SILENT NIGHT LONELY NIGHT aired a week before Christmas in 1969. Robert Anderson wrote the play that served as the basis for this TV adaptation. In the story two lonely souls connect over the holidays after their marriages to other people have fallen apart. Universal cast Shirley Jones and Lloyd Bridges in the lead roles. These performers were typically associated with lighter fare, so it’s interesting to watch them handle a story that requires more serious acting.
Jones gives one of her best performances. She captures the restlessness and uncertainty her character faces with great skill. We learn early on that she and an absent husband are at an impasse about something, and she is using their son as a buffer. There are one-way telephone conversations that Jones plays with raw emotion, and we do feel her ambivalence about spending the holidays apart from her husband. He’s in London and she has decided not to join him but will send their son in her place.
For his part Bridges displays his acting chops more than usual. He gives us a portrait of a middle-aged man who’s been stuck in a loveless marriage for over five years. He’s decided to end the marriage, even if it will push his fragile wife over the edge. Which it does, because he gets a call from a doctor that she’s just tried to kill herself. He has to deal with his overwhelming feelings of guilt, mixed with his desire to break free and start a new life.
Given the circumstances it’s no wonder Bridges and Jones seek each other out for company at an inn where they are both lodging overnight. Their suites are next door to each other, and there’s an adjoining sitting room between the suites. My guess is the play, which I have not seen or read, was probably done with most of the action taking place in the rooms where the characters are staying. I should mention this inn is said to be located near the campus of Amherst College.
Universal decided to film the exteriors on location in Massachusetts, so we get a variety of outdoor scenes that open up the story a good deal. In fact the college becomes a character that binds them, much as it binds the characters in Anderson’s other play TEA AND SYMPATHY. This is because Jones’ son is a student there, and Bridges’ wife is a patient at a mental hospital on campus. A few times they venture outside the inn, and we see shots of the surrounding area. Places like a movie theater, or a snowy field where people have fun on snowmobiles; and at one point they go into a local record store.
For most of the story Bridges lies to Jones that his wife is dead, because the truth that his wife is a mental patient is too much to explain. But there’s a great scene mid-way through the picture where they go out for a ride and she sees a building with lights on at an off hour. He explains it’s a mental hospital with great anguish; he knows one of the rooms in that building has a light on to keep his wife from feeling alone in the dark. There is also a flashback where Bridges recalls experiencing his first kiss sledding with a girl. We see the memory with young Jeff Bridges playing his father at that age. It’s very effective especially when the director revisits this later and re-shoots the flashback as a fantasy of lonely Bridges kissing lonely Jones.
Another interesting scene occurs when they have tea with a college-aged couple (Robert Lipton and Carrie Snodgress) and talk about wedding days and about sex in marriage. The younger couple does not know the older couple’s not married to each other. We see different attitudes about being together reflected across the generation gap. With all this philosophizing and talk it is easy to think the whole thing will just be a mental exercise but it does become physical.
Both Jones and Bridges play the sex scene with dignity and respect. It is established earlier in the story that she has no intention of ever divorcing her husband. So we know this affair is just going to be a one night stand. But it becomes something deep, because we’ve seen it build on screen for more than an hour. It’s not a case of instant gratification. The scene at the end where they go off on their separate ways reminded me a lot of BRIEF ENCOUNTER. It has that sort of wistfulness to it.
The year 1969 gave us changing mores about sex, marriage and relationships. As well as women like Jones who still wore fur wraps, and men like Bridges who still drove big cars. Obviously there were no cell phones. At one point they are both in the hall outside their rooms and hear a phone ring. They try to figure out whose phone is ringing inside which room. Today they’d both be pulling cell phones out of their pockets to see who was getting a call. Watching this production really takes us back to a simpler time when things were not very simple at all.
SILENT NIGHT LONELY NIGHT is directed by Daniel Petrie and may currently be viewed on YouTube.