Between winning Oscars for best picture and director in 1961 for “West Side Story” and 1965 for “The Sound of Music,” director Robert Wise adapted William Gibson’s “Two for the Seesaw,” a rather successful stage play, which ran for 750 performances. Gibson was the writer of the successful Anne Sullivan-Helen Keller play “The Miracle Worker.”
When “Two for the Seesaw” appeared on Broadway in 1958, it featured just two characters. The play’s actions were confined to two rooms of a New York City apartment. It starred the established film and stage star, Henry Fonda then 53-year-old and the 31-year-old Anne Bancroft, in her Broadway debut; the play was directed by Arthur Penn.
For Wise’s much-underrated 1962 film version he used Isobel Lennart’s adapted screenplay, where they significantly opened the story with various other locations in New York City. Wise’s leads were the slightly younger Robert Mitchum and younger still, Shirley MacLaine.
Mitchum is Jerry Ryan, a Nebraska lawyer, who gave up his career when his wife filed for divorce. He leaves the Midwest in a depressed state of mind and begins simply roaming New York City. He meets Gittel Mosca (MacLaine), a struggling dancer from Greenwich Village. They fall in love and share a small apartment.
The film’s opening credit sequence sets the film’s moody tone very effectively. Jerry is walking alone over the Brooklyn Bridge, feeding pigeons in the park, strolling through an art museum and attending a late movie theatre. The black and white images are nicely underscored with a jazzy, bluesy score by Andre Previn.
Jerry eventually makes it to a late night party at an old Omaha buddy’s flat. There Jerry meets Gittel, who asks him for a light for her cigarette. Jerry hears her say to another guy, “I’m in the phonebook, call.” The next day Jerry gives her a call and asks her out for dinner. He explains he’s trying to turn over a new leaf. Taking advantage or the widescreen, Wise utilizes a split screen for their phone conversations, so that each character’s reactions are simultaneously shown to the audience.
After a cheerful dinner at a local Chinese restaurant, they head to her apartment for a drink. Gittel mentions she’s 29 years old, has been married once to a guy named Wally, and has only been to the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn. She also had an ulcer.
Jerry reveals he was married for twelve years, noting his wife, Tess, just “got a yen to get rid of me.” Looking around Gittel’s apartment Jerry wonders what the photo of Gittel and another guy is all about. She says he’s a “dancer”, suggesting nothing serious was between them. Moments later she wonders, “You’re not a ‘dancer’?” and later replaces the word with, “queer”. That motivates and leads to Jerry passionately kissing her and which nearly gets out of control. In many of these scenes, Wise effectively uses deep focus photography, which he learned when he was an editor for Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” to suggest the tension between the couple.
After some awkward conversation, Gittel says Jerry can stay for the night, but she’ll take her backroom cot. “I gotta’ ironclad rule. I wouldn’t sleep with Christopher Columbus on the first date.” But then she changes her mind and finds that Jerry has left.
By the time he gets home he notices his ex-wife sent a telegram wishing him a happy birthday. He wants nothing to do with her and instead calls Gittel asking her out for breakfast.
Within days Jerry looks into some work as a legal clerk and makes plans to hit the books and pass the New York state bar exam. He rents a loft above a garment business so Gittel can be more productive and open a small dance studio. But then nerves and petty jealousy set in, as each has second thoughts and feelings about the future.
Mitchum and MacLaine’s on-screen chemistry is authentic and very believable—despite what some critics felt at the time. They are two actors whose performances I’ve almost always enjoyed at a visceral level. MacLaine is a lively, bubbly counter force to Mitchum’s stoic and depressing gloominess. You palpably feel Jerry’s passion for Gittel. MacLaine is so adorable; you can’t imagine any guy who wouldn’t find her appealing.
In Lee Server’s 2001 biography “Robert Mitchum ‘Baby, I Don’t Care’” MacLaine recalls that Mitchum was her “girlhood idol.” She saw Mitchum in “Out of the Past” when she was a 13-year-old moviegoer. This leads to an off-screen romance during the filming of “Seesaw,” which grew more intense after the shooting concluded.
It may be that I’m just an old beatnik at heart or simply sentimental, but I have always enjoyed Wise’s “Two for the Seesaw”; it’s an interesting, well-acted bittersweet romance.