Behind the Scenes – “The Americanization of Emily” (1964)

Julie Andrews could not have made a more controversial choice in her bid to prove she was more than a Hollywood goody two-shoes as introduced in her debut Mary Poppins (1964). In the months leading up to release, The Americanization of Emily movie made all the wrong sort of headlines, aligning the innocent Andrews with the unsavory matter of producer Martin Ransohoff (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) challenging the all-powerful Production Code, the self-censorship system in operation in the United States until the late 1960s.

Ransohoff demanded the right to include four scenes of substantial nudity in the film, at a time when any flashes of skin in mainstream pictures were taboo. He argued that the scenes were “necessary for the farcical overtones of the picture.” But more to the point, he was annoyed that foreign filmmakers, who did not have to abide by the stringent rulings of the Code, could show nudity, sometimes even condoned by censor Geoffrey Shurlock who accepted their artistic validity.  Ransohoff railed: “We are losing our market because we allow pictures that are full of nudity done in an artistic manner to play our top houses but we can’t get into them because the Code robs us of our artistic creativity.”

I’m not sure exactly when MGM dropped the “Americanization” element from the title and made Julie Andrews the star by promoting her image more than that of top-billed James Garner.

Faced with a lawsuit from studio MGM for delivering a movie not fit for the Code, Ransohoff conceded he had gone “overboard” with the nudity and that Judy Carne – who later sprang to fame in Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In (1969-1973) –  in particular, was “over exposed.” Other actresses named as revealing too much were Janine Gray (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) and Kathy Kersh in her movie debut. The women were identified in the movie credits as, disgracefully, “Nameless Broad.”

At the outset, such agitation would not have preyed so much on Andrews’ mind as a possibly limitation in her future career, Mary Poppins not due to be unveiled until the summer and few members of the public aware of what a game-changer that would prove for studio and star alike. But once Mary Poppins hit the box office heights, there was every chance the star would quickly lose the adoration of the public if seen to play the female lead in a steamy picture. Ransohoff complicated matters by failing to come out and say whether Andrews was involved in the nude scenes, no matter they were considerably toned down by the time the movie hit cinemas in October 1964. (Had he delayed the picture’s release six months, his approach might have been deemed more acceptable, as, by that time, a flash of breasts had been passed by Shurlock for The Pawnbroker.)

It had been a troubled picture from the start. As early as 1962, Oscar-winner William Holden (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960) had been signed up to star and the movie was due to go before the cameras in London in July 1963 and, following a slight delay, re-scheduled for the next month under the direction of Oscar-winner William Wyler (Ben-Hur, 1959). Production was not quite settled because Andrews was only hired in September 1963. But when Wyler pulled out a month later he was quickly followed by Holden. Andrews was such an unknown quantity that when she signed up, the news did not even receive a headline in Variety, just a few lines at the bottom of a page.

And there were screenplay issues. Norman Rosten had begun work on the adaptation of the William Bradford Huie bestseller in April 1962 only for, 10 months later, the author to be drafted in. But scripting problems would continue until after shooting was complete (see below) with the filmmakers unable to make up their mind about the tone of the picture.

Despite Rosten being assigned, a story later emerged that the book had struggled to reach Hollywood. Huie contended that it had, after all, not been sold to Ransohoff in 1962 and that the sale only occurred later after the author had written the screenplay on spec and sold it to the producer. He tied this up with another contention, little borne out by fact, that producers had turned against buying blockbuster novels in favour of original screenplays.

At that point Ransohoff was on a roll as one of the biggest independent producers in Hollywood, on his slate The Sandpiper, which would appear in 1965, Topkapi (1964), The Loved One (1965), The Wheeler Dealers (1963) and The Americanization of Emily, a fantastic batting average for a neophyte producer.  Emily would be his third production, The Sandpiper, with two of the biggest stars in the world, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, his fourth.

James Garner, who had blown his entire fee of $100,000 from three years’ work on television series Maverick on getting out of his contract with Warner Brothers, had been given a helping hand by Ransohoff, winning second billing behind Kim Novak in Boys Night Out (1962) and Lee Remick in The Wheeler Dealers. Ransohoff gambled Garner was ready to make the jump up to top billing in The Americanization of Emily

In fact, it would take several years before Garner was considered a proper star, thanks to Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), with the kind of marquee appeal that produced box office commensurate with his fees. In fact, James Coburn was considered a better prospect with a seven-picture deal with Twentieth Century Fox – for whom he would make his breakthrough movie Our Man Flint (1966) – a five-film deal with Ransohoff and Major Dundee (1965) on the starting grid with Columbia.

The three-minute sequence of the D-Day beach landing cost $250,000. It was shot in California, sixty miles north of Hollywood, on a public beach though anyone happening upon the site would possibly be put off by signs proclaiming “Explosives next ½ mile.” The shoot involved 5,000lb of explosives, mostly dynamite and black powder, planted in iron tubs buried in the sand and connected by wires to a central control board. The complicated set-up involved four cameras rolling simultaneously with a 250ft high crane lifting a camera platform into the sky for aerial shots. Another platform was sited in the surf. Special effects expert Paul Byrd was on hand to point out to participants where explosions would occur. Eighty smoke pots were lit, each in an assigned position. Rehearsals soaked James Garner and while he waited for the scene to be set up again he lay down on the beach, still in n his wet clothes, but covered in a towel.

Preparing the segment had taken four months with bulldozers clearing the area. Ransohoff himself climbed into a camera platform to test the rig. Camera positions were selected to capture close-ups of the actors going ashore. To maximize daylight the lunch break was limited to 30 minutes.

Ransohoff, as much a maverick in marketing as in production, took out a double-page advertisement in Variety in July 1964 – nearly four months before the movie opened – to promote the response of the preview audiences. And although the comment cards returned easily promotable lines like “you have a blockbuster on your hand” and “one of those rare films that combine tragedy, comedy and drama properly,” Ransohoff was clearly intending to continue to court controversy by including quotes along the lines of “I’m broadminded but this time you’ve gone too far” and “a disturbing and terrible thing.”

But you couldn’t argue with Ransohoff seeking an alternative marketing strategy with such a recalcitrant publicist as Garner. The actor had a marked aversion to talking about his private life, which, of course, meant the focus would have to shift to his dubious star quality or the controversial scenes. Nothing infuriated journalists more, especially in those days when the media was not so tightly controlled, than to turn up for an interview with an actor who had nothing to say. “My private life is just that and I’ll keep it that way,” he averred.

Quite why the movie took so long to open is not really a mystery. Sneak previews might be followed by a little tweaking but the film would expect to be in cinemas within a month or so, the previews intended to build public awareness and word-of-mouth buzz rather than tell the director where he had gone wrong. But clearly Ransohoff held back in order to capitalize on the box office of Mary Poppins. Despite the wrangling with the Code being over and done with by March 1964 and the preview taking place three months later, the film did not open until October, going wide at Xmas, with the additional purpose of aiming for Oscar voters.

Even as Ransohoff was adding the finishing touches to the advertising campaign, there were doubts about what kind of picture the public would be shown. Four endings were considered, two filmed with Edison (James Garner) dead which turned the movie into a straightforward black comedy, but the other two retained the  romantic ending.

The black comedy approach dictated that the unsuspecting Edison (James Garner) was lured to his death on Omaha Beach by the glory-hunting Cummings (James Coburn). With no return from the dead, this left Emily (Julie Andrews) in one version to carry the movie to a dutiful conclusion, commiserating with Admiral Jessup, who had been committed to a mental asylum, while a parade commemorating Edison’s sacrifice and led by the treacherous Cummings took place in the background. This was junked when the parade prove too expensive an addition.

All the other endings kept Edison alive, but in one, partly filmed, Cummings was banished to the North Pole, the producers going as far as to film Coburn with penguins.

The major adjustment in all versions was to present Jessup as off his head when he conceived the plan. That meant the Navy could not be blamed for outrageous publicity-seeking, with the finger instead pointed at a maverick officer, whose decisions could be tempered by his temporary instability.

SOURCES: “Holden’s Americanization,” Variety, May 23, 1962, p11; “Screenplay (Ready to Shoot) Cost-Conscious Producers Goal in Retreat from Pre-Sold,” Variety, January 30, `1963, p3; “Emily Screenplay to Be Done by William Bradford Huie,” Box Office, February 11, 1963, pW1; “Ransohoff’s Big Spurt of Features,” Variety, February 17, 1963, p3; “Ransohoff To Start Five Films in 6 Month Period,” Box Office, June 17, 1963, p27; “Julie Andrews,” Variety, September 11, 1963, p16; “Bill Holden Follows Wyler in Leaving Emily,Box Office, October 7, 1963, pW2; “Garner Gets Emily Lead,” Box Office, October 14, 1963, p9; Michael Fessier Jr., “Can’t Be Americanized With Duds On,” Variety, November 20, 1963, p5; “Martin Ransohoff To Seek Production Code Seal,” Box Office, November 26, 1963, p6; “Emily and Her Attire Settled,” Variety, March 25, 1964, p5;“Nudies In Emily Are Cut to Get MPAA’s Seal,” Box Office, March 30, 1964, pW4; “Advertisement,”  Variety, July , 1964, p14; “Admiral’s Glory Seeking Is Final Ending of Metro’s Emily,” Variety, November 4, 1964, p5; “Mad Film Promotion,” Variety, November 4, 1964, p15; “Promo Credo of Hollywood Actor,” Variety, November 4, 1964, p15; Action on the Beach (1964) MGM promotional featurette.

A Matter of Innocence / Pretty Polly (1967) ***

Dramatically undernourished coming-of-age tale over-reliant on “authentic” travelogue and continuing the transformation of Hayley Mills from child to adult star, although that change had been clearly wrought by her previous outing in  The Family Way (1966) which had contained her first nude scene. While there’s definitely way more sex here it’s all off-screen.

In Singapore, family black sheep Robert (Trevor Howard) tries to stifle romance blossoming between his ugly duckling niece Polly (Hayley Mill) and local king of the fixers Amaz (Shashi Kapoor), to quote from list of the clichés the screenplay happily summons up. Polly is the bespectacled, dowdy, shy travelling companion to snippy aunt (Brenda de Banzie) – Robert’s sister not wife – who resides in a magnificent suite in Raffles Hotel, consigning her niece to a hovel of a room. When said aunt drops dead in the swimming pool, Polly, wasting no time on mourning, is free to turn butterfly, channeling her inner Brigitte Bardot with bouffant hairstyle and tight red dress.

The genial Amaz is on hand as a guide, in sexual matters as well as tourist, until huffing-and-puffing plantation manager Robert threatens to intervene and smarmy American Critch (Peter Bayliss) attempts to sweep her off her feet. And that’s about it, plot-wise. The meandering story provides insights into different aspects of local culture –  Whicker’s World was the only globe-trotting television series available at the time so all this would probably have entranced moviegoers rather than, as now, bored them to death.

Perhaps what’s most interesting is what’s left unsaid or never dwelt upon, of the posh English girl having sex with a native of Singapore. In previous movies – Bhowani Junction et al – miscegenation would have been the sole plot point with Brits up in arms at the suggestion of it. Here, the only objection to Amaz is that he’s a bit of a Casanova, practised seducer in the main of older women. While Amaz falls in love, Polly is considerably more objective, viewing their relationship in terms of rite-of-passage, rather an un-British approach, more in keeping with the attitudes those bold females exhibited in pictures like The Group (1966).

Polly is a pretty cool-headed kid, with a good head for booze, not staggering in gutters or throwing up after imbibing too much, alert to the intentions of Critch and more than capable of putting her uncle in his place. Despite her delight at enjoying sex Polly is more independent than you might imagine and the film’s actually a character study of a woman refusing to be defined – or trapped – by love and its obvious consequence marriage and viewing this new freedom as merely the starting point of her life.

For Hayley Mills fans, of course, her career divides sharply into Disney and post-Disney. Few child stars ever manage to take the first steps to an adult career never mind sustain one, but the actress made a good stab at throwing off her previous precocious screen persona by taking on challenging roles that perhaps upset her core followers. But the film would have benefitted from a better storyline and minus the distracting tourist elements been a lot tighter.   

The career of Trevor Howard, long-time second male lead, was on a bit of an upswing after sterling roles in Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and The Long Duel (1967) and although he remained the scowler supreme he brings more vulnerability to this role. Bollywood heartthrob Shashi Kapoor had come to prominence as far as the English-speaking countries were concerned through arthouse director James Ivory’s The Householder (1963) and Shakespeare-Wallah (1966) but this was his mainstream debut. He certainly has a screen presence and enjoys the best character arc, going from the cynicism of sex to the innocence of love. I’m sure the title is intended to refer to Polly but she is innocent, in screen shorthand terms, for about two seconds. Pretty Polly, the title of the short story on which the film is based, was not usable in certain countries because the name was the trademark of a popular brand of hosiery.

This was the final film of Brenda de Banzie (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956) and the second for British television stalwart Patricia Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances, 1990-1995), while for Chinese star Kalen Liu (Welcome to Hard Times, 1967) it was both her second and last picture.

This was perhaps an odd choice for director Guy Green (A Patch of Blue, 1965) but he was mired in the on-again off-again saga of proposed MGM roadshow epic Forty Days of Musa Dagh and compared to those travails this may have been welcome light relief. Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (Lock Up Your Daughters, 1969) developed the screenplay from Noel Coward’s short story.

In the Cool of the Day (1963) ***

Jane Fonda tagged this the worst film of her career but that’s a bit harsh and I suspect it owed a lot to the actress being dressed up Audrey Hepburn-style in outfits that scarcely suited her. While it’s certainly overheated, melodramatic moments indicated by thundering music, a marvellous supporting cast, including a quite bitchy Angela Lansbury, provides ample compensation.

It’s  romance in the Love Story vein, rich young flighty heroine Christine (Jane Fonda) at death’s door half her life, but feeling smothered by understandably over-protective husband Sam (Arthur Hill). When she falls for married publisher Murray (Peter Finch) and sets off on a trip to Greece, chaperoned it turns out by Murray’s bitter wife Sybil (Angela Lansbury), it takes a while for romance to physically bud. That it does at all is only because   Sybil has taken off with suave traveling salesman Leonard (Nigel Davenport).

The movie takes a long time to heat up because, as in The Bramble Bush fashion, there’s overmuch character filling-in to do. Part of the interest in this picture is how the bad guys are effectively good guys, more victims of their partner’s behaviour than anything else, though for story purposes, the audience has to be persuaded otherwise.

So besotted Sam, having dealt with umpteen bouts of his wife’s pneumonia and lung operations, a “slave” to her illnesses, is deemed as treating her like a child rather than a wife, preferring her ill rather than well, and denying her the adventure to which she feels entitled. When she meets Murray she has run away. Murray’s wife has a downer on her husband because, wait for it, he killed her child and left her facially scarred (hidden now by hair but she’s still very sensitive about it) in a car accident he caused.

But she’s portrayed as over-sensitive, worried about her appearance, snippy, blaming him for her distraught life, and worse, a philistine, hating being dragged around ancient Greek monuments. Aware of her husband’s proclivities, she mocks, “You’d be an idiot to fall in love with her.” And any time she ventures out, the music rises to a crescendo as if she is a character straight out of film noir.

When she goes off with Leonard, her love affair is viewed as sneaky rather than redemptive, even though he restores her faith in herself. Triumphantly, she tells Christine, “He’s all yours” and her husband “nobody need feel sorry for me any more.”Admittedly, she does take revenge by informing Christine’s husband, who has entrusted his wife to Murray’s care, of their affair. And you would be hard put to argue, although the film wants you to believe otherwise, that Sybil and Sam have been ill-treated by their partners, Sam, in particular, funding her trip to Greece in the hope that allowing her the freedom she needs will save their marriage.

Of course, the characters of both partners, even if their self-pitying is the result of circumstance, do mean that Christine and Murray are presented as people trapped in bad marriages and for whom love, however brief, provides sanctuary from tortured lives, her physical, his more mental, since he is not averse to guilt. 

Sybil’s lack of interest in tourist Greece handily gives the prospective lovers plenty time to fall in love, amid gorgeous scenery, and breathing in air rich in culture. With all film made in the 1960s and set in foreign parts – Pretty Polly (1967) another example – sometimes the story takes second place to the scenery, so it’s lucky that the romance is played out against such an interesting background, an ideal combination, killing two birds with one stone if you like. Given this is prior to Zorba the Greek (1964), the filmmakers have even managed to sneak in some traditional Greek dancing, albeit on the deck of a ferryboat.

Dress-wise, the lovers are ill-matched, Murray plodding around in a suit while Christine parades the latest often clingy fashion. When Sybil departs the scene, that leaves one happy character of the happy couple free of marital encumbrance, but still leaves open the question of how Christine will rid herself of Sam and, more importantly, will Murray wish to take on the all-consuming job of nursing Christine. He never gets the chance to find out. When she does fall ill – as the result of Murray recklessly keeping her out in a thunderstorm – her mother Lily (Valerie Kendrick) swoops in to rush her to hospital.

Spoiler Alert – I’m telling you that she dies because it seems to me that the ending the filmmakers hoped for is not how the audience will perceive it. Beautiful young woman dies too young, yep that’s there, but the man, now free and able to shake off his dull life and start afresh as a writer, seems a long shot. Given he has now, thanks to the thunderstorm episode, killed two people, I would surprised if guilt was not uppermost in his mind.

Not so-good-it’s-bad, and despite the complications, and perhaps because of the Sybil-Leonard romance, it’s certainly an interesting picture as much, perhaps, because it fails to send the audience in the desired direction.

In only her fifth movie, Jane Fonda (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969), exhibiting the nervous friskiness that would become a hallmark, does pretty well with a febrile, spoiled, character. If she falls down at all it’s that she appears uncomfortable wearing Orry Kelly’s fabulous gowns and it would take Hollywood some time to work out she was not a natural successor to Audrey Hepburn. Peter Finch (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) is perfectly at ease with the illicit.

But Angela Lansbury (Harlow, 1965), a hoot as the wife who turns rejection into triumph, steals the show. Throw in Arthur Hill (Moment to Moment, 1966), Nigel Davenport (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965), for once neither smug nor snippy, Alexander Knox (Khartoum, 1966), veterans Constance Cummings (The Criminal Code, 1930) and Valerie Taylor (Went the Day Well, 1942), John Le Mesurier (The Liquidator, 1965) and Alec McCowan (Frenzy, 1972) and you have a movie where hardly a moment goes by without admiring a performance.

Robert Stevens (I Thank a Fool, 1962) directed from a screenplay by Meade Roberts (Danger Route, 1967) based on the novel by Susan Ertz.

The Pleasure Seekers (1964) ***

Unlike Paris, London and Rome, in the early 1960s Madrid lacked an array of easily-recognized iconic buildings so it fell to one of the three main characters to keep audiences informed of why and at what they should marvel. Director Jean Negulesco freshened up his remake of Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) by adding songs, not enough to turn it into a full-blown musical, but enough to define Fran (Ann-Margret) as a singer.

She shares a flat with Maggie (Carol Lynley) and newcomer Susie (Pamela Tiffin) and pretty much all they have in common is trying to get married. The major changes to the previous picture is that the girls are younger, and therefore marriage not so critical, and that nobody has a terminal illness, so it never falls into the three-hanky romantic category. Maggie is in love with her married boss Paul (Brian Keith) and reporter Pete (Gardner McKay) is in love with her. Susie is wooed by millionaire playboy Emilio (Anthony Franciosca) and Maggie falls for humble doctor Andres (Andre Lawrence).

The meet-cutes are well done. Emilio attempts to comfort Susie in a museum believing her tears are caused by being overcome by a painting when instead she is just homesick. The doctor attracts Fran’s attention when he accidentally runs her over (a reversal of the situation in her next film Bus Riley’s Back in Town, 1964, when her character runs into the car of the eponymous Bus). And there are some interesting twists. Susie, believing Emilio, is a good-for-nothing impoverished man, moves her handbag away from him when they dine in a restaurant. Maggie finds that Paul’s stern wife Jane (Gene Tierney) brings her up to speed on her errant husband. Fran is astonished to discover Emilio has principles. And there is a running gag with an apparently voyeuristic neighbor who turns out to have a bride the equal of any of the girls.

Sometimes it just seems like an excuse for the women to adopt endless poses in their lingerie, or for Maggie to belt out a few numbers, or for a tourist round-up of the city’s most interesting places. But it’s effortlessly done, wrapped up in patina of innocence, as though the events were taking place a decade before in glorious color, in the kind of film where once in a while the action could stop for a song.

Pamela Tiffin and Anthony Franciosca get acquainted.

None of the songs, by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen, are anywhere as good as their theme tune for Three Coins in the Fountain, but Maggie is less of the hip-swinging song-belter of Viva Las Vegas (1964) and more a torch singer, although the choreography, as in the matador number, is occasionally stunning. It’s hard to see why she merits four songs when one would have sufficed to fix her character as a cabaret singer. And Madrid ain’t Rome. And, excepting Ann-Margret, the film has no stars.

In some respects this was a backward step for Ann-Margret who had just started taking on more dramatic roles with Kitten with a Whip and with the exception of her singing has the least interesting role. Pamela Tiffin (The Lively Set, 1964) portrays the most interesting character, not just suspicious of male motives but able to protect herself again them. Carol Lynley (Danger Route, 1967) was another one on the cusp of stardom. Anthony Franciosca, who would star again with Ann-Margret in The Swinger (1966) and opposite Raquel Welch in Fathom (1967) was constantly being tipped as the next big star. This was the final film of Gene Tierney (Leave Her to Heaven, 1945).

Jean Negulesco (Jessica, 1962) would not make a picture for another six years and you can see how easily his brand of romantic drama was already beginning to lose its appeal. No matter how much the marketeers dressed up his movies, Jessica another example, as sexy, they remained endearingly innocent at a time when audiences wanted to move on from virtue.

This might have worked better had it revolved around one character rather than three and the stopping for indifferent songs undercuts what little drama the film possesses. Edith Sommer (Jessica, 1962) cracked out the screenplay based on the previous film.

A Place for Lovers (1968) ***

Not quite the Hollywood romance, too much bellyaching from the male for a start, and a couple of years before Love Story (1971) gave terminal illness a box office shot in the arm, but nonetheless very much an adult love affair and far from deserving a place in the top 50 worst films of all time.

For a start director Vittorio De Sica plays around with audience expectations. This always has the feel of a romance that could end at any time, of characters not quite sure of the other person’s feelings, real love or just sex, the sense of not knowing where this could go, and of where, emotionally, they find themselves. And it begins with confusion, a blaring horn in the background, a close-up of Julia (Faye Dunaway), and then she jiggles around with some bricks in a wall before retrieving a key and finding her way inside a grand though modern Italian pallazo. You’ve no idea why she is here and I guess neither does she.

There’s been no meet-cute and there’s no real intimation of how the attraction began except, judging from a brief flashback, they must have bumped into each other at an airport. That’s my conclusion anyway because the details of the actual meeting are never clarified, like a lot of what subsequently goes on. She hides information from him, he does the same, so for a time feelings are not spelled out. It’s clandestine in all the wrong ways. There’s a separation, a distance, characters often seen in very long shot. Sometimes there are physical barriers between them, a high fence in one instance, as if true intimacy is impossible.

Still no sign of the man she has come to visit. She rescues a stray dog from the town dog collector. It’s an exceptionally grand house, classically designed, marble floors, paintings and artistic artefacts all over the place, but no clutter. When Valerio (Marcello Mastroianni) arrives – it’s his house – he checks the labels on her luggage, presumably finding out her full name, possibly her address, possibly accustomed to lovers providing false information on both counts. We learn he’s a safety-conscious racing driver, a man who requires barriers.

They are on a deadline already. She is only in Italy for a further two days. This is a lie. She has 10 days at her disposal but wants to set the pace, heat up the sexual atmosphere. They make love beside a lake. He takes her to dinner with friends where the entertainment is a lecture on sexual positions shown in art. But after someone suggests a game of what we would these days term speed-dating, he calls an end to the affair, jealous that she would consider spending any time in close proximity to another man.

So that’s it. Grand love affair dead and buried after just one day. Except she turns up next day at a practice at a racing circuit. After they reconcile, she watches in a car mirror as he makes a call in a phone box – speaking to his wife or another lover, we never find out, except her reaction explains it must be either.

There’s little of the sparkling dialog found in Hollywood romances, especially for audiences who grew up on the Tracy-Hepburn pictures, but she tells him that “if you put all the houses I have lived in you would make a good little town” and not just that she had lived a peripatetic lifestyle but that she also had six grandfathers so a rather fluid upbringing. She confesses now she has more time to spare, she just wanted him to ask for it, being stricken by her potential absence an indication in her eyes of true love.

So this is a fragile individual, her smile is always hesitant, external confidence hiding vulnerability. Her face is never flush with passion. When he asks why she never revealed her terminal illness, she replies, “I can’t take any more sad eyes.” There’s an ironic ending.

It is of course set against glorious backdrops but instead of letting the audience wallow in the love affair, as would be the Hollywood temptation, De Sica finds some way of undercutting it. Valerio is never quite sure of her and she is never quite sure of him. Their pasts remain hidden. Their lovemaking beside the lake is interrupted by a hunter bagging game. She coos over a baby only to discover it has an ugly father. She drives too fast even with a racing driver in the passenger seat and she clearly has suicidal tendencies, the love affair almost a salve for her despair.

We could have been presented with the suave charming Marcello Mastroianni (La Dolce Vita, 1960) cliché from a dozen Italian films, but instead he is often jealous, annoyed, real. Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) plays a character who never knows where she stands with her emotions, accepting her fate one moment, determined to end her life the next, and yet still time to dally in a love affair that of course can have no future.

Vittorio De Sica (Two Women, 1960) has fashioned a picture that is neither uplifting nor downhearted, a love affair that lives just for the moment, but with implied complications that could at any moment wreck it, a romance always teetering on the edge.

I’ve no idea what compelled Harry Medved to include this in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, published in 1978, but you might easily question his judgement on discovering that his list includes Sergei Eisenstein epic Ivan the Terrible, Alain Resnais’s hypnotic Last Year at Marienbad, Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown, Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn and even such passable entertainments as The Omen.

Maybe you’ve been put off giving this a whirl thanks to the Medved seal of disapproval. A Place for Lovers is not the greatest film ever made, but it’s certainly far from the worst, two striking actors and a director who could never make a terrible picture make sure of that.

No DVD available so you will need to check out Ebay or streaming.

Jessica (1962) ***

Roman Holiday (1953) and Three Coins in a Fountain (1956) had set a high bar for Hollywood romances set in Italy. Since Jean Negulesco had directed the latter he was expected to sprinkle box office magic on this slight tale of young American midwife Jessica Brown Visconti (Angie Dickinson) adrift in a rustic village in Sicily.

She’s the kind of beauty who’s going to raise male temperatures except Jessica, having been widowed on her wedding day, is not romantically inclined. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the entire male population becoming so entranced that their wives become so enraged that led by Maria (Agnes Moorehead) they embark on a sex strike, assuming that without any pregnancies (contraception being frowned upon in a Catholic domain) to deal with Jessica will become redundant and go away.

And that so annoys Jessica, who is doing a good job as a midwife, that she turns on the flirting to get back at her female tormentors. Luckily, there’s a reclusive landowner (Gabriele Ferzetti) who happens to be a widower, although romance takes a while to stir. There’s also a priest (Maurice Chevalier), in part acting as narrator, who turns to song every now and then.

So it’s a surprise that this unlikely concoction works at all. It’s charming in the obvious ways, the lush scenery, a traditional wedding, gentle comedy. But it’s a decade too late in taking an innocent view of sex. There’s no crudeness, of course; it doesn’t fall victim to the 1960s’  need to sexualise in an obvious manner. And not every husband is continuously ogling Jessica so Nunzia (Sylva Koscina) and young bride Nicolina (Danielle De Metz) are in the awkward situation of potentially betraying the sisterhood.

But in resolving the central issue the story develops too many subplots and introduces too many characters, often leaving Jessica rather redundant in terms of the plot, with not much to do, especially when her prospective suitor is absent for a long period going fishing.

Angie Dickinson is delightful as the Vespa-riding innocent turned mischievous. However, in some way though this seemed a backward step for Dickinson, a rising star in the Lana Turner/Elizabeth Taylor mold after being John Wayne’s squeeze in Rio Bravo (1959) and Frank Sinatra’s estranged wife in Ocean’s 11 (1960) and following a meaty supporting role in A Fever in the Blood (1961) elevated to top billing in The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961). It seemed like Hollywood could not make up its mind whether it wanted her to be like Gidget or be given free rein to express her sexuality.

Ferzetti and Dickinson

A charmer like Maurice Chevalier was ideal for what was in effect a whimsical part. The singing probably met audience expectation. Perhaps like Sean Connery’s perennial Scottish accent, nobody ever asked Chevalier to drop his pronounced French accent even to play an Italian. But the picture is whimsical enough without him.

There’s a surprisingly strong supporting cast in four-time Oscar nominee Agnes Moorehead (Pollyanna, 1960), Gabriele Ferzetti (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969) and French actor (and sometime writer-director) Noel-Noel. Yugoslavian Sylva Koscina (Deadlier Than the Male, 1967), Frenchwoman Kerima (Outcast of the Islands, 1951) and Danielle De Metz (The Scorpio Letters, 1967) all make a splash.

You can catch it for free on YouTube.

Mayerling (1968) ****

Sumptuous historical romantic drama set in a fading European empire awash with political intrigue and incipient revolution. Archduke Rudolf (Omar Sharif), married heir to the throne and constantly at odds with rigid father Emperor Franz-Josef (James Mason), sympathizes so strongly with Hungarian dissidents that he threatens to tear apart the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, when he falls in love with Maria (Catherine Deneuve) and wants to marry her instead that, too, threatens to throw the empire into disarray.

Although dissolute, a mistress (or two) on the side, and addicted to morphine, that is not the way Rudolf is introduced to the audience. Instead, he is one of a string of bloodied men arrested after a demonstration giving his name to an officer in a police station who, once he is recognized, orders all other prisoners be released. He is the poster boy for good royalty. The Hungarians, agitating for independence, want him to become their king.

Beautifully mounted with lavish sets and enough in the way of balls, ballet, processions,  horse riding and sleighs to keep up a steady parade of visually interesting distractions, the films steadily builds up an undercurrent of tension, both between father and son and between rebels and ruler. The emperor is a political genius, not just spying on his son, but full of devious devices to hold together whatever threatens to break up the empire.

The romance develops slowly and with true historical perspective, the first kiss they share is not on the lips, Rudolf kisses both her cheeks, she kisses his palm. Yet, there is a real sense that, no matter his power, they can still both be trapped in roles they despise, separated at the whim of parents. Rudolf, as he understands true love for the first time, finds the self-belief to challenge political certainties.

The regal aspects are well done, arguments about the rule of monarchy come over as heated conversation rather than boring debate, the political realities unavoidable. Rudolf, desperate to avoid a future where someone has to die before he has a reason to live. Escape is not an option.

There is a wonderful bitchy atmosphere in the court, where ladies-in-waiting disparage each other behind their backs, one dress described as “wallpaper,” and are forever seeking advancement. Countess Larish (Genevieve Page) is a self-appointed procurer-in-chief for Rudolf, not caring what chaos she causes.

I should add, if you are as ignorant of your European history as myself, that Mayerling is a place not a person. I tell you this so that you don’t make my mistake of waiting for a Mayerling character to appear. The film pointedly avoids a history lesson but it could have spared a minute to explain that the events depicted take place just 20 years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the second largest land-mass in Europe, and among the top two or three nations. That would have helped clarify why Franz-Josef was in such a constant state,  worried about forces that could break up the empire, and as concerned that his son, living such a debauched life, lacked the personal skills to hold it together after his father’s death.

It is ironic that Rudolf does prove his worth as a result of being briefly separated from Maria, taking the army to task for its incompetent officers and poor maintenance of everything from weaponry to horses.

To his credit director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962) does not rely on Omar Sharif’s soulful brown eyes and instead allows action to convey character and looks and touch the meaning of his love. This is probably Omar Sharif’s best role, one where he clearly made all the acting decisions rather than being over-directed by David Lean as in Doctor Zhivago (1965). Catherine Deneuve is equally impressive as a far-from-docile innocent, especially given the wide range of more sexually aware characters she has created for Repulsion (1965) and Belle de Jour (1967).

James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is superb as the conniving emperor, so rigid he will not approve a change of buttons for the army, so cunning that an apparent rapprochement with his son has unseen strings attached. Ava Gardner (55 Days at Peking, 1963) sweeps in briefly as an empress protective of her son and making the best of life in a gilded cage. Also impressive are Genevieve Page (Grand Prix, 1966) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Distress, 1963) as the high-living British heir nonetheless under the thumb of his mother Queen Victoria.

Terence Young also wrote the literate, often amusing script, although Denis Cannan (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) and Joseph Kessel (Night of the Generals, 1967) are credited with additional dialogue. While Francis Lai (The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl, 1968) wrote the score he relies heavily on classical music from Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus.

If you come at this not expecting a David Lean style affair full of striking compositions, but an old-fashioned drama advancing at leisurely pace, you will not be disappointed.

The Last Letter from Your Lover (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Oddly enough, this is also straddles 1965 and the present time and falls victim to the same problems of following two storylines. In fact, this is a tad complicated in that not only is present-day journalist Ellie Haworth (Felicity Jones) investigating a romantic mystery from the past but the subject of her inquiry Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley) is also investigating her own romance. Confused, you bet. Jennifer is suffering from that old Hollywood romantic standby – amnesia – and is alerted to her own mysterious past by the discovery of the letters that turn up half a century later in the hands of Ellie.

So really, there’s three storylines to keep up with: the contemporary exploration of the past, Stirling’s journey of self-discovery and in a series of flashbacks in the same period her forbidden romance – given she is already married – with charmer Andrew (Callum Turner). This 1960s is full-throttle glamour, playing out in the classy French Riviera, both Stirling and Andrew looking like they’ve just walked off a catwalk.

That it works surprisingly well is due to the three stories never getting mixed up (as in Last Night in Soho) and that in each period it is driven by detective work. People often forget there is nothing more satisfactory to solve than a romantic mystery rather than tracking down an ubiquitous serial killer. Three of the characters – Andrew, Ellie and her co-opted  investigative partner Rory (Nabhaan Rizwan), an archivist, are absolutely terrific, the actors delivering star turns. Andrew comes over as attractive but deep, a committed financial journalist. On the other hand Jennifer is pretty much a spoiled brat, and in the hands of Shailene Woodley over made-up and looking ill-at-ease in her glad rags. Amnesia has the unfortunate effect of making her wooden.

The 1960s romance follows pretty much the standard Hollywood template that is somehow going to hit an iceberg. By comparison the contemporary slow-burning romance between Ellie and Rory is a joy. She is outgoing, spunky, sexually confident – in a neat reversal she can’t remember the name of the boy she wakes up in bed with – while Rory is an old-fashioned stuck-in-the-mud whom she manages to warm up.

Felicity Jones has been through the Hollywood wringer – earnest roles such as The Theory of Everything (2014) and On the Basis of Sex (2018) mixed in with blockbusters of the Inferno (2016) and Rogue One (2016) variety – but here she is just delightful, playing a very rounded character. Nabhaan Rizwan (The Accident tv series, 2019) is wonderfully endearing. They play exceptionally well off each other, a sort of latter-day Andie McDowell-Hugh Grant.

It would have been a very quiet cinemagoing week for me to end up watching this and I wasn’t going to review it at all except for being reminded of dual-time settings by Last Night in Soho. I have to say I was happily surprised, the various mysteries enough of a hook, the Jones-Rizwan tag team exhibiting true charisma. Hats off to director Augustine Frizzell (Never Goin’ Back, 2018) for recognizing their potential and for keeping the whole enterprise chugging along. It’s one of the few Netflix productions to deliver.

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