In 1951, Dore Schary replaced Louis B. Mayer as head of MGM but when Schary himself was ousted from that job in 1956, he went to New York and produced the highly successful play, Sunrise at Campobello. He then formed his own production company, and as his first film, chose the Nathanael West novella, Miss Lonelyhearts. It had been filmed before, as Advice to the Lovelorn (1933), which played the story for laughs. West's works are notoriously difficult to translate to film, both because they are laden with symbolism, and because they are so relentlessly grim and downbeat. Yet Lonelyhearts (1959) is considered by many to be the best film adaptation of a West work.
Like the original story, Lonelyhearts follows a reporter as he's assigned by his cynical publisher to write an advice-to-the-lovelorn column, and becomes so enmeshed in the suffering of those who write to him that it nearly destroys him. United Artists agreed to finance the film, but only if Schary could keep the budget under a million dollars. Fortunately, Schary had many friends in the business who respected his work, and everyone in the big-name cast worked for far below their usual salaries.
Montgomery Clift was a great fan of the novella, and agreed to play the columnist. Clift had been terribly injured in a car accident in 1957, and was no longer the beautiful young man of his early films. The accident had left him broken and scarred, and even more dependent on drugs and alcohol. Most days, he couldn't work past two p.m. But he quickly formed close friendships with his co-stars, who supported and protected him.
Myrna Loy, who played the alcoholic wife of publisher Robert Ryan, arrived for her first day on the set to find Clift extremely nervous to meet her. She had been a favorite of his for years. The two quickly became close, and there were rumors that Loy fell in love with Clift, who was 15 years younger, and wanted to marry him. In her memoirs, she denied this, but wrote that she felt a maternal devotion to him
Stage actress Maureen Stapleton, who was making her film debut in Lonelyhearts, also had her own problems with alcohol, and she, too, became devoted to Clift. She, Loy, Ryan and Dolores Hart did all they could to help Clift get through the ordeal of filming. Stapleton was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Lonelyhearts as an unbalanced correspondent of the columnist. She would be nominated three more times before winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Reds (1981).
Cinematographer John Alton shot the black-and-white film in the style of chiaroscuro painting, adding to the somber mood. Vincent J. Donehue, a young stage director, directed the film by blocking it out like a play, for which the stage-experienced actors were grateful. In spite of the difficulties, the actors enjoyed the experience of working on Lonelyhearts and the friendships that resulted.
While most serious critics objected to the upbeat ending of Lonelyhearts (the original novella had a macabre final fadeout), they also found the performances brilliant, and Schary's adaptation praiseworthy and innovative. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it, "a clearly sincere endeavor to say something moving and profound about the danger of too-quick moral judgments and the virtue of loving thy fellow man." Paul V. Beckley wrote in the New York Herald Tribune that it was "a strong, serious effort to deal with a mordant and difficult story, and deserves respect." And Philip T. Hartung of Commonweal noted, "The style of Lonelyhearts is both simple and surrealistic, and its story is a strange mixture of comedy and tragedy. It is an impressively grim picture with plenty of offbeat material." ~ Margarita Landazuri, TCM