I must say, that I have had such amazing luck lately with the films not available on Netflix. Just Friday morning I was able to catch Separate Tables playing on TCM, what perfect timing with my own schedule. So, if there is a man behind the curtain pulling levers for TCM and picking the most obscure Oscar nominated films to air, I say thank you.
During the off-season at the seaside Beauregard Hotel, it seems that everyone had their own secrets and tries to keep to their separate tables. At the small potatoes end of the drama, there is a young unmarried couple, Jean (Audrey Dalton) is an artist while Charles (Rod Taylor) is a medical student. She doesn’t want to be weighted down by the conventional life of marriage and children, but they have to sneak around the glaring looks of the old women in the hotel. Then there is alcoholic John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster) who is secretly engaged to the hotel owner, Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller). When his ex-wife, Ann (Rita Hayworth), arrives, looking to get back together with John, it only brings up painful memories of their relationship and John is afraid of falling into old habits. Finally, there is Major Pollock (David Niven), a kind old gentleman who enjoys telling stories of his war days and forms a friendly bond with young, innocent Sibyl (Deborah Kerr). But Sibyl’s mother, Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper), is a domineering old woman who warns her daughter to stay away from the Major. When Mrs. Railton-Bell reads in the paper that the Major has been accused of lewd conduct in a movie theater, she gathers the other hotel guests to decide whether they should allow the Major to stay or kick him out of the hotel.
In the beginning of the film, our curiosity is provoked by small actions that go unexplained for a little while. Sibyl and the Major having a polite friendly conversation, then Mrs. Railton-Bell scolding the girl with no real reason. The Major looking at the paper, then suddenly looking very worried. These details are like any you might run across in real life, just as poignant, none of our business, but in film we will get the answers.
There is quite a gap between the Major that is told to us and what we see in him. While the newspaper paints the Major to be a sexually deviant old man, we see only see his gentle kindness and understanding. Even later when he confesses to his acts, he keeps them politely vague in ambiguity and takes the moment to reach out and try to help Sibyl. It’s old Mrs. Railton-Bell who turns what she has read into a makeshift trial, and the judgemental old bat simply pleads her side of any case as decent values and Christian virtues, automatically pinning her opposition, the poor Major, as a bad person.
As the film progressed, I became worried, wondering what the relationship was like between Sibyl and Mrs. Railton-Bell behind closed doors. Mrs. Railton-Bell seems to have Sibyl tightly under her thumb and we get clues pointing to Sibyl having a history of nervous breakdowns. And as Sibyl reads about the Major in the paper, she squeezes her fist so tight she breaks a pair of glasses, cutting her hand without even noticing. She seems to be the product of abuse, mental or otherwise.
Between the Major’s issues and the relationship between John and his ex-wife, the topics of sex, lack there of, and deviancy made Separate Tables one of the most racy films of its time. I was surprised at how much sexual content could be alluded to in the conversations. I’m sure that whole scene on the patio between was very racy for the times and applaud the film’s bravery in that area.
Separate Tables is one of those films that feels fueled by gossip and human curiosity into private lives, but turns out to be much smarter than that. Each character has their part in condemnation or redemption, the whole cast is full of great acting and the ensemble really resonates when they’re all together. Niven won the Oscar for lead actor and Hiller for her supporting performance. Unfortunately, I don’t know when this wonderful film will be airing again. Separate Tables seems like a very hard film to find, I was lucky to catch it and I suggest it for everyone. If I see it scheduled on TCM again, I will let my readers know.
“-Are you on the side of Mr. Malcolm and his defense advice or are you on the side of the Christian virtues — like Mr. Fowler and myself?
–Never in my life have I heard a question so disgracefully begged. You should be in politics, Mrs. Railton-Bell.”