Monday, May 24, 2010

Una Merkel - Her Finest Moment

Dawn recently did a piece on Una Merkel, a solid character actress who got her start as a stand-in for Lillian Gish in 1920's Way Down East.  She is famous for her wisecracking blond character in 42nd Street, and is remembered best for such roles.  I wanted to pay homage to one of her performances as a mentally ill mother in 1961's Summer and Smoke, one of the most memorable characters in movies.  She had created the role on Broadway, and brought it to the screen, where her relatively small role shines alongside a stellar cast including Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey.

Summer and Smoke was a play by Tennessee Williams originally titled Eccentricities of a Nightingale.  It tells the story of a southern spinster named Alma (Page), a shy, nervous daughter of a minister.  Alma is emotionally fragile, unable to handle the realities of life and her feelings.  She is easily embarrassed and fluttery with nerves, physically frail, a sad woman who longs for love but cannot express it or act on it.  She is a character well known to Tennessee Williams fans from his  body of work.  Una Merkel plays a character also often seen in Williams' plays.  She is Alma's mother, Mrs. Winemiller, who could be an older version of Alma, old enough to have become mentally unstable and not to be trusted for normal behavior in public.  One of Alma's unspoken fears is that will end up like her mother, the barely tolerated wife of a harried and intolerant husband and the bane of her child's difficult life.  Mrs. Winemiller mainly lives upstairs, an embarrassment and annoyance to her family. When her behavior becomes erratic enough, she is often ordered upstairs by her husband. She has fits of mania when she talks crazily, screams "Where's the ice cream man? I want the ice cream man!"  When she manages to get out of the house, Mrs. Winemiller is known all over the small town as a sneaky kleptomaniac, mainly pilfering hats from stores.  Alma is often the person who has the agonizing job of apologizing to storekeepers, imploring her mother not to humiliate her with that behavior.

Mrs. Winemiller is crazy, alright, but not too crazy to see through Alma, and mean enough to enjoy baiting her daughter with sudden flashes of sane insight into Alma's nerves and humiliation.  She makes fun of Alma for Alma's deeply felt and hidden love of her hell-raising neighbor (Laurence Harvey).  Mrs. Winemiller sings "Alma's in love, Alma's in love" in front of other people, well aware that her daughter is deeply embarrassed by this revelation.  It is very difficult to play crazy without eliciting laughter, but Una does it with an attitude of dignity and pathos in her cruel insanity in this difficult role.  She is a complex character, and Una uses all of her considerable acting talent to bring a marvelous performance to the movie.

Her performance was noticed, and Una was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work.  Una Merkel rounded out her career with this fine piece of serious acting, light years from her early years as a dithering, wisecracking blond.  Well done, Una.  You have left a piece of genius in movie history.


  1. Becky, Awesome review!! I'm suprised that I have not seen this film. I'm a huge fan of costumed romantic dramas. I hope TCM airs it soon.

  2. Becky, I have no idea why the comments are not showing up. Hopefully, it will work it self out by tomorrow. :(


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