theme song, "Separate Tables" by Vic Damone, was added to the soundtrack without Mann's previous knowledge. The director was infuriated by this and reportedly told his agent, "Get me out of my Hecht-Hill-Lancaster contract. I will never work for them again." 

Separates Tables was a great critical success upon its December 1958 release by United Artists. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times commented that the film had "the theatrical character of a small-time Grand Hotel [1932]," while the New York Herald Tribune asserted that Separate Tables was "one of the year's finest achievements" and "a movie that nobody in his right mind will want to miss." All the members of the cast received their share of praise, especially Deborah Kerr, Wendy Hiller and David Niven. Crowther, for instance, called Kerr the "most brilliant and true of the performers" and considered Hiller "dignified, valiant and strong." Niven came across as the most acclaimed of the three, with the London Daily Herald headline declaring that Separate Tables was "Niven's masterpiece." In their review of the film, the Herald noted that Niven's portrayal of Major Pollock was "a thoughtful study of a sad, lonely genuine human being. At the age of 48, he joins the selected ranks of the screen masters." Despite the overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, Separate Tables was not a commercial success.

Hayworth, Lancaster, Hecht, Hiller, Mann, Niven and Kerr during a rehearsal

At the 31st Academy Awards held at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in April 1959, Separate Tables received a total of seven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Niven), Best Actress (Kerr), Best Supporting Actress (Hiller), Best Adapted Screenplay (Rattigan and John Gay), Best Cinematography — Black and White (Charles Lang Jr.) and Best Original Score (David Raksin). Niven and Hiller were both winners that night, but Kerr sadly lost to Susan Hayward for her performance in Robert Wise's I Want to Live! (1958). When the nominations were announced, many people believed that David Niven had no chance of taking home the award, since fellow British actor Alec Guinness had won the year before. Niven, too, was convinced that he would not win, as he was in the same category as Tony Curtis, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy. When Irene Dunne opened the envelope and announced Niven's name, he was so surprised that he lost his balance while climbing the steps to the stage.


__________________________
SOURCES: 
Burt Lancaster: A Filmography and Biography by Ed Andreychuck (2000) | Burt Lancaster: An American Life by Kate Buford (2000) | David Niven: A Bio-Bibliography by Karin J. Fowler (1995) | Deborah Kerr: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (2010) | Terence Rattigan: A Biography by Geoffrey Wansell (2009) | Niv: The Authorised Biography of David Niven by Graham Lord (2013) | United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry, Volume 2, 1951-1978 by Tino Balio (1987) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times contemporary review by Bosley Crowther

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