A major player back in its day, but largely forgotten today, SEPARATE TABLES tells the stories of the long-term residents at an English seaside hotel during the off-season. The cast of characters includes a retired British military official (David Niven) harboring a dirty secret, a mousy woman (Deborah Kerr) who is secretly in love with him, her overbearing mother (Gladys Cooper), a former model (Rita Hayworth) trying to win back her alcoholic ex-husband (Burt Lancaster), and the hotel manager (Wendy Hiller) who is engaged to him.
On Broadway, Terence Rattigan’s play was divided into two different stories, “Table by the Window” and “Table Number Seven”, with Eric Portman and Margaret Leighton (in a Tony Award-winning performance) playing the dual roles portrayed by Lancaster/Niven and Hayworth/Kerr in the film. The two acts of the play were combined for the picture so that all of the lives intertwine.
The film boasts wonderful acting and memorable characters. If the dirty secret that is at the core of the film isn’t as shocking today as it was in 1958, that doesn’t make the pain felt by these characters any less real.
Against the advice of producers Harold Hecht, James Hill, Burt Lancaster, and director Delbert Mann, David Raksin was hired to compose the score. In Raksin’s words, the producers considered his original score “too contemporary in style,” and they required him to rewrite major portions of the music. Pouring salt on the wounds, Harry Warren was brought on to write an insipid title song to go with the credits instead of using Raksin’s original music.
A full-blown analysis would be necessary to delve properly into the differences between the original and the final product. But no matter how compromised, the score that made it into the finished film is still a beauty.
A forlorn, “rather wistful,” theme on the oboe d’amour conveys the stunted emotions of Sibyl (Kerr). For Major Pollock, Raksin provides a bassoon chanty based on an old Scottish tune, “Wha Wadna Fecht fer Charlie” (Who Wouldn’t Fight for Charlie). “Niven was so wonderful in that role,” said Raksin, “it broke my heart. And there was something so vulnerable about the character who had to pretend to be a high-ranking officer, having fought battles and all that, and who could only approach sex in the dark, that I felt it needed something that would combine these elements.”
The lushest theme in the score also sparked the most controversy. First heard as we see Mrs. Shankland (Hayworth) arrive through the hotel window, the strings soar and Miss Meacham (May Hallett) states she doesn’t look “a day over 30”. Well, maybe not quite that young, but Raksin’s theme is certainly every bit as glamorous as Rita herself.
During the memorable terrace scene with Rita and Burt, Raksin began the scene with a free fugato using the theme “to assure that the purposes of the film rather than the constrictions of the musical form took precedence.” However, the revised scene “has almost none of the involuted counterpoint of the original version; and with that we lost the undercurrent of bitterness and passion that made the first version right for the scene, and the absence of which fatally reduced the contribution of the score. What remains in that sequence might just as well have been composed for one of those redundant, sexually motivated torn-shirt scenes in just about anything.” Whatever Raksin’s viewpoint, the scene is enriched by his beautiful contribution.
Even though the score may not have turned out as he had hoped, Raksin considered SEPARATE TABLES one of his best scores–and he was right. Tony Thomas said that in writing for the score, “Raksin was possibly writing music he would not have been ashamed to show his celebrated mentor, Arnold Schoenberg.” Here’s hoping Raksin’s Oscar-nominated score, which has never been released, doesn’t remain separated from us forever.
One of my favorite films, though it’s tough to get an idea of just how good this film is from its odd theatrical trailer. A winner all the way.