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.

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.”  

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.

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