Program Notes: Two for the Seesaw (1962)

Today playwright William Gibson (not to be mistaken for the similarly-named ‘90s cyberpunk horror author) is recognized primarily for his 1959 Broadway hit (and subsequent movie) The Miracle Worker, about the efforts of educator Anne Sullivan to break into the insulated world of the deaf, dumb and blind Helen Keller.

The play won Tony awards for play, director (Arthur Penn), actress (Anne Bancroft) and introduced to the world a 10-year-old actress named Patty Duke.

But Gibson’s fame had been established a year earlier with Two for the Seesaw, a two-character romantic drama starring Bancroft and Henry Fonda.

The play chronicles the romantic relationship of Omaha lawyer Jerry Ryan, who has relocated to the Big Apple in the wake of his divorce. There he encounters Gittel Mosca (Bancroft, who would win a Tony award for her performance), a bohemian dancer. And if that weren’t exotic enough for an uptight Midwesterner, Gittel is Jewish to boot.

Film Screening:
Two for the Seesaw (1962)
Monday, Jan. 9 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

Gibson, who earlier had lived in Topeka, Kansas, with his wife, a psychologist at the famed Menninger Clinic, took as his premise the notion that while opposites may attract, they rarely can maintain a stable relationship. And, indeed, the play ends with Jerry returning to Omaha and his ex-wife.

Considerable behind-the-scenes machinations were involved in bringing Two for the Seesaw to the big screen.

For starters there was the casting. Bancroft was unavailable to reprise her role...she was in rehearsals for the Broadway debut of The Miracle Worker. And besides, while a favorite of theater audiences, she was at the time virtually unknown to moviegoers.

Fonda, meanwhile, was feuding with Gibson (who chronicled the ups and downs of their relationship in his memoir The Seesaw Log) and was not inclined to be in the movie.

Early on Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor were to star. But Taylor found herself stuck in Europe when shooting on Cleopatra ran way over schedule, and Newman dropped out to grab the role of ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson in The Hustler.

Ultimately the film’s producers decided to go with old pro Robert Mitchum and pixieish young Shirley MacLaine, who at this point had almost a decade of Broadway and Hollywood successes under her belt.

Director Robert Wise came to the film late in the process – in fact it was the only film in which he came on board after principal casting has been completed. Moreover, he was uneasy with screenwriter Isobel Lennart’s veneration of the stage play. Most of the film’s dialogue was the same as in the Broadway production, and despite Wise’s efforts to “open up” the play for the screen – by shooting on location in NYC and carefully composing his b&w shots – the movie today strikes many as a filmed stage play rather than as a fully formed motion picture.

Critics remain divided about the sleepy-eyed Mitchum’s performance. Usually projecting an ultra-cool presence, he here was required to play an indecisive middle-of-the-roader, and he often seems ill-at-ease.

But there was unanimous praise for MacLaine’s Gittel, which tapped directly into her sprightly, Manhattan-centric screen persona.

Nevertheless, sparks flew behind the scenes. Earlier this year MacLaine told Oprah Winfrey in an on-air interview that during filming of Seesaw she and Mitchum initiated an off-and-on romantic relationship that only ended with his death in 1997.

See Bob's general introduction to the Robert Wise film series.

Other films in the series “Robert Wise: Hollywood Journeyman”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.

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