It seems that for every major film the great actor Jason Robards elevated with an inspired supporting turn, there was a minor film in which he gave a middling lead performance. Watching Mr. Sycamore, which is somewhat typical of the films in which Robards played the main role, it’s tempting to say that the actor’s occasional lack of fire stems from the quality gap between the material Robards played on the stage and the material he was given in films—Mr. Sycamore is whimsical, but it’s tonally flat. Based on a story by Robert Ayre and a play by Ketti Frings, Mr. Sycamore concerns a postman named John Gwilt (Robards), who becomes preoccupied with an ancient myth about a man who transformed into a tree. Determined to replicate the magical change, John quits his job and plants himself in his backyard. This understandably concerns his long-suffering wife, mousy Jane (Sandy Dennis), who calls in cops, friends, a priest, and mental-health professionals. Meanwhile, during scenes when he’s not ankle-deep in dirt, John finds a sympathetic ear with a local librarian, Estelle Benbow (Jean Simmons), who shares his affection for romantic legends.
The not-so-subtle allegory is that John is a poetic soul trapped in an unimaginative age, so his marriage to Jane represents conformity and his flirtation with Estelle represents individualism. The problem, of course, is that Mr. Sycamore takes its central metaphor too literally—John genuinely believes he will become a tree, so he’s not portrayed, per se, as a heroic character making a stand for his right to believe as he wishes. As such, the story has no place to go except either a fantastical ending or a disappointing one. Worse, screenwriters Pancho Kohner (who also directed) and Ketti Frings run out of narrative material at regular intervals, padding the movie with drab slapstick bits, a couple of inconsequential storms, and even a gauzy dream sequence. Had Mr. Sycamore been made as a short television play, it could have been wonderful. In this form, it’s merely kind-hearted and trivial.
Still, Robards’ rascally charm suits the main character perfectly (even if, as noted earlier, he contributes far less than optimal effort), and the women in the story are cast well—the visual contrast between glamorous Simmons and plain Dennis is striking. It’s also worth nothing that Mr. Sycamore picks up considerably in its second half, so patience is rewarded with a few amusingly farcical moments. Furthermore, composer Maurice Jarre amplifies key scenes with lyrical music, though additional underscore would have been preferable to the intrusion of “Time Goes By,” a twee song that Jarre co-wrote for the aforementioned dream sequence.
Mr. Sycamore: FUNKY