Selling Angie Dickinson – “Jessica” (1962)

There was an age-old rule of thumb in Hollywood marketing. You can ignore iron-clad contracts as regards credits and billing if you have a sexy girl to promote. The top-billed Maurice Chevalier had been a major Hollywood star for nearly three decade from the likes of The Merry Widow (1934) to Gigi (1958) and twice Oscar-nominated. But you can scarcely see his face in any of the posters. He was passed over in favor of the glorious image of Angie Dickinson astride a Vespa scooter. And, unusually, for an industry that sold females in terms of facial features and bosom, Dickinson’s posterior was given as much prominence as the rest of her figure.

Bearing in mind the Vespa trick had already been used in more fashionable fashion by Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, this was probably a more sensible approach. While there’s no doubt Dickinson was stylish nobody would ever beat Hepburn when it came to haute couture so there was no point trying, although it has to be said the sweater look was something of a throwback to the 1940s.

However, there were two other pieces of more stylish artwork as back-up for an exhibitor looking askance at the obvious and with more discerning patrons. While Mitchell Hooks was responsible for the main poster, also turning their hand to  promotional material were director Jean Negulesco (whose effort is pictured at the top) and artist Bernard Buffet who both concentrated on face to the exclusion of figure. Negulesco had begun his career as an expressionist artist in the 1920s and the Pressbook marketeers took this idea further by claiming that “every frame of the film was composed with such care that the picture…can be said to be painted with a camera.” 

Negulesco was a noted art collector and paintings by Bernard Buffet, also a French expressionist, adorned his walls. In 1955 Buffet was named the top post-war artist and his first retrospective at the age of just 30 was held three years later.

As readers of these occasional articles on Pressbooks will know, marketing a movie around one image was rare but the image of Jessica (Angie Dickinson) mounting a scooter was used exclusively in all posters even though the background and taglines might change. The background showed the locale, some subsidiary characters and dancing. You have to look close to catch a glimpse of top star Maurice Chevalier – he’s the guy in black toting a guitar.

The taglines centered on the mischievous Jessica causing marital mishap in sun-filled Italy. “Here comes trouble. The most delightful, delicious siren who ever scooted into town and put marriages on the skids!” was the main tagline. The rest were along similar lines. “She’s the most luscious forbidden fruit that ever dropped into the screen’s lap.” / “She lives it up saucily in Italy.” / “Meet the gal who took Italy by storm with a scooter, sweater and a smile.”   

The more artistic posters by Negulesco and Buffet had different taglines: “Not in a month of Never on Sundays have you heard such wonderful songs” and “Jean Negulesco, who put Rome on the map with Three Coins in the Fountain, now works wonders on the shores of the blue Mediterranean in Jessica, a most mischievous girl.” The marketeers of course were taking some artistic license since Roman Holiday preceded Three Coins in the Fountain.

The Pressbook offered a couple of pages of nuggets for hungry newspaper editors with Chevalier at last getting some attention – the “crooning cleric” was described as “the perennially youthful Frenchman (who) had sung, danced and acted his way across the stages of the world enjoying the adulation of several different generations.”  Chevalier was given tips on his guitar by a local singing cleric, apparently.

But there was little chance, even in print, of Chevalier stealing Dickinson’s thunder especially when particular reference was made to her nude swimming scene, for which she wore a skin-colored bikini to the disappointment of the hundreds of locals who climbed up a steep slope to the waterfall location.

Jean wasn’t the only artistic member of the Negulesco clan. His wife Dusty, also a painter,  designed the wardrobe, wrote lyrics for the film’s songs and taught Dickinson how to ride a scooter. The movie was filmed on location in the village of Forza d’Agro on a clifftop 1,000 feet high. The shoot lasted 55 days with 2,600 people from the surrounding area employed as support staff or in bit parts and extras. The production spent about $113,000 (over $1 million at today’s prices) on accommodation and meals and purchased 8,300 gallons of fuel. Traditional Sicilian music was incorporated into the film.

Given Chevalier was singing it was inevitable and promotionally essential to put out a single, this was “Jessica” backed by “The Vespa Song.” There was also an original soundtrack album. Both were ideal material for local radio stations to play during the film’s launch.

A key element of the promotion was a tie-up with Vescony inc which distributed Vespa scooters in the U.S. There was a national competition and franchisees were ready to lend scooters to theaters for openings and special screenings or just to sit in the lobby attracting attention. A subplot involving gardening inspired marketeers to suggest exhibitors give away orchids to women named Jessica and had tied up with supplier Orchids of Hawaii. Other ideas included targeting local midwives – both male and female – and a “Jessica Jump” reflecting the film’s wedding scene. There was book tie-in based on the source novel The Midwife of Pont Clery by Flora Sandstrom published by Pocket books.

Bernard Buffet’s involvement was something of a coup and promised an opportunity to create a promotion appealing to art lovers. “Not since Toulouse-Lautrec made advertisements for nightclubs has an artist of this stature contributed to ads for popular entertainment.”  

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