An American World War I soldier, whose disfigured face is reconstructed by Austrian plastic surgeons, returns home after twenty years, but no one recognizes him, his widow is married to another man, and his son is a grown young man.
During the War of 1812, the U.S. tasks Captain James Marshall to sail through the British blockade and bring back a French loan in gold but the secret leaks out and many greedy hands, including the mutinous crew's, are after the gold.
Many years ago I unwisely took part in an amateur production of Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker". I can still hear the mayhem created by those of us who tried, and failed miserably, to achieve an American accent and those (including, bizarrely, a stray Welshman) who just gave up and spoke their native idiom. Luckily out home-town audience was very forgiving and the local rag took pity on us.
This dire experience came back to me when I saw "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll", but even so, not having seen the original stage play by Ray Lawler, I didn't realise how badly it had been butchered until I saw a TV performance by the Melbourne Theatre Company. The first reaction of an Australian audience will be to switch off because of the hilarious mangling of their native speech by an all-star cast who deserved better and would have been more gainfully employed on another project. Maybe that wouldn't matter to a foreign audience, but then again, perhaps the resultant strange mixture of assorted Cockney, Bronx and other sounds would have a subtly disturbing effect on any listener.
Of more concern is the fact that the play's essence can't be divorced from its Australian roots, which include deceptively dry, laconic and understated speech cadences, without making it pretty meaningless. In fact it's the very antithesis of the overwrought, borderline- histrionic style of "serious" Hollywood films of the era. Anyone less like a laconic Queensland canecutter than the furiously emoting Ernest Borgnine would be hard to imagine. And switching the location from Melbourne to more photogenic Sydney settings, while trivial in itself, is symptomatic of the filmmakers' imperfect understanding of their vehicle.
I don't know that "Doll" is a great play, but it is a good one. However, given the need for some audience-pulling names there was no real prospect of doing it properly in 1959. The accent problem, which is just part of the underlying cultural mismatch, is not to be dismissed, and I've never heard an American or British actor come close to a convincing Australian accent - even Meryl Streep. Even nowadays, with many high-visibility Australians in Hollywood, it would be a problematic vehicle because at bottom it's pretty stagy. It's just one of those movies that shouldn't have been made.
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