Mrs. R.B., the gaslighting mother in Separate Tables. Not a woman you want to mess with…
Although I adore classic films, there are only a handful of films that speak to me so much that I can see them over and over again and find something fascinating each time. The sleeper film of 1958, Separate Tables, is one of those. One of most fascinating aspects of this film is the relationship between a mother, Mrs. Railton-Bell (played by Gladys Cooper) and daughter (played by Deborah Kerr). The relationship is a complex and subtle one that results in an act of defiance at the end.
Although Separate Tables has been compared to other star-studded films such as Grand Hotel, the former, unlike the latter, has none of the glitz and glamour. Both films include an impressive cast and both focus on different characters in one contained place (what is known as the crucible in plotting) where they cannot avoid facing their demons. But Separate Tables is much more subtle. It takes place in a small hotel on the English coast rather than a famous high-end hotel in the center of Europe. The inhabitants are not wealthy or well known as they are in Grand Hotel. They are people with modest incomes and many of them are elderly, looking for a place to retire and live a quiet, uncomplicated life.
Mrs. Railton-Bell (or, as another character named Major Pollock, played by David Niven, calls her, “Mrs. R.B.”) and her daughter Sibyl are two such characters. As some of the oldest inhabitants of the hotel, Mrs. R.B. considers herself the queen of the Beaugard Hotel and reigns with the kind of superiority that one would expect of such a character. In the shadow of her mother’s strong and somewhat controlling personality, Sibyl is bashful and oppressed. The film makes clear in a very 1950’s way that any discussion about romance or sex in front of Sibyl could cause a nervous breakdown.
In fact, everything consider a part of an independent identity is denied Sibyl. She is still her mother’s child as Mrs. R.B has successfully debilitated her to the point that she is dependent on her mother for her mere existence. In one scene, Sibyl suggests to her mother that she might try to apply for a clerical job that she saw in the want ads of the paper. In a rational and oh-so-sympathetic voice, her mother easily talks her out of it, reminding her of “what happened the last time”. This implies that Sibyl had made an attempt to release herself from her mother’s grasp in the past by getting a job and the results had been disastrous. Indeed, although we are never told the details, other guests who have been in the hotel as long as the Railtons seem to know about Sibyl’s “fits” and what provokes them.
Photo Credit: David Niven (who played Major Pollack) accepting the Academy Award for Best Actor In A Leading Role at the 1959 Oscars for this film, uploaded on July 4, 2013: SchroCat/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice
Nonetheless, there is a hint of Sibyl’s redemption through her obvious infatuation with Major Pollock. “The Major” is not much of a dashing figure by anyone’s standards. Graying and stuttering, he has a propensity towards pumping up his credentials (for example, telling tall tales about his combat experiences during World War II when he later admits that he worked in the supply unit and never really saw the battlefield). However, he is as shy as Sibyl and, more importantly, respectful of her sensitivities and accepts her for who she is.
But Sibyl is controlled by her mother with an iron hand to the point of almost giving up the Major. Her affection for him is the one thing that her mother seemingly cannot touch until it’s discovered that the Major was arrested for what would today be considered sexual harassment. When Mrs. R.B discovers this, she takes her role as queen of the hotel and calls all the guests together to insist that they ask the hotel proprietor, Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller) to throw the Major out. Her friend and fellow hotel old-timer Lady Matheson (Catherine Nesbitt) makes her promise not to tell Sibyl about it, knowing how she will react. However, Mrs. R. B is a classic gaslighter. She uses subtle manipulation and shows a compassion she doesn’t feel to get what she wants. Seeing the opportunity of getting her daughter off of her infatuation over the Major for good, she “reluctantly” reveals why she is calling everyone together by showing her daughter the newspaper article of the Major’s arrest. Sibyl’s devastation is complete as she cuts her hand on her mother’s glasses (which she has gone upstairs to fetch) and has one of her “fits”.
It is perhaps the realization that the Major is fallible that gives her the courage at the end of the film to defy her mother. The last scene shows the guests having their breakfast at “separate tables” in the dining room. Miss Cooper has made it clear to the Major that she has no intention of asking him to leave though the Major, perhaps out of embarrassment of having Sibyl know about his reprehensible behavior, insists on doing so. When he goes into the dining room to have his breakfast, he expects to find everyone following Mrs. R. B’s lead in shunning him. But when Mrs. R. B tries to force her daughter to leave the dining room, she refuses. This act of defiance is perhaps a small one but a start for someone like Sibyl in establishing her independence and pulling away from her controlling mother.
Separate Tables has a lot going for it, including a production company run by one of classic Hollywood’s most respected stars (Burt Lancaster) and the beautiful Rita Hayworth as a former fashion model in one of the key roles. But less flashy characters like the R. Bs and Major Pollock present a much more interesting and psychologically complex portrait of love and mother-daughter relationships.
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052182/ (IMDB page for Separate Tables)
http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/20965/Separate-Tables/ (TCMdB page for Separate Tables)
http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9802E7DE153DE53BBC4152DFB4678383649EDE (A 1958 film review from The New York Times)
http://www.hollywoodsgoldenage.com/movies/separate_tables.html (A nice review of Kerr’s role from the Hollywood’s Golden Age page)