Can-Can (1960) ****

A sterling cast does justice to some great Cole Porter songs in an entertaining musical typical of the period. Apart from appropriating some stock footage, nobody was going to bother to head out on location when a Hollywood-ized version of Paris could be recreated on the set. While the film is ahead of its time in several ways – Simone (Shirley Maclaine) owns the nightclub and the women in the title dance are meant to be minus their panties, hence attempts by authorities to shut it down – the plot features an old-fashioned love triangle.

While the chief magistrate (Maurice Chevalier) turns a blind eye to the lewd dance, his younger colleague Phillippe (Louis Jourdan) does not and ensures Simone is arrested. Complications arise when Philippe falls in love with Simone who already has a lover, the lawyer Francois (Frank Sinatra) who is averse to committing to marriage. The four stars are all very charming and there is gentle comedy and effortless acting as the romantic knots are tightened and then unpicked. Hypocrisy is tested and found wanting. The courtroom scenes are amusing and most of the story focus is on how Phillippe can get round his principles and legal obligations to successfully woo Simone.

But in reality, the audience is here for the music, and to hear classic Porter songs interpreted by Sinatra and Chevalier. While the songs are top-drawer, what captured my imagination most was the “Garden of Eden” ballet with a stunning design and superb dancing by Simone and Claudine (Juliet Prowse).  The “Apache Dance” also boasts some singular choreography but otherwise while the “Can-Can” itself is rousing and well-done this is for obvious reasons a censored version.

The Cole Porter contribution includes: “I Love Paris,” “C’Est Magnifique,” “It’s Allright With Me,” “Let’s Do It,” and “Just One of Those Things.”

Walter Lang was a safe pair of hands in this genre having helmed Call Me Madam (1953), There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) and Oscar-nominated for The King and I (1956). The screenplay was a harder slog. The original Broadway musical was a romance between the judge and the nightclub owner. Adding the lawyer Francois to the mix necessitated major changes to the story. But Dorothy Kingsley also had form, having been responsible for the screenplays of  Kiss Me, Kate (1953), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Pal Joey (1957). Co-writer Charles Lederer, although involved in Kismet (1955), had a better grasp of comedy, as seen in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and It Started with a Kiss (1960).

Although not universally admired by the critics, it won two Oscars – color costume design for  Irene Sharaff and best music for Nelson Riddle. It didn’t hit a home run at the box office either and the finger was pointed at Twentieth Century Fox for committing the mortal sin of inflating revenue figures on its initial launch.

While not one of the all-time great musicals and put in the shade when compared to West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), it’s an enjoyable confection, the easy screen charisma of Sinatra, Chevalier, Jourdan and MacLaine holding it all together.

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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