Literary Films: Under Milk Wood, Paper Lion, Ghost and Mrs. Muir

Once again, here are some surprising literary treasures I’ve found on late-night cable TV or in the dusty shelves of my video store’s “Classics” section.

Under Milk Wood

I’m not sure if I can fairly describe a 1972 film starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole as a humble unknown, but then I did not know this film existed until Sundance Channel aired it last month, and I have a feeling many others who care about the poetry of Dylan Thomas don’t know it exists either. The Welsh poet wrote Under Milk Wood as a late-career playscript in 1953. It’s a gentle, poignant look at the busy but solitary souls who live in a small village called Llareggub (the name is famously a dirty joke, which will reveal itself if you spell it backwards). The beautiful setting, quaint humor and deft ensemble storytelling may remind you of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, James Joyce’s Ulysses or anything by Chekhov.

Paper Lion

Who knew that George Plimpton’s classic work of participatory journalism (in which he somehow convinced the Detroit Lions to allow him to train with the team as a backup quarterback “from Harvard”) was once made into a film starring Alan Alda? I sure didn’t. The 1968 movie is a breezy pleasure to watch. Alan Alda — the then-unknown son of Broadway musical comedy star Robert Alda, with M*A*S*H still in his future — transforms himself into young Plimpton with a light touch and a relaxed smile. The Peanut-esque jazz score helps, and there are great exterior scenes of Alda and co-star Lauren Hutton cavorting in the beatific New York City of the 1960’s, along with charming cameos by the actual members of the Detroit Lions football team, including Alax Karras at the height of his athletic career, years before his own TV career skyrocketed with the unfortunate Webster. Karras and the other Lions provide the main drama in the film when they discover the ruse Plimpton/Alda is playing on them and decide to teach the writer some lessons — first rudely, then affectionately — about the importance of trust on a football team.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

This is a wonderful old black-and-white about a beautiful but flinty widow (Gene Tierney) who moves into a haunted cabin on the British cliffside and forms a quasi-romantic bond with a charming but bitter dead sea captain, played by a bearded Rex Harrison. This becomes a literary film halfway through, when Mrs. Muir runs out of money and the ghost offers to help by narrating his bawdy life story (it becomes a bestseller). There are amusing scenes in the office of a publisher, where a slimy children’s book author attempts to divert Mrs. Muir’s interests away from her spectral lover. The funniest moment comes earlier as Harrison dictates the manuscript to Tierney (as a ghost, he can’t type). They argue over a word that greatly offends Tierney, but Harrison insists it belongs in the book. She finally gives in, punching in the unknown word with four staccato taps.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was released in 1947, and two decades it became the basis of a television series starring Hope Lange. I’ve never seen an episode, but I trust that it was better than Webster.

8 Responses

  1. Under Milk WoodI was in a
    Under Milk Wood

    I was in a stage production of this once. It’s a wonderfully challenging performance piece because of all of the Dylan Thomas verbal acrobatics, but it’s a lot of fun. I never knew there was a film version of it, though. I’ll have to hunt that down, since my local video store doesn’t have a classics section.

  2. Jamelah, you were in some
    Jamelah, you were in some good plays! (Weren’t you in “The Cherry Orchard” too?).

  3. Ghost and Mrs. Muir on TVI
    Ghost and Mrs. Muir on TV

    I used to really like the TV version of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” but I loved Hope Lange (though not as much as John Cheever did!), and Edward Mulhare, Charles Nelson Reilly and the rest of the supporting cast, including the last-billed cast member: “and Scruffy.” Scruffy was a very cute wire terrier. No word on his relationship to John Cheever.

  4. Richard — what is the John
    Richard — what is the John Cheever connection here? Was he involved with the show? With Hope Lange (I didn’t think he swung that way, but who knows)?

  5. Speaking of GhostsThe Ghost
    Speaking of Ghosts

    The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the 1947 movie, was on television this morning. I only saw part of it because I had to go to work. I never cared for the tv series version of the 60’s. I was more of a Star Trek, Man From U.N.C.L.E. & Laugh-In guy.

    I think my favorite movie based on a classic book is The Grapes of Wrath. I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it. If you’ve ever heard the song, The Ghost of Tom Joad, it’s based on The Grapes of Wrath.

  6. Lange and Cheever had a
    Lange and Cheever had a pretty hot affair going, from what I’ve read. She’s listed on one website as Cheever’s “mistress.”

    I met Cheever once, in January 1978, at the National Arts Club’s dinner to give Saul Bellow their annual medal in literature. Cheever, along with Bernard Malamud, were invited to speak about their, um, friend Saul. Being a stupid kid — I was invited there only because I’d gotten the Club’s scholarship to Bread Loaf the summer before — I went over to Cheever and Malamud while they were talking, figuring I’d overhear some great literary conversation.

    Instead, they were talking about their illnesses and experiences with doctors. Now that I am old, I understand.

  7. Very interesting! Richard, I
    Very interesting! Richard, I was sure I’d heard that Cheever was gay, but maybe I was either mistaken or maybe he made an exception in this case. Thanks for the amusing tale … I’d love to have met Cheever, even if he was just complaining about his illnesses.

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