"Come Back, Little Sheba" is the feature film adaptation of William Inge's successful Broadway play by the same name. The film was directed by Daniel Mann and Ketti Frings wrote the screenplay adaptation. The play earned Inge fast praise by critics who hailed him as a "young Tennessee Williams." Unfortunately, Inge's life and career ended up tragically short, and he never rose to that stature. Inge may be best known for writing the original screenplay of the 1961 film "Splendor in the Grass," for which he received an Academy Award.
Veteran stage actress Shirley Booth made her movie debut, playing Lola Delaney, the role she had made popular in the theatrical run of "Come Back, Little Sheba." In an Oscar rarity, Booth received the Academy Award for Best Actress for her first-ever film role.
Terry Moore had already performed in many films and was popular as a young beauty. She was one of the most famous Latter-day Saint actresses of her era. Moore received her only Academy Award nomination ever for playing Marie Buckholder, the young boarder whose presence triggers upheaval in the Delaney household.
Rounding out the key players, Burt Lancaster, one of the giants of American film history, plays a subtle, subdued "Doc" Delaney.
Richard Jaeckel has a supporting role as "Turk" Fisher, a fellow college student that Marie dates while boarding with the Delaneys. All other parts are well-played, but are essentially bit parts.
The film's first scene introduces the benign-seeming event which becomes the catalyst for the plot's eventually stormy events. Marie Buckholder (Terry Moore) shows up on the Delaney doorstep in answer to Mrs. Lola Delaney's advertisement of a room for rent. A young college student away from home, Marie seems a little flustered as the gregarious but clearly off-center Mrs. Delaney shows her the room. Marie leaves without deciding to rent the room, although Mrs. Delaney obviously hopes that she will.
Later Mrs. Delaney's husband, a quiet, reserved chiropractor whom everybody calls "Doc", arrives home and greets his wife's news of the potential boarder with trepidation. He protests that things are calm and stable for them, and he likes it that way. He doesn't want anything to disturb the tightly wound rhythm to their life. But when Lola Delaney steps out to go to the store and Marie returns to say she wants to rent a room from them, "Doc" Delaney quickly agrees. His defenses seem disarmed by Marie's beauty and innocent charm. Doc even agrees to let her rent the sewing room downstairs (instead of an upstairs bedroom), because Marie thinks it will work better as an art studio (she is an art student at the university). Despite having to move her sewing things upstairs, Lola Delaney is pleased when she returns home and hears the news.
Lola positively dotes over the new boarder, almost as if Marie is a replacement for Sheba, her beloved dog which ran away many years ago and whose absence haunts her dreams. The titular Sheba is one of the film's most obviously literary elements. The long-lost dog clearly represents something, as Lola discusses her dreams and anxieties about the pet. By the end of the film Sheba's symbolic significance has become more clear, as Lola is finally able to relinquish the impossible hope that the dog will return, and move on with her life as it is in the present.
Marie behavior with the Delaney's is unfailingly polite and appropriate. Likewise, Doc Delaney's actions toward Marie are always those of a gentleman and a friend, although it would be reasonable to assume that he finds her attractive, especially in comparison to his dowdy wife.
Conversations between Lola and Doc while Marie is not around eventually reveal some disquieting bits of their history, a history which Doc has largely tried to forget, but which he will soon be confronted with. Perhaps the most critical aspect of their recent past is Doc's descent into alcoholism a year before. Only hinted at first, his alcoholism becomes fully evident in later conversations, and when he and his wife attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting together. The AAA ends up being one of the central plot elements in the movie, and viewers unfamiliar with this organization will learn much about its actual activities and philosophy.
The Delaney's and Marie actually get along wonderfully, with no sign of jealousy among them. But conflict arises as Marie starts to date a handsome young man from school -- "Turk" Fisher. Doc Delaney recognizes that Turk is just a "player" -- all the girls find this star athlete attractive, but he has no real respect for Marie and is only out to score.
One evening Doc Delaney is up late in the kitchen when Marie and Turk sneak back in the house after going to a local diner. Doc overhears Turk wear down Marie with pressure to "go all the way" with him. Marie and Turk move into her room, and Doc, feeling incensed and extremely protective, considers barging in on them and throwing Turk out. He decides not to, however, and almost succumbs to the temptation to drink the alcohol the Delaney's have stashed in the kitchen for guests.
It turns out that before anything happens between Turk and Marie, she decides on her own to put an end to things. She asks Turk to leave -- permanently. But Doc Delaney doesn't know that. Thinking that Marie and Turk are repeating the same mistakes that he and Lola made when he was a young medical student and she was a popular student, Doc tries to avoid confronting both his past and his present by hiding in alcohol. He leaves early in the morning, sneaking the bottle out of the kitchen, and ends up on a day-long drinking binge.
When Doc finally returns home, he is drunk, abusive, and violent. He shatters the fragile silences between Lola and himself by opening berating her as a slut who ended his promising medical career by getting pregnant with his baby. The rage that flows from this previously bottled-up character is shocking and frightening. Lola's fear and despondency is heart-wrenching. The viewer can't help but feel guilt, even embarrassment, for spying on this most horrible and private of moments between these people, because by now there seems no hint of Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth the actors -- their performances are completely involving and convincing.
One could justifiably say that "Come Back, Little Sheba" is more a great play than a great film. Ably adapted for the screen, the film is a probing, at times emotionally wrenching drama about one married couple during a period of upheaval which has roots stretching back decades.
The script, fine performances, and deep moral center make for a fine film, but its theatrical source is very apparent. There is none of the spectacle associated with the most popular classic films of the period. To watch the movie now feels like watching a play. It's a very good play, but one can't help but think that there's very little that would be different if a live performance had simply been filmed. Perhaps the story, strong as it is, doesn't warrant any cinematic touches possible only through film. But be forewarned that this is no "Wizard of Oz" or "Gone With the Wind." Movie audiences accustomed only to big budget epics may feel that "Come Back, Little Sheba" is too slow-paced, especially in the middle. But viewers interested in a top-notch drama will find this film is a real gem.
I recommend "Come Back, Little Sheba" without reservation. It contains no potentially objectionable material (such as graphic violence, sex, nudity, vulgarity, racism, etc.). But nor is the movie at all "preachy" or didactic. It simply presents a realistic story about realistic characters, which is all the more interesting because it doesn't try to water down the disasterous effects of immorality and alcohol. This is an intensely honest film. The movie is appropriate for youth as well as adults, although, admittedly, it requires a minimal level of sophistication to sit through a drama without any explosions, aliens, or car chases.
"Come Back, Little Sheba" is also an excellent example of historic Hollywood, and features some of the finest performances of some of its era's most popular actors: Shirley Booth, Terry Moore, and Burt Lancaster. Shot in black-and-white, staged and at times performed like a play, and lacking in special effects and quick cuts that characterize many contemporary films, "Come Back, Little Sheba" is dated. Although not a perfect film, it provides an experience with rich artistic, as well as spiritual and philosophical, rewards.