“The Long Hot Summer” is a steamy Southern potboiler with more in common with soap operas than its source material by William Faulkner (“Barn Burning”, “Spotted Horses” and “The Hamlet”). In a nutshell, the story is about a drifter with a reputation for barn burning who gets involved with the Varner family, whose patriarch virtually owns the sleepy little town of Frenchman’s Bend, Mississippi.
There are two movie versions of “The Long Hot Summer”. The first is a feature, filmed in 1958 with electric blue-eyed Newman as drifter Ben Quick and soon-to-be-Mrs. Newman (they married when production wrapped) Joanne Woodward as the strong-willed Clara Varner. It was also the couple’s first film collaboration. Other major characters were Orson Welles as the autocratic Will Varner, Anthony Franciosa as the weak-willed son Jody, and Lee Remick as Jody’s fun-loving wife Eula. The other is a 1985 two-part TV movie, with Don Johnson and Judith Ivey in the main roles, Jason Robards as Will Varner, William Russ as Jody, and Cybill Shepherd as Eula. In between the two movies was a TV series which ran from 1965 to 1966 on ABC and lasted 26 episodes. It starred Roy Thinnes and Nancy Malone in the main roles.
The 1958 version is practically perfect melodrama. I admit I was a little surprised at the frank depiction of sexual frustration and the bawdy hints about good lovin’. Of course, this being the Fifties, the only on-screen sexual expression is the passionate kiss between Ben and Clara in the general store. The screenplay has some very snappy dialogue, most of which remains intact in the 1985 movie.
If I hadn’t seen and been wowed by the original, I may have been more impressed with the telefilm. Although a good way to kill an afternoon, the 1985 version can’t touch the 1958 film. The newer version spices things up a bit (within TV boundaries) and adds a few more subplots such as Eula’s affair, Ben’s murder charge and his sinister father’s visit. In addition to the aforementioned kiss in the general store, Ben seduces Noel Varner (perhaps Clara was too old-fashioned) down by the river after she breaks up with longtime beau Alan Stewart. While both movies end with a climactic fire and a romantic aftermath, the second movie makes a few changes. Unlike the original, which had a somewhat weak ending, 1985’s TLHS includes a fight in a burning building and a near hanging by a lynch mob that’s quite exciting.
Newman plays Ben Quick as a cocky young whippersnapper. Joanne Woodward’s Clara, hair screwed back in a tight bun, looks a bit too much like a stereotypical schoolteacher but her appearance belies her strong mindedness and sense of her own worth. The verbal sparring between the two is very sharp and biting, unlike the 1985 counterpart, which is more simmer than sizzle. Don Johnson smolders nicely in the Ben Quick role and spends about half the movie with his shirt off. He plays Ben as a weary cynic, something the younger Ben Quick might have become after a few more years on the road. His portrayal is the best of the 1985 cast. Judith Ivey plays Noel in much the same way but is less convincing. Maybe it’s the lack of smolder.
Jason Robards is stiffly miscast as Will Varner, lacking the verve of Orson Welles’s over-the-top portrayal. Some critics think Orson overacts but I like Will Verner as a bluff and hearty larger-than-life character. William Russ’s portrayal of Jody is just as whiny as Anthony Franciosa’s but he’s given a bit more backbone, thanks to screenwriter Rita Mae Brown. Being a big “Moonlighting” fan back in the day, every time I saw Cybill Shepherd onscreen I thought of Maddie Hayes, not Southern belle Eula Verner. I was a little confused by the movie’s time period, it looked like the 80s but the general store and the women’s clothing were more 50’s style.
Although set in Mississippi, neither movie was filmed in Mississippi. The first “Long Hot Summer” was filmed in Louisiana while the second filmed in both Louisiana and Texas.
The 1958 film has been released in DVD format by Fox Home Entertainment. It includes "AMC Backstory", the "Movietone News" coverage of the movie's premiere and the original theatrical trailer. Sadly, there is no commentary, director’s or otherwise. The 1985 version has yet to be released in DVD format but if you hunt around on eBay or Amazon, you could find someone with a video to sell. It could also pop up sometime on one of the classic movie channels.