Directed By Delbert Mann
Written by Terrence Rattigan and John Gay, from the stage-plays by Rattigan
Starring David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Rita Hayworth, Burt Lancaster, Wendy Hiller, Rod Taylor and Gladys Cooper
Delbert Mann was a lucky sonofabitch. He cut his teeth directing live television in the 1950s, including a 1953 episode of The Philco Television Playhouse series, about a lonely butcher, named “Marty”. By all accounts the episode was a success, such that when the hour-long TV drama was expanded and remade as a feature film, Mann was called up to the big leagues. Marty the film was still the unpretentious, unostentatious story of a sweet, lonely butcher looking for love, only this version won the top prize at Cannes, and the 1955 Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor and Screenplay.
Marty was Mann’s feature directing debut and, having won an Oscar for it, it was all downhill from there. Sure, he made hay while he could, turning out 14 more films between 1957 and 1968 – in addition to some TV work – but was hardly a visual stylist, or did anything special with the medium of film. Yes, he was fine with actors, but actors don’t vote for Best Director – directors do – and so when his film Separate Tables hit it big with 7 Oscar nominations, it was not surprising Mann was not among them.
Eventually, Mann would was out of films altogether and was back in TV, where he started, proving that which is easily given, is also easily taken away.
What’s It About?
The Best Picture winner of 1932 was Grand Hotel, a film involving multiple characters, across multiple, disparate storylines, who converge for one night in a Berlin hotel. People come and go, stories comic and tragic spin out, with the audience left to chew over the idea of the world being full of stories, or something.
In some ways, Separate Tables is kin to Grand Hotel, only in this instance the hotel is far from grand and is really more a boarding house than a hotel, filled more with pensioners living there long-term than with traditional guests. In all, it’s a common place, of common people, and common problems.
Among them are Lancaster and Hayworth as a divorced couple who are toxic to one another together, and toxic to themselves when apart.
Niven is a lonely, old military man, who hides behind fanciful stories and has an affinity for the shy, nervous Kerr, a woman cut somewhat from the same awkward cloth as he. The roadblock to any sort of relationship between them is Kerr’s mother, played by Cooper, who is a domineering old bitch that seems more delighted in running her daughter down than building her up.
There is the hotelier, Hiller, who’s engaged to Lancaster but is otherwise marginalized in the back-and-forth he has with Hayworth.
Rod Taylor is wasted as a medical student, staying at the hotel with a girlfriend so that he might study, with minimal success.
The thin plot hanging all these folks together? Niven was convicted of some low-level offense for having nudged a woman with his elbow in a movie-theater – he basically winds up arrested and charged with being serially-annoying – a crime he commits more out of loneliness than anything nefarious. Of course, when this is discovered the stuck-up-busy-body-bitch Cooper aims to have him run out of the hotel, not necessarily because he poses any threat – she’ll say he does – but only because she fears he’ll trike up a romance with Cooper’s daughter and take her away.
In the end, if the film is Grand Hotel it’s of the budget crowd – low stakes, low outcomes.
A common refrain in many entries in The Also-Rans Project is that while the films themselves were only so-so, and therefore not Oscar-worthy, the acting was great. Guess what – Separate Tables is so-so, but the acting is great.
Niven is good as the talkative, blowhardish bore of a military man, and even if he goes a bit broad in his pathos, and the despair and loneliness and awkwardness, he does so in a way that reads as genuine. When you see him, you’ll actually believe you’ve met this guy before, or at least someone just like him.
Curiously, while Niven won the Best Actor Oscar, over the likes of Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier, he doesn’t actually play the leading role in the film. Honestly, nobody does. Rather, every one of the principle cast has about the same amount of screen time and not one is on screen from beginning to end – indeed, there are long stretches where they are all absent. But Niven’s role is nominally the lead because his story – the conviction for being annoying – is the central conflict of the film. Even when he’s off stage, they’re basically talking about him.
Kerr also reads as genuine as the browbeaten daughter, more accustomed to being run down than actually standing up for herself, even as she wants nothing more from life that to stand up and live her own life.
Hiller is lovely as the hotelier. Quietly strong and commanding, and even as she is in control of herself at all times, you can see the emotion roiling just beneath the surface.
Hayworth is good as the aging fashion model and even at 40 she was still a beautiful woman. This is not to say she’s as flawless as she was as a young actress, because she’s not. No 40-year-old is. Rather, it’s those hints of age and worldliness, that poise and self-confidence that makes her beautiful, easily more-attractive than the flawless skin of women half as old.
Lancaster is great. Flippant and icy and cutting, but always in that stand-up Burt-Lancaster-way – if you’ve seen Lancaster in anything before, you know what you’re getting.
The true standout – the quiet hero of the piece – is Gladys Cooper as Kerr’s mother. She perfectly embodies the snooty, superior busybody who isn’t above blowing up anthills into mountains to get her way. In her career Cooper seemed to specialize in this role a bit, and so maybe by 1958 the Academy had seen enough of her shtick to not be interested in giving it an Oscar. I, on the other hand, am not tired of seeing her shtick, and she simply crushes it.
Separate Tables was based on a pair of one-act plays, combined and expanded for the film. Given the way they were filmed, it’s fair that Delbert Mann was overlooked for a Best Director nom – his direction is pedestrian and bland and does little to open the story up visually, or to divert attention from the fact that he’s basically produced a filmed play. Reinforcing this is that every bit of the film takes place on obvious sets – including exteriors – with cinematography flat and moodless. In every way, the film is born more from Mann’s work in television than any great achievement in cinema, and it shows.
While the script itself was fine – the stories compel – it shaded a bit too much toward the obvious to be truly great. If you didn’t get the point that the film is about loneliness, the text makes sure to tell it to you at least twice.
Better than Best?
As down as I can be on Separate Tables, it is easily better than the Best Picture winner of 1958 – Gigi. That was a movie I simply loathed, for all sorts of reasons, and which I’m not going to go into here. Needless to say, while Separate Tables was better than Gigi, it still runs behind such other 1958 films as The Big Country, Mon Oncle, and Vertigo. Again, it’s a case of being better than the best, but not best yourself.
In this day and age, where smoking is now banned in most public spaces, it’s pretty glaring just how much smoking there is in films from bygone eras – it’s everywhere. Like restaurants and bars, Given how often most movie characters light up, and all the places they light up, I shudder to think what the world smelled like 50 years ago. Was there anyplace that didn’t stink like an ashtray?
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.