Tea and Sympathy, 1956

“Tea and Sympathy” is one of the books on the reading list featured in “The Official Preppy Handbook.” Written by Robert Anderson for the stage, it was adapted for the screen in 1956 with Vincente Minnelli at the helm.

“Tea and Sympathy” is set at a boys’ prep school, where sensitive Tom Lee (played by John Kerr) is hazed by an army of khaki-clad hearties at the height of the buckle-in-back craze. Tom finds consolation in the company of one of the faculty wives, played by Deborah Kerr (no relation). The film is standard ’50s melodrama with some fine collegiate clothing; I say collegiate because while set at a prep school, the students all look like college seniors. The default outfit is buckle-back khakis, blue oxford, and a gray sweatshirt.

The film is not currently available on DVD (at least through Netflix). It had been uploaded to YouTube in installments but has since been removed, so you’ll have to do some detective work to track down a copy. — CC

10 Comments on "Tea and Sympathy, 1956"

  1. I’d read the play a couple of times, so I’m glad to finally see the movie. Several of the play’s original cast members reprised their roles for the screen.

    Anderson was a 30-something Exeter alum when the play was produced on Broadway, and the play is set in the clannish and insular world of a mid-century boarding school. This predictably manifests itself horizontally in the tightly knit students who refer to themselves and each other as “the guys,” but also vertically: Tom’s father, his roommate’s father, and his housemaster Bill Reynolds are all alumni. Laura, Bill’s wife of about a year, is in some ways just as much an outsider to this male world as is Ellie Martin, “[t]he gal who waits on table down at the soda joint.”

    The movie turns out to be far more tame than the book, apparently because of the movie production code. In the play, Tom isn’t seen sewing with the faculty wives. As Ralph tells it, “The guys saw [Tom and Mr. Harris] down at the dunes… bare-assed.” Then he says, “You watch and see. Hariss’ll get bounced, and I’m gonna lock my room at night as long as Tom is living in this house.” Or as Bill tells Laura, “[Harris] was lying there naked in the dunes, and one of the students was lying there naked too. Just to talk about it is disgusting.” In Harris’s own words, it was simply “going down to the dunes and swimming.”

    The play is about conforming to group expectations and the devastating effects of false accusations — or perhaps the accusations are true? The text is never explicit. Either way, the play is much more a product of the Communist-hunting McCarthy era in which it was produced than it is a gay liberation piece.

  2. Roger Sack | April 2, 2019 at 2:40 pm |

    Saw it on Broadway when I was in High School.
    It was one of the first introductions to me that
    “sensitive” guys might be what I learned to call gay
    years later. Full disclosure: I wasn’t a sensitive guy, but
    I did attend an all boys public high school and a number
    of my classmates fit in that category but our curiosity/
    suspicions were rarely confirmed because, among other things,
    we did not board there,

  3. reppupstateny | April 2, 2019 at 3:18 pm |

    was wondering if anyone can please post the entire reading list from the OPH. . .

  4. Old School | April 2, 2019 at 4:13 pm |

    Books listed in TOPH and True Prep by Lisa Birnbach:


  5. reppupstateny | April 2, 2019 at 7:26 pm |

    Old School, thanks!

  6. Old School Tie | April 3, 2019 at 12:19 pm |

    Nice one, Old School. Cheers!

  7. Old School | April 3, 2019 at 1:23 pm |

    reppupstateny and Old School Tie:

    My pleasure, gentlemen!

  8. MacMcConnell | April 3, 2019 at 7:18 pm |

    Sometimes stories about a gay boy and a sympathetic older woman are just stories about just that. Not every work of art in the 1950s was about McCarthy.

    It’s actually a good movie, seen it many times of TCM.

  9. Mark Russell | April 7, 2019 at 2:11 pm |

    TCM will air “Tea and Sympathy” this Wednesday (4/10/19) at 1:30PM EDT—12:30PM CDT.

  10. ‘Hazed’, a real euphemism for bullying. I went through it and learned to despise it and its practitioners. Recently I learned that although it had supposedly been stamped out of my old school it had reared its head again. The parents of the victim, and he is a victim, arrived at the school with two attorneys, one from the high court. In my view the best way to tackle it. I’m pretty certain they got the close attention of the bully(s) parents as well as the school authorities. One does not require bullying and intimidation to instill discipline and order. One requires leadership.

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