Evening Primrose is a musical written for the television series ABC Stage 67, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and I am indebted to Realweegiemidget for making me aware of this film. It sounded too quirky to pass up. A sort of grotesque little Romeo and Juliet set in a department store.
Anthony Perkins is Charles Snell, a poet who decides to get away from the world and devote himself to inspiration and poetry by hiding out in a department store. To his surprise, however, the department store is already inhabited by people, who pose as mannequins during the day and live their lives at night. Almost all of them are elderly. Mrs. Monday (Dorothy Stickney) is the original resident, arriving in the department store before the turn of the century. During various depressions (1921, 1929) more people arrived.
There is one young person there, however. Ella Harkins (Charmian Carr) was left in the department store as a child and now works as a servant to Mrs. Monday, though she is viewed and treated as an outsider. Charles is immediately enchanted with her, but Mrs. Monday and her people have very strict rules. One does not associate with Ella, who is not living there from choice; one cannot ever leave (they are afraid of exposure); and one apparently must do everything Mrs. Monday says, who’s really running a kind of snobby dictatorship. Her will is enforced by “the Dark Men,” mysterious inhabitants of a mortuary who periodically visit to enforce Mrs. Monday’s laws by turning people into mannequins.
It makes one wonder very much how many of the mannequins are really mannequins and how many are simply corpses. Interestingly, all the mannequins are young people. Though one perhaps could make a case that the elderly inhabitants, playing their bridge, dancing their waltzes, are half-mummified, too.
It’s ironic. Charles left the world so he could leave the petty money and social concerns of life and encounters another oppressive society in microcosm in the department store. Ella and Charles have to meet on the sly while he teaches her how to read and do arithmetic. It’s actually very touching, along with Ella’s desire to “see the world,” which she can barely remember. She poignantly sings about her memories in a song that compares things like the sky to various department store items.
It’s a rather romantic film, if ironic and deeply quirky, even horror-ish, and it totally had me going until the end, at which point I was a little horrified. I laughed, and was a bit horrified.
Evening Primrose, as I understand it, is distinctly minor Sondheim, but the songs are rather catchy and poignant, especially “Take Me to Your World. It was televised in color, but only recently did they find and released the black and white copy on DVD. It still looks rather grainy, but the film has a certain atmosphere about it. It made me think of a wax museum.
I must admit to being taken aback to learn that Anthony Perkins did a musical, but he does well. His voice has a somewhat limited range, but it works for the role. Charles Snell is still a little eccentric, but one still feels completely invested in his character.
I can’t help but think of Charmian Carr as Liesl, but it was nice to see in her an another film. Here, she is sad, eager, both brimming for life and longing for it – they are a rather adorable couple. If you like Perkins or Carr, are in the mood for something a little offbeat or are a fan of Stephen Sondheim, it’s definitely worth seeing.
The film can currently be seen on youtube.