Book into Film – “Jessica” (1962)

Sometimes you just have to scratch your head. Hollywood had a habit of buying a bestseller first without working out whether it would translate to the screen or not (Blindfold a classic example). Jessica was one of its most idiotic purchases.

It was based on The Midwife of Pont Clery by British novelist Flora Sandstrom published in 1954. As the title gives away, it was set in France not Italy. The heroine rides a bicycle not a Vespa. Nor is she an American, transplanted into Italy by ill-fated romance. She is French, originating from Brittany, not far from the village in Normandy where she now plies her trade as a midwife. Her name is Suzette Quimpernay not Jessica. Yes, as with the film, her husband did die on their wedding day, but not in a car accident but rather falling from a boat while alcoholically impaired and drowning.

But like the book, she is introduced by the way she attracts the unwanted attention of the local male population, farmers for the most part, who rhapsodize about her shapely ankles, “moist lips and the sheen on her eyelashes…small chin made to be cupped by a hand,” and curly brown hair. “Everything about her was innocent,” wrote Sandstrom, “and yet she drew the eye and the heart and made the pulses tingle…she was rounded, even a little plump, but she seemed to walk on air.”

Back cover of the paperback.

Reading the book, I was waiting with bated breath for the singing guitar-strumming cleric to make an entrance knowing this was unlikely, and that Father Boneval in the book was made to sing in the film simply because was being played by crooner Maurice Chevalier.

The other changes are obvious. Bride-to-be Nicolette in the book is transformed into Nicolina (Danielle De Metz) for the film. The book’s interfering busybody Marie easily becomes Maria (Agnes Moorehead). While the film’s count (Gabriele Ferzetti) owns a fishing fleet and the book’s count is a scholar, they have in common fighting for the resistance in the war.  

Although in the film it’s obvious that Jessica is too easily distracting the men leaving the women resentful, the idea of taking any action against the midwife takes some time to formulate. However, in the book only six pages elapse before Marie is thinking of ways of getting rid of the midwife. Her first notion is to act as matchmaker, hitching her to the 44-year-old widow Boniface. But Boniface’s sister Virginie, his long-time housekeeper, fears being cast out and resists the idea. Then Marie gets village women to agree on the sex ban –  without sex there would be no babies and therefore no midwife – the central theme of the movie.

In the opening section of the book, also, the midwife is seen only through the eyes of the other characters who make all sorts of excuses to go out of their way to spend time with her. It is nearly 30 pages until the reader enters the innocent head of Suzette. She sees the good in everyone and everything and is complimented on her midwifery skills.

In the film, Suzette gets to know the count (who gives a false name) at the wedding feast but in the book she is not invited to that celebration and only meets the count in the course of attending other general nursing duties. Of course if the film had followed the book, that would have eliminated one highlight, the wedding singing and dancing.

The book follows a different line. When Suzette complains about a shopkeeper’s cheeses she is banned from the village shop. The sex ban quickly whittles down her presence in the village and she considers buying a piece of land from the count. Their romance is conducted off-page, his feelings for her revealed in a letter to his mother and his marriage proposal is welcomed, unlike the book.

It is only when Nicolette and Madame Tuffe (Tuffi in the film, played by Sylva Koscina) become pregnant that they go begging to the midwife. But in a final twist she cannot attend as she is being married.

So, basically, the book lacks the movie’s second act when Jessica takes revenge on the village women by flirting outrageously with the men. It’s difficult in any case to make this idea work. Although Jessica (Angie Dickinson in the film) dresses in a more provocative manner – tight sweater and jeans – than in the book, there’s nothing particularly brazen about her. In the book, though puzzled, she accepts her exile. She is too innocent to suspect underlying motives. The film does not quite work because a character presented as a flower of innocence cannot suddenly turn into a minx.

Nor is there really any place in a movie for a singing priest, no matter how charming. In the book, the priest’s role is minimal. But because he is played by Maurice Chevalier the character and storyline shift to make him more important. The movie romance is overplayed, too, with drama when none is required.

The film was originally titled “Apple Pie Bed.”

It was likely that the involvement of Romanian director Jean Negulesco ensured this French-set piece came to be relocated to Italy following the success of Three Coins in a Fountain (1954) set in Rome. But this was not a given. He had remained true to the Paris locale of  Francoise Sagan’s novel A Certain Smile (1958), although importing Italian Rossano Brazzi and American Joan Fontaine for his co-star, and to Boy on a Dolphin (1957) set in Greece, albeit with an Italian female lead in Sophia Loren. Possibly it came about when Jean Negulesco set up his own company and announced Apple Pie Bed with Maurice Chevalier – advertised in 1960 as part of the United Artists release schedule (see above) – as his first picture, based on the Sandstrom novel.

The screenplay was announced as being written by H. Hugh Herbert, then Sandstrom then John Dighton before Edith Sommer, with whom Negulesco had worked on The Best of Everything (1959), took over. The success of Gigi (1958) might well have inspired the director to give Chevalier a singing part. This was Negulesco’s first film since The Best of Everything having left The World of Suzie Wong in 1960. The importance of Chevalier was such that the film’s release was held up until the singer’s version of the title song penetrated the charts.

SOURCES: “Negulesco: Zest of Crews Favors Europe’s Studios,” Variety, April 3, 1957, 12; “Flora Sandstrom,” Variety, January 21, 1959, 9; “Negulesco’s Own Firm,” Variety, October 14, 1959, 3; advert, Variety, January 6, 1969, 24; “Negulesco UA Picture Awaits Song Penetration, “ Box Office, January 29, 1962, E1.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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