(1956 c 122')
Robert Anderson adapted his play about a sensitive boy who is bullied in school for not being overtly masculine while the house mother tries to love him in his distress.
At a college reunion Tom Robinson Lee (John Kerr) writes his name in the class of 1946, but he does not talk to anyone. He walks over to a house on the campus, goes in, and walks upstairs. He looks at carvings on an old chair and into the backyard.
Younger Tom plays guitar and sings while Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr) is working in the garden. He jumps out the window and offers to help carry plants. They discuss gardening, and he says his parents are divorced. He has not seen his mother since he was five. She asks why he did not go with the tennis team and her husband. She asks him to leave her door open a little. She liked his singing, and he says it was “The Joys of Love.” She asks if he is bringing someone up to the dance, and he says he is bringing her as a member of the committee. He knows her husband will be out of town. He asks what color dress she will be wearing because the committee is sending her a corsage. She gets him try on a girl’s costume for the play A School for Scandal. He asks her not to tell his father. He says he does not know any girls because he was in boarding school. He says he can’t even dance. She begins to teach him how to dance. He is to shy to put his arm around her and suggests they put it off. He thanks her for the tea and goes upstairs.
Laura drives her car to the golf course and sees Tom with a book. He offers to carry her clubs, and she tells him to go on reading.
Laura is at the beach talking to Lilly Sears (Jacqueline DeWit). Tom comes over and sits down. He gives Lilly a sewing tip, and she throws him the shirt. He sews on a button. He says his maid taught him. Two boys with a football decide not to join the “sewing club.” Laura tells Tom to join them, and he runs off. The two boys ignore him. Bill Reynolds (Leif Erickson) is coaching the boys on volley ball. One boy tells him about a questionnaire on masculinity. Bill calls for Ralph (Tom Laughlin). They talk about Tom sitting with women. Bill says he prefers the company of women. Al (Daryl Hickman) says Tom is a good tennis player. Laura in her car waves to Bill, who comes over. Bill asks her about Tom being with her, and he says they call him “Sister Boy.” He asks about magazines, and she says they might go to Canada this year; but he says he invited the boys up to the lodge.
Laura comes in and sees “Sister Boy Lee” written on a door upstairs. She gets a towel and sees Tom go upstairs. He wipes off the chalk. Al and five boys rush in, get binoculars, and look out the window. Tom complains about they’re coming in his room. He tells them to get out, and Ralph and the others rough him up. Ralph sprays shaving cream on the photo of his father.
Herb Lee (Edward Andrews) watches his son Tom playing a tennis match. Laura is watching from her car. Tom is leading 4-1. Alex sees Herb and persuades him to go to a baseball game. Tom sees him leave and is disappointed. In the locker-room Herb hears baseball players make fun of Tom. Herb greets Tom who stops himself from kissing him. Herb tells him he warned him how to choose his friends. Herb wants to be his friend even though it may be hard. Herb says there will be a pajama fight tonight.
At a soda fountain Herb and Tom eat ice cream sundaes. Tom says the name of the waitress is Ellie (Norma Crane) and Herb tells him to dance with her. Herb tells Tom to get a hair cut.
Herb knocks on Laura’s door and finds her in the garden. She says Tom won and congratulates him. Bill comes in and greets Herb warmly. Herb says he likes Laura. She goes in the kitchen and listens to their conversation. Herb says he was humiliated because they call Tom “Sister Boy.” Bill tells Herb what happened at the beach. Herb says he fired that maid. Herb wishes Tom were a regular guy. Laura comes out and says she thinks Tom is a regular fellow. Herb says he has to change. Herb is embarrassed that Tom wants to be a folksinger. Herb says he hates to have serious talks with Tom. Herb leaves, and Bill tells Laura not to tell Herb about his own son. Bill says he will be back for the pajama fight when the older boys tear them off the younger boys. She asks if they will go after Tom, and he says they will. Bill says he wants to do something for Tom with her help. She says he never had a home until he came here. Bill tells her to be careful. He reminds her that she promised him she would not get upset. Bill says he used to listen to phonograph records for hours and go cry. He tells her to be an interested bystander. She says 18 is a hard age; her late husband was just that age. She says boys wonder how they will measure up. Bill leaves.
Tom finds his father in his room, and Herb says he did not get his hair cut. Herb notices the curtains and then the dress for the play. Tom says he is playing Lady Teasdale, and Herb says he is not to play that part. Tom disagrees, and his father insists he must show them. He tells Tom to phone from Bill’s about the play. Herb tells Tom to fight at the bonfire tonight. Herb asks Laura if Tom can use her phone. Herb hands the dress to Laura and gets the number from Bill. Tom very reluctantly calls and says it is busy. Herb asks Tom if he wants anything and says goodbye. Herb and Bill go out. Tom makes the call and says he cannot play the part. Laura tells him to give her the phone, and Laura explains to Fred about Tom’s father. She says Tom is disappointed. Tom hears boys and delays going out the door until they are gone. Laura says she can call Joan Harrison so that he can asks her to go the dance Saturday. He asks why she is shoving him off on Joan. She says they can lick this thing, and he runs out.
On a field a band plays, and boys with torches light the bonfire. Boys knock on Tom’s door. He comes out in his pajamas and goes with them. By the fire Laura says hello to Al. Tom is marched there and left alone. Ralph buttons the top button for Tom. Laura wants to leave, but Bill says it is fun. Boys form a circle around Sister Boy to protect him. Al breaks through and rips off Tom’s shirt. Laura calls to Ralph and runs off. Ralph pulls off Tom’s pants. Tom runs back to the house, and Laura apologizes. She reminds him of the tea with Joan.
Al gets a call from his dad and says why he tore off Tom’s pajamas. Al tells his dad he will think about it, but it is not easy. Al knocks on Laura’s door, and he asks for Bill. Al says he will not room in that house next year. Laura asks if Tom is going over too. He says no, and she asks him to come in. She says she is sorry he will not be rooming with Tom next year. Al says his father wants him to room with Mike. Laura admires Al for having moral courage at the bonfire. She says what he is doing could ruin Tom. Al says he walks strangely and never goes with a girl. Laura says Tom may be deeply in love. Al doubts that, and he wants to talk to Mr. Reynolds. She asks what if she started talking about Al. She says it is easy to smear a person. Al wants to be captain of the ball team next year. He says she will not be hurt. She realizes she is not involved. He says she is nice and says he is sorry. She is sorry too, and he leaves.
Al finds Tom listening to classical music. Al says it has been rough when they pick out a guy. Tom says he is no longer on the dance committee because he gave up his part. Al offers to help Tom. He suggests Tom get his hair cut short. Tom says he does not like a crew-cut. Al mentions how Tom walks. Tom gets angry and then asks for advice. Al watches him walk. Al shows how he walks. Tom tries to copy Al’s walk but sits down. Al suggests that Tom ask Ellie to the dance. Tom says he could be thrown out of school. Al says Ellie talks, and he would be made. Al tells Tom he has not been with a girl alone either. Tom suggest Al go with Ellie. Al says he is going to room with Mike next year. Tom says he understands and tries to give Al’s tie back, but Al walks out.
Bill finds Laura in their bedroom, and he gives her a book of poems. He sees she already has it, and she says Tom gave it to her. Bill gets angry, and Laura says she is touched and thanks him. She says they don’t touch anymore, and tension grows between them. She clings to his arm and asks for closeness like it was before. He gets up and says he does not know what she is talking about. She offers him tea and says Joan is coming over. He says she isn’t. He says they are losing Al next year and Tom too because he will be rooming alone. Laura asks Bill if he is jealous of her interest in Tom. He says he is going to the dining hall. He tells her not to see Tom except with other boys. He goes out.
She goes down the stairs and hears Tom calling Ellie to invite her to the dance. He says he will see her at nine on Saturday night.
Laura with a bouquet goes in to see Ellie and buys a pack of cigarettes. Ellie recognizes her and says the flowers are pretty. Laura gives her a rose.
Tom is dressed for the party and takes a swallow of alcohol. It is raining, and he puts on an overcoat. Laura calls to him as he is going out. She says she was expecting him. He asks her permission to go out. She offers him coffee, and he admits he was drinking. She thanks him for the card and flowers he sent her. She gets him to drink from her coffee cup. She says it is her anniversary. He says Bill is on a mountaintop, but she says it is not that anniversary. She says it was her first husband, who was about his age. Tom says he will be eighteen tomorrow. She says he was killed in war for being conspicuously brave. He was afraid others thought he was a coward. She says Tom is like him. He was kind, gentle, and lonely. He says he died happy, but she regrets he died a boy proving he was a man. Tom asks for more coffee and says he remembers his seventh-grade teacher. He says he made a fool of himself because he was in love with her. He thought she loved him; he was twelve. He says he is always falling in love with the wrong people. She says she does too, but nothing comes of it. Bittersweet memories can be pleasant. She asks who else he has been in love with. It is nine, and he says he must leave. She puts on music and offers to teach him how to dance. He asks why she is so nice to him more than to the others. She says she likes him. He says no one else does. He asks if it is pity. She says he has been nice to her. She asks if that is why Mr. Reynolds hates him. His father told Bill to make a man out of him, but he failed. He says he does not understand. She asks him to let her teach him how to dance, and he puts his arms around her. She embraces him and says no. He runs out, and boys run in. Tom hides by the stairs. Bill comes in and tells Laura they can be alone. She hides Tom’s overcoat. Bill goes outside in the rain without his overcoat.
In her apartment Ellie tells Tom she wants coffee. She tells him to take off his wet coat, but he leaves it on. He sees the flower Laura gave her. Ellie turns the radio on and tries to get it to work. He offers to get her a new radio she wants. She asks him to dance, and he says he doesn’t. She says she will teach him, and he asks for coffee. She asks what the fellows call him. He says nothing and asks her to dance. She tells him to relax. She says she used to work in a dime-a-dance place, and they laugh. She asks if he has ever been out with a girl before. She asks if he is out for a bet. She puts her arm around him, and he kisses her. He breaks off and wipes off his mouth. She asks if she is the first girl he ever kissed. She says he has soft hands like a girl. She remembers what they call him. He goes crazy and looks for a knife and runs out. He goes down the stairs, and two guys hit him and take the knife. Ellie tells them to get him out of there.
In the garden Laura hears boys talking about happened to Tom. Herb knocks on the door and comes in. She says Bill is talking to the girl. Herb chuckles, and she says he seems pleased. She says Tom will be expelled. She is surprised that Herb is proud of him. Bill comes in and says Tom is alone in his room. Herb says it is a calculated risk of being a man. Bill says it did not work out that way. Bill says Tom panicked and tried to kill himself. Herb does not understand. Laura walks outside in the garden. Bill tells her that he and Herb are going to the Dean’s. She asks him to stay and talk with her. Bill tells Herb to go ahead for a while. Laura asks if the men and boys who intimidated him will be punished. She asks Bill if he feels any guilt. She says this boy is different and does not conform. She says he is right because for him there has to be love. She says manliness is tenderness, gentleness, and consideration. He realizes she is fond of him. She says she heard what Tom was going to do, and she tried to stop him by being affectionate to him. She says he had to prove to bullies that he was a man. She wishes he had proved it with her. She wanted to help him, but she sent him away. He says she overcame her pity. She says it was not pity. He asks her what she knows about manliness. She was married to a boy. She protests that she loved Bill. He says she has been critical of him. She is more interested in mothering that boy. She asks Bill why he won’t let her love him. Bill leaves. Laura takes the overcoat and knocks on Tom’s door and goes in. She finds a crumpled note to his dad and reads it. She finds another to her that is crossed out.
Laura drives her car where she sees a bike. She walks into the woods and finds Tom laying down. She says she brought his coat back and says hello. He thought she never wanted to see him again. He asks if she heard everything, and she says yes. She says he is not in love with Ellie. He wishes they would have let him kill himself. She asks why he kissed her last night. He says it made her sick, and she sent him away. She says that was the nicest kiss she ever had. She says one day he will meet a girl, and it will be right. He wishes he could, and he thanks her. He lays down again. She stands over him and puts out her hand. He takes it and sits up. She tells him that years from now he will talk about this, and she asks him to be kind. He puts his head on her shoulder, and she embraces him.
Tom is sitting in his room ten years later. A boy comes in and says it is a crummy room. He asks if Tom wrote a book. Tom knocks on Reynolds’ door and tells Mr. Reynolds who it is. Bill turns off the music, and Tom asks about Mrs. Reynolds. He says he wrote her a letter. Bill says he does not know where she is. He hands Tom a letter from her that she never sent. Bill answers the phone and gives his grades. Tom goes out in the garden and reads the letter. Laura’s voice says she read his novel about his days in school and that she came out like a saint. She says he romanticized the wrong they did. She is not happy without Bill, and her leaving him ruined his life. She says these are terrible things, but he knows now that there are always consequences. She wonders if she showed a lack of faith in him. She says dreadful experiences make us strong if they don’t kill us. She is glad he is married and hopes he will have a good life. The wife always kept her affection for the boy in her heart.
This drama portrays the coarseness of men and how doubts about their own sexuality can make them overcompensate by acting masculine. They may also bully a non-conformer who seems more feminine and sensitive because he may represent what they fear in themselves. An understanding woman is drawn to try to help him, and she comes to realize that her marriage is not working.