Loretta Young - poster

Nepotism may be problematic in terms of morality, but it sometimes works out for the best. We watched an example the other night: The 1951 film Cause for Alarm.

This movie didn’t do well at the box office, and it has been so neglected that it is in the public domain. But it’s a thriller that still holds up after more than sixty years, and its merit is due in large part to its simplicity.

Cause for Alarm stars Loretta Young as Ellen Jones, Barry Sullivan as George Jones, and Bruce Cowling as Dr. Ranney Graham. The score is by Andre Previn.

In this story, which Young narrates, Ellen meets George, an army pilot, during World War II. They are introduced by Dr. Graham, who is fond of Ellen but seemingly too busy for a relationship. George comes across as annoyingly self-assured and narcissistic, but Ellen falls for him and, after the war, they marry.

BARRY SULLIVAN and LORETTA YOUNG

BARRY SULLIVAN and LORETTA YOUNG

Fast forward their lives, and George has suffered a serious heart attack and is bed-ridden at home. He has become paranoid and imagines that Ellen and Dr. Graham are plotting to kill him by administering overdoses of his medications. He makes this accusation in a letter to the district attorney—addressing it to the DA only by name, not by title—and asks Ellen to mail it, telling her that it’s related to his insurance business. When Ellen has handed the letter to the postman, George accuses her directly and threatens to kill her with a pistol, telling her that he will argue that he did it in self defense. At this moment, George suffers a fatal heart attack, and the rest of the film concerns Ellen’s frantic effort to conceal George’s death long enough to recover the letter to the DA.

IRVING BACON and LORETTA YOUNG

IRVING BACON and LORETTA YOUNG

Most of the action in this film takes place in the Joneses’ home or outdoors in the neighborhood nearby. A significant portion of the setting for the story is George’s bedroom. In this mundane domestic atmosphere, the tension generated by Ellen’s growing anxiety is magnified. Although the situation is implausible, and the acting is of the arch variety that was typical of that time, the story is compelling as Ellen descends toward hysteria.

The producer of this film was Tim Lewis, who at the time was the second of Loretta Young’s three husbands. Lewis had considered Judy Garland for the role of Ellen, but decided to cast his wife instead. The film required an actress who could project simplicity, even naiveté, because what makes the story work is that it is such woman who, through no fault of her own, finds herself in this dangerous position. No doubt Garland, who was only 31 when this film was made, would have done Ellen justice, but I doubt that in this instance she could have outdone Loretta Young.

The director, Tay Garnett, shot this film in fourteen days by throughly prepping the cast and the crew in advance. An interesting sidelight is that the postman is played by Irving Bacon, who appeared in well over five hundred films and television shows between 1915 and 1965, including twenty-eight films based on the comic strip Blondie in which he played a postman.

 

 

 

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HARDY KRUGER and ANTHONY QUINN

HARDY KRUGER and ANTHONY QUINN

We recently watched The Great Dictator, Charles Chaplin’s slap at Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, a movie that evoked the question of whether that subject matter could be treated appropriately in a humorous setting. Although the film was well received, Chaplin himself later said that if he had been aware in 1939 of the full scope of fascist atrocities in Europe, he would not have made it. The question of depicting Nazi atrocities in a comic milieu without minimizing the crimes themselves also arose with respect to Life is Beautiful (La vita é bella), the 1997 quadruple Oscar winner in which a Jewish book-shop owner and his young son are caught up in the Holocaust in Italy and sent to a death camp, and the father sacrifices his life in order to shield his boy.

The unlikely mix of comedy and Nazi brutality also was the basis for The Secret of Santa Vittoria, a 1969 film based on Robert Crichton’s novel by the same name. The film, which was directed by Stanley Kramer, starred Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani, Virna Lisi, Hardy Kruger, and Sergio Franchi.

The people of Santa Vittoria transfer the wine to its hiding place.

The people of Santa Vittoria transfer the wine to its hiding place.

This story takes place in the summer of 1943. The government of Benito Mussolini has collapsed and the German army is in the process of occupying most of Italy. The people of Santa Vittoria learn that their town is soon to fall under German rule and one result will be that the Germans will confiscate more than a million bottles of wine that have been produced by the local co-operative. In the power vacuum that ensues because the local fascist government has been discredited and some officials arrested, the town fool, Italo Bombolini (Quinn), is declared mayor by acclamation. Under the guidance of a more sober character named Tufa, played by the tenor, Sergio Franchi, Bombolini devises a scheme to hide all but 300,000 bottles of the wine in tunnels that date from the age of the Roman Empire.

SANTA VITTORIA - 4

When a small contingent of German army personnel, under the command of Capt. Sepp Von Prum (Kruger), take charge of the town, a cat-and-mouse game begins in which Bombolini patronizes the Germans but insists that the wine in the storage cavern is all there is. Kruger is under pressure from the SS to find the wine the Germans are sure is hidden nearby, but he eventually convinces the SS commander that the townspeople are telling the truth. In his heart of hearts, however, Kruger knows better, and as he and his men are about to vacate the town, there is a tense episode in which, in the presence of the whole village, he puts a handgun to Bombolini’s head and threatens to fire if someone doesn’t tell him what he wants to know. He is met with grim silence and, because he really doesn’t have the steel will expected of Hitler’s cohorts, leaves without further incident.

ANNA MAGNANI and ANTHONY QUINN

ANNA MAGNANI and ANTHONY QUINN

Magnani plays Bombolini’s wife, Rosa, the stereotypical Italian firebrand who badgers her husband about his indolence and drunkenness. Virna Lisi appears as a peripheral character, Caterina Malatesta, who is a love interest of Tufa and the object of Kruger’s rather courtly advances.

The Secret of Santa Vittoria was nominated for Academy Awards for film editing and best musical score (Ernest Gold); it won the Golden Globe Award as best motion picture comedy and was nominated for best director, best actor in a comedy (Quinn), best actress in a comedy (Magnani), best original score and best original song (“Stay,” which was written by Gold and Norman Gimbel).

 

This movie wasn’t nearly as popular as Crichton’s novel, and it was a loser at the box office. It is in many ways superficial, implausible, and obvious. And yet, for the price of an Amazon rental fee, it is worth watching for its entertainment value, including the arch but earthy performances by Quinn and Magnani and the charm of blue-eyed Hardy Kruger. The movie, entirely an American production, was shot in Anticoli Corrado in the province of Rome, with hundreds of local residents acting as extras.

 

JOAN COLLINS, PAUL NEWMAN, and JOANNE WOODWARD

JOAN COLLINS, PAUL NEWMAN, and JOANNE WOODWARD

It may not have been the worst movie we ever saw, but Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys was no bargain at the three dollars and change we paid to watch it on Amazon.

In retrospect, I might have known better from the plot summary and from the presence in the cast of Tuesday Weld, Dwayne “Dobie Gillis” Hickman, Gale Gordon, and Jack Carson. But the top of the bill consisted of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, the director was Leo McCarey, and the film was based on a novel by the same title written by Max Shulman.

Newman plays Harry Bannerman, the owner of a Manhattan PR firm. He commutes by train from an upstate suburb. He and his wife, Grace (Woodward) have two little boys. Harry feels neglected, because Grace is over-committed to civic life in the town. The Bannermans’ glamorous neighbor, Angela Hoffa (Joan Collins) also feels neglected by her husband, who is a network television executive, and she thinks Harry might be the remedy for her loneliness. Harry is close to convincing Grace to leave her committees behind long enough for the two of them to spend a romantic night or two at the St. Regis.

JACK CARSON

JACK CARSON

This plan is disrupted by the revelation that the U.S. Army has bought property just outside the town and plans to put a top-secret installation there. Grace is chosen to lead the public opposition to this plan, and she volunteers Harry to handle the public-relations aspects. Meanwhile, Angela makes a play for Harry and, although Harry has no intention of having an affair with her, she manipulates him into a compromising situation that leads to a breakup of the Bannerman household. At the same time, Harry is co-opted by the Army general (Gale Gordon) in charge of the secret project, and forced into taking the government’s side of the argument.

McCarey, a writer-director whose projects included An Affair to Remember, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Going My Way, and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, was at the end of his career when he made this film in 1958. He made only one more movie—Satan Never Sleeps in 1962.

DWAYNE HICKMAN, center, and TUESDAY WELD

DWAYNE HICKMAN, center, and TUESDAY WELD

The movie begins on a crowded northbound commuter train, and there is a fleeting hint that this is going to be a satire on suburban life. In fact, however, it is one, long, heavy-handed slapstick gag. Virtually none of it is funny, and much of it is painful. A drunk scene in which Newman and Collins pretend to laugh uncontrollably goes on much too long to be effective. The nuance of Newman swinging from a chandelier adds nothing.  Weld is simply annoying as a girl who has just discovered that she has hormones, and Hickman is ludicrous—not amusing, ludicrous—as a crude leather-jacketed greaser who has his sights on her. Gordon is remarkably restrained, for him, in the role of the general, but Carson, as a boorish and inept Army captain is repulsive.

Farce works only when the audience can accept the premises on which it is built, and that isn’t possible with this film. For example, we are expected to believe that the Army could construct a missile-launching site—complete with a missile and a chimpanzee passenger—without the knowledge of the people who live nearby.

I don’t know what else three dollars and change will buy, but spend it almost anything but this movie and you’re bound to come out ahead.

EDDIE MARSAN

EDDIE MARSAN

I am not oblivious to the expressions of disdain that come over my friends’ faces when I mention that I like to watch Dancing with the Stars. But I am undeterred, because I am still fascinated watching men and women with little or no dance experience take on the rigors of learning and performing demanding routines. Even those who last only a few weeks before being eliminated usually remark that they have achieved things they never would have thought possible. And as interesting as this is with respect to able-bodied people, it rises to the level of inspiring when the dancer has a physical disability. There is no better example of that than Noah Galloway, a contestant in the current season, who lost his left arm and leg while serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army. Sgt. Galloway, who is still in the mix as the season heads into its final weeks, has turned in some thrilling performances with his partner, professional choreographer Sharna Burgess.

EDDIE MARSAN and ROB BRYDON

EDDIE MARSAN and ROB BRYDON

This potential we human beings have for resiliency despite even catastrophic illness and injury was the theme of The Best of Men, a 2012 BBC television movie about Dr. Ludwig Guttmann who fled the Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany and settled in England where he was given charge of servicemen who were hospitalized with spinal injuries. Dr. Guttmann found that care of these men consisted of making them as comfortable as possible until they died. This approach exacerbated the pessimism, depression, and anger that naturally accompanied such injuries. Dr. Guttmann proposed that physical activity, not maintenance care, was what these men needed, and that it would help them to take their places in the mainstream of society. Over the objections of some of his colleagues and staff, he got the men involved in vigorous activity such as basketball and javelin throwing and even took them on jaunts to a local pub. When World War II was over, Dr. Guttmann organized national wheelchair sports competitions which eventually evolved into the Paralympic Games. The closing credits note that Dr. Guttmann, who became a British citizen, was knighted for his achievements.

Dr. LUDWIG GUTMANN

Dr. LUDWIG GUTMANN

This film has an excellent cast, led by the veteran actor Eddie Marsan as Dr. Guttman; Rob Brydon as Corporal Wynne Bowen, whose dark humor masks his insecurity about his ability to relate sexually to his wife; and David Proud as Jeremy, whose circumstances are complicated by a disappointed father who would consign him to a nursing home.

DIANE KEATON and JULIETTE LEWIS

DIANE KEATON and JULIETTE LEWIS

Movies that accurately portray the lives of people who have mental disabilities are important. Such movies, by helping the general population better understand the exceptional people in their midst, can create a healthier and more constructive environment for everyone. The Other Sister,’ a 1999 film starring Diane Keaton and directed by Gary Marshall, tried to do that but fell on its face. In fact, it was embarrassing for me to watch, and it should have been embarrassing for the actors to perform.

The “other” sister of the title is Carla Tate, played by Juliette Lewis, who is mentally challenged in some way but who is bright and personable and eager to live independently. Carla is the youngest of three daughters of well-off parents, Elizabeth and Radley, played by Diane Keaton and Tom Skerritt.

JULIETTE LOWE and GIOVANNI RIBISI

JULIETTE LEWIS and GIOVANNI RIBISI

At the beginning of the film, Carla has successfully completed the course of study at a private boarding school and is returning to her family’s home. She wants to get on with her life (and by that she means get training at a public polytech school, get a job, and get an apartment), but Elizabeth has no confidence in her daughter’s ability to do anything but live under the protection of her parents. Radley — who seems to have licked a drinking problem — is a little more willing to let Carla stretch. Carla does go to a tech school, and there she meets Danny McMann (Giovanni Ribisi) who, of course, is also mentally challenged and, it seems, less bright and emotionally stable than Carla. The two strike up a friendship and then fall in love and then become sexually active — an aspect of their story that the filmmakers handled with exquisite clumsiness. Carla wears Elizabeth down enough to get an apartment, but Danny isn’t doing as well in school, and his absentee father cuts off funding for any further education. There is a painful scene in which Danny attends a country club Christmas party with Carla and her parents, is intimidated by the surroundings, gets hopelessly drunk, grabs the bandstand microphone and blurts out his feelings for Carla and the fact that the two have been having sex. She is furious at the crowd for laughing at her, as she interprets their reaction, and at Danny for embarrassing her. The next we see of Danny, he is on a train heading home, wherever that is.

TOM SKERRITT, DIANE KEATON, and JULIETTE LEWIS

TOM SKERRITT, DIANE KEATON, and JULIETTE LEWIS

Cut to the wedding ceremony of the second of the three daughters. Marshall, perhaps to demonstrate that the spirit of Laverne and Shirley is never quite exorcized from his soul, brings Danny back, in the balcony of the church, of course, from whence he interrupts the nuptials with a parody of The Graduate. The young couple, now reunited, want to wed, but Elizabeth won’t consent. Carla and Danny are determined to marry with or without Elizabeth’s blessing or presence, but the worth reader can no doubt anticipate how that turns out. As if to test how much an audience can tolerate in a 139-minute movie, Marshall and the other writers arrange for Danny, who was a kind of gofer for the polytech’s marching band, surprise Carla outside the church with the band in full regalia marching by and playing “Seventy-six Trombones.”

I guess the filmmakers were concerned that this movie would not seem socially relevant, and so they included a subplot in which Elizabeth is estranged from her third daughter, who lives in a gay relationship. Guess what happens at the end.

The marriage of Carla and Danny

The marriage of Carla and Danny

The most annoying thing about this movie is that it treats a serious subject like a sit-com. The annoyance is aggravated by the patronizing portrayals of both of the young people—although Juliette Lewis does her best with what she was given to work with—and by the improbable and even slapstick scenes. Marshall doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with those characters, or maybe he’s simply not competent to deal with such personalities. How else to explain that on one hand Carla is presented to us as mature, confident, and determined, while on the other hand she accompanies her mother to a benefit event at an animal shelter and starts barking at the dogs being housed there and ultimately turns them loose. The sequence in which a bartender at a high-end country club serves an obviously troubled young man one powerful drink after another stretches credibility to the breaking point. A scene in which Elizabeth comandeers a golf cart to chase a distraught Carla across the country club lawns is hopelessly absurd. And Keaton’s portrayal of the inconsistently up-tight Elizabeth can set  one’s teeth on edge.

Roger Ebert, of happy memory, commenting about this film, cited Jean-Luc Godard’s observation that the best response to a bad film is to make a good film. In this case, Ebert wrote and I agree, that film is Dominick and Eugene. Don’t see this one; see that one.

 

 

 

SHELLEY BERMAN

SHELLEY BERMAN

I met Shelley Berman in 1972. He was staying in Bernardsville, New Jersey — I think it was Mike Ellis’s house — and appearing in a production of Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. Berman had become widely known because of his television appearances. His signature routine was sitting on a stool and talking on an imaginary telephone — a bit he put his stamp on before Bob Newhart used it in his own act. I had always thought of Berman as a kind of reiteration of Oscar Levant. I never met Levant, but Berman’s often dour persona reminded me of what I had read about the pianist-composer. I also think that certain points in their lives, they resembled each other physically. I found Berman to be articulate. I remember quite well the case he made about the damage critics can do to performers’ careers. It was something he had experienced himself and had thought a lot about; he could have made that argument before a jury.

JUDE LAW and CAMERON DIAZ

JUDE LAW and CAMERON DIAZ

I bring up Shelley Berman because we saw him the other night in a 2006 movie, The Holiday. I watch movie credits right to the end, and that’s how I discovered that Berman was in the movie. He had a small role, and I hadn’t recognized him. He was 82 years old when he made that film. But when I saw his name in the credits, I went back into the movie to have a look. I wouldn’t have known him, but the point is that he was a perfect choice for the part he played. And that — the casting — is what makes this movie worthwhile.

The Holiday, which was produced and directed by Nancy Meyers, is about two women who are unhappy in love. Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet), who writes a society column for The Daily Telegraph of London, has been in love with a colleague for years. He is an affectionate and manipulative friend; he’s also engaged, and there is no prospect for him to return her passion. Meanwhile, frenetic Amanda Woods (Cameron Diaz), who owns and operates a lucrative Los Angeles company that makes movie trailers, finds out that her live-in lover has been having an affair with his secretary. Both women abruptly decide to take a holiday to assuage their anguish and, under the only-in-the-movies rule, they end up swapping houses. The outcome is exactly what you’d expect — in a movie.

KATE WINSLET and JACK BLACK

KATE WINSLET and JACK BLACK

But although the plot is obvious and implausible, the casting decisions were impeccable and the result is a very entertaining movie. Winslet and Diaz are perfect as the ingenuous Iris and the frantic Amanda. Jude Law is disarming in an unusual role for him; he plays Iris’s brother, Graham,who makes Amanda’s visit to England worthwhile. Eli Wallach, who was 90 years old when this film was shot, has a tour de force as Arthur Abbott, a retired screen writer with whom Iris develops a warm relationship that revs up the lives of both parties. Shelley Berman plays a buddy of Abbott. The most ingenious stroke of all was the choice of Jack Black as Miles, a sympathetic Hollywood composer who shares with Iris a weakness for the wrong lovers. The script was written with Winslet, Diaz, Law, and Black in mind. Any one of us could had written it, as far as the story line goes, and the reviewers had a few things to say about that, but the movie with its stable of charming characters still made money.

Dustin Hoffman has a brief uncredited cameo in this film. It occurs when Miles and Iris go to a video store and are discussing The Graduate. Hoffman appears as a customer who overhears their conversation and reacts with a whimsical smile. Hoffman has said that he noticed all the cameras and lights at a Blockbuster store and stopped to find out what was going on. He ran into Meyers, whom he knew, and she wrote him into the scene.

In this scene, SHELLEY BERMAN is the second from the left and ELI WALLACH is next to Kate Winslet

In this scene, SHELLEYT BERMAN is the second from the left and ELI WALLACH is next to Kate Winslet

Shelley Berman performed one of his telephone routines on Judy Garland’s television show. It is introduced by Garland and a short musical number. To see it, click HERE.

INGRID BERGMAN and ANTHONY QUINN

INGRID BERGMAN and ANTHONY QUINN

Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn should have quit while they were behind. These two giants of the screen appeared together in the 1964 film The Visit, and it was a disaster. We didn’t know that before we watched their next joint venture, A Walk in the Spring Rain, released in 1970. This film, based on a novel by the same name by Rachel Maddux, has the disadvantage of never making sense.

Bergman plays Libby Meredith, a New York City woman whose husband, Roger (Fritz Weaver) is a college professor. Roger is under pressure to publish an academic work, so he takes a sabbatical, and the couple repair to a rented house in rural Tennessee where Roger plans to hold forth on some aspect of the Constitution of the United States. This move occurs while the Merediths are in the midst of a disagreement with their married daughter, Ellen (Katharine Crawford), who wants to attend law school but isn’t getting either encouragement or any offer of material assistance from her parents. The film doesn’t help us understand the couple’s chilly response to their daughter’s ambition. The rental house is overseen by a local man, Will Cade (Quinn), who immediately takes a shine to Libby and makes no attempt to hide it. He pursues her right under Roger’s nose until she succumbs. The problem is that it is not clear why she succumbs. We had the feeling that we were supposed to think she was bored with a husband who was absorbed in his academic career, but Roger is portrayed in the film as being attentive and even playful with her.

INGRID BERGMAN and FRITZ WEAVER

INGRID BERGMAN and FRITZ WEAVER

It also strains belief that Libby and Will carry on this affair while Roger is not only unaware of it but happily lets his wife go off on jaunts with this earthy guy who is always leering at her and making suggestive remarks. Not everyone is as blind as Roger, though, and the relationship between Libby and Will eventually explodes in lethal violence. Even after that, the pair are able to keep their liaison a secret from Roger. In movies and plays about infidelity, I like to have some sympathy for the transgressors, and that’s usually because I have no sympathy for the offended partner. But this story gives me no reason to dislike Roger or even Will’s eccentric spouse, Ann, played by Virginia Gregg. On the other hand, Quinn doesn’t come across as attractive or endearing — although I think director Guy Green was going for that — but rather as a predator who has no regard for anything but his own desires.

INGRID BERGMAN and ANTHONY QUINN

INGRID BERGMAN and ANTHONY QUINN

This movie was filmed in Tennessee and it’s premiere was held in Knoxville. Ingrid Bergman sat next to Rachel Maddux during the screening. The TCM web site quotes from Bergman’s autobiography her account of this event: “(A)ll through the film she was saying to me, ‘What is this?…What happened to the scene when she?…This isn’t meant to be here…this is later…Haven’t they understood that?’ …I didn’t know what I could do to help her. The book had been so well written, full of the country and the true feelings of a woman in this situation…and now poor Rachel Maddux had seen her book go down the drain. So she went to the ladies’ room and cried. I went after her and tried to comfort her…The film had been a good try. We’d started off with such high hopes. I thought maybe we could do a film with that elusive feeling which Brief Encounter [1945] had. We’d worked hard. We’d done our best and at the end of it we’d made Rachel Maddux cry.”

SHIRLEY MACLAINE and ALAN ARKIN

SHIRLEY MACLAINE and ALAN ARKIN

In a perfect world, a movie cast including Shirley MacLaine, Vittorio Gassman, Peter Sellers, Anita Ekberg, Alan Arkin, and Lex Barker, couldn’t miss. But, as the author of the Book of Genesis informed us, this is not a perfect world, and Woman Times Seven, a movie with that very cast, does not fulfill its promise. This 1967 film, directed by Vittorio De Sica, consists of seven short episodes, all involving adultery, in which MacLaine is always the principal player. Natalie Wood was considered first for the film but, in one of her wiser decisions, she turned it down. Those who are familiar with European sexual comedies of the 1950s and 1960s may find that this movie has a familiar feel. Most of the episodes are unsatisfying, possibly because they are too short to be developed properly, and a couple of them are just plain silly, which is not the same thing as broadly humorous.

LEX BARKER and SHIRLEY MACLAINE

LEX BARKER and SHIRLEY MACLAINE

The funniest segment benefits from the deadpan presence of Alan Arkin. He and MacLaine play two adulterers who have checked into a sleazy hotel room after agreeing to a joint suicide, though the rationale for this drastic decision is not convincing. The situation with its alternating depression and panic is a perfect vehicle for Arkin. A heavy-handed denoument spoils an episode in which MacLaine and Ekberg play two stylish women who, while shopping and lunching, realize that they are being followed by a clumsy man — Michael Caine, who does not have a spoken line in the film. Rather than being frightened by this man, the women separate in order to see which of them he will follow. Of course, he follows the headliner and lurks outside her apartment building while she watches him with delight from a window, out of her husband’s sight. No matter what she thinks, it’s not what she thinks. The man has a phone conversion and disappears for good.

ROBERT MORLEY

ROBERT MORLEY

I was happy to see the British character actor Robert Morley with a role in this film, but not happy to find that it was in one of the weakest episodes. MacLaine plays the wife of a novelist (Lex Barker) who is obsessed with “Simone,” a fictional character he created. His wife, unable to get his attention off this non-existent figure, decides to become a fictional character herself, leading her spouse, when he finally notices her bizarre behavior, to summon a psychiatrist, played by Morley. One thing I learned in the process of finding this movie is that many of MacLaine’s films are available. That’s a good reason to leave this one to its fate.

 

 

JOHANNA von KOCZIAN and MARIO LANZA

JOHANNA von KOCZIAN and MARIO LANZA

When I was about ten years old, my mother took me to see the MGM movie The Great Caruso, in which Mario Lanza played the title role, the tenor Enrico Caruso. Despite my age, I became absorbed in both singers. At first I nagged my mother to buy vinyl for me, but eventually I was old enough to do it on my own. All that vinyl is down in the living room right now, along with hundreds of other 33 rpm disks that include doo-wop, rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, swing, easy listening, opera, and classics.

At any rate, we recently tried to find The Great Caruso on Amazon and Netflix and came up empty, so we settled for Lanza’s last film, the 1959 romantic comedy For the First Time. This film was popular in its time, it got some good reviews, and it was a financial success. This was strictly entertainment, not to be taken seriously, largely an excuse for Lanza to sing — which was a good thing, because opportunities to hear him were much more limited in those pre-iPod, pre-internet days than they would be today. He sings operatic arias and in operatic ensembles, and he sings Italian folk music and popular songs. It’s all good except, from my point of view, “Pineapple Picker,” a song that had no business being in the same room with Mario Lanza.

MARIO LANZA and ZSA ZSA GABOR

MARIO LANZA and ZSA ZSA GABOR

Lanza plays Tony Conti, a world-renowned if unreliable tenor. In the flamboyance he exhibits at the beginning of the story, Conti resembles Lanza. After an embarrassing episode in which Conti’s drinking and tardiness cause a Vienna concert to be cancelled with the audience already in the seats, Conti’s agent spirits him off to Capri to lay low until the bad publicity runs its course. There, Conti meets a young German woman, Christa, played by an irresistible actress named Johanna von Koczian, and they are mutually smitten. Johanna, of course, is deaf. (Get it? He’s a famous tenor; she can’t hear him sing.) At the point in the movie at which Tony and Christa meet, I said to my wife, Pat, “In the last scene, she’ll be sitting in an opera house listening to him hit those high notes.” Meeting Christa jolts Conti to the point that he stops drinking and womanizing and becomes responsible about his career. He is practically broke as a result of his shenanigans up to this point, but he takes on a series of performances in various cities of Europe and plans to visit — you guessed it! — the best ear specialist at each stop. No doubt, you can figure out how such a plot turned out in 1959.

MARIO LANZA sings "Vesti la Giubba" in a scene from "For the First Time"

MARIO LANZA sings “Vesti la Giubba” in a scene from “For the First Time”

Mario Lanza, who was 38, died a few months after this film was released. He looked well and vigorous in the film, his voice — dubbed, of course — was full of the power and earthy passion that had made it famous and he projected the boyish charm that endeared him to the public. This was the sort of movie theme — a romance on the Continent – in which audiences of that era would expect to encounter Zsa Zsa Gabor, and they weren’t disappointed. Zsa Zsa played a countess who had a sporadic affair with Tony, as she did with lots of other prominent men. She was 42 and at the height of her beauty when this film was made and her performance had none of the grating personality she adopted for late-night television shows when her looks would no longer carry her. Kurt Kasznar is comical as Tony’s beleaguered manager and protector, and I particularly liked Hans Söhnker’s sympathetic and believable performance as Christa’s uncle.

Due in large part to his personal habits, Lanza’s career was much shorter than it should have been, but he left behind a wonderful legacy of recorded music. Although he appeared in complete operas only a few times, he played an important cultural role by being one of the first singers to make operatic music popular among a mass audience. Prominent tenors even now often acknowledge their debt to him.

The film closes with Conti, as Rhadames, singing in the ensemble that closes Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. You can see that scene by clicking HERE.

 

 

SOPHIA LOREN

SOPHIA LOREN

We hooked up our new Amazon Fire TV gizmo and got a little giddy with the voice-recognition remote. One of the names we blurted into the device was “Sophia Loren” and that led us to watch Judith a 1965 example of a wasted opportunity.The cast also included Jack Hawkins and Peter Finch.

This project had possibilities. The story is set in Palestine shortly before the British pulled out of what was to become the State of Israel. A ragtag military organization called the Haganah — forerunner of the Jewish Defense Force — is anticipating more than the usual hostility from surrounding Arabs and is particularly concerned about a former German tank commander, Gustav Schiller, who is providing the Arabs with tactical training. In order to find the elusive Schiller, the Haganah leadership recruits the Nazi’s former wife, Judith, a Jew who has her own reasons for wanting to track him down.

At the beginning of the film we watch as Judith is smuggled into a sea port in a large wooden crate along with another woman and a piece of heavy machinery. When the crate is opened we already see the flaw in this movie: one of the women is dead — not a surprising outcome, considering the mode of transport — but Judith is tastefully disheveled but not so much so that she isn’t ravishing in eye makeup and lipstick as befitted a mid-1960s sex goddess.

PETER FINCH and SOPHIA LOREN

PETER FINCH and SOPHIA LOREN

Judith is hustled off to the kibbutz where an Haganah unit is housed under the supervision of Aaron Stein, played by Finch. The back story is that Schiller and Judith had a son together, but that Schiller ultimately abandoned his wife and took their child. Judith wound up in the Dachau concentration camp and was forced to have sex with German officers.

Judith doesn’t know where Schiller is, but the Haganah leaders figure that she could identify him if they did locate him. Aaron nudges the impatient Judith into approaching the local British Army commander, a Major Lawton (Jack Hawkins) into letting her see the military file on Schiller. Lawton, who is an upright chap, is nevertheless no match for Judith’s charms, and he hands over the file, which indicates that Schiller’s last known address was Damascus.Stein and another Haganah member take Judith to Damascus where they find Schiller. Judith double-crosses Haganah by shooting Schiller, but somehow the men smuggle the wounded man back to Palestine.While the kibbutz is being attached by Arab forces, Schiller tells Judith about the plan of attack, but he is killed by Arab bombs before telling her where their son has gone.

JACK HAWKINS and SOPHIA LOREN

JACK HAWKINS and SOPHIA LOREN


There probably was enough to go on here to make a decent movie. Finch and Hawkins turned in good performances, and the gritty location shots created a credible image of the environment in which such events would have taken place in 1948. But the film is often reduced to absurdity because of the seemingly irresistible opportunity to exploit Sophia Loren’s physical charms.