The Millionairess (1960) ***

The movies lost a brilliant comedienne when Sophia Loren was lured (by a million-dollar fee no less) into historical drama. Having previously demonstrated her flair for comedy in Houseboat (1958), turning Cary Grant’s life upside down, she repeated the formula here. Cultural appropriation by Peter Sellers is the main issue getting in the way of full appreciation, not just the actor essaying an Indian, but the fact that this is a very cliched  attempt.

The narrative runs along two parallel twists and coming from the politically-aware mind of George Bernard Shaw contains a streak of social commentary. Beautiful millionairess Epifania (Sophia Loren) can only marry a man able to demonstrate business acumen. Dr Kabir (Peter Sellers), who caters to an impoverished clientele, must marry a woman capable of existing in poverty, eking out an existence for 90 days on the daily equivalent of less than a couple of pounds sterling.  

At the foot of the poster note the advance warning of the initial stab at “Cleopatra” that was to star Feter Finch and Stephen Boyd rather than Richard Burton and Rex Harrison.

Epifania, presented in that generation as somewhat imperious but to today’s generation would be viewed as the epitome of the independent woman resisting the notion that she choose a mate based on someone else’s criteria, is not above a bit of jiggery-pokery to win the man of her dreams. Technically, all said lover has to do is turn £500 into £15,000 and since no detailed information needed accompany those transactions, Epifania feels justified in simply handing over the dosh to her lover to fulfil the requirements.

She falls into Dr Kabir’s orbit after attempting suicide by drowning following the discovery of her feckless lover Alistair’s (Gary Raymond) affair with Polly (Virginia Vernon). Kabir, mind on other more important matters, fails to rescue her. But when she ends up in the water again, this times as rescuer, he is more responsive especially when she manages a physical connection.

However, he is not going to be bribed into love, not even when she modernises his dilapidated surgery. Naturally, she is viewed as headstrong and controlling rather than a philanthropist and so they enter into the double bargain.

This splits the narrative, as Epifania returns to Italy to work in a sweatshop. And although she reveals not just newfound humanity, defending her exploited fellow workers, and demonstrates the business skills to reverse the factory’s declining productivity, this still isn’t enough for Kabir who, with no head for money and no inclination to go through any rigmarole to please Epifania, manages to insult her, thus triggering the normal romantic comedy breakup.

In the meantime, wily attorney Julius Sagamore (Alistair Sim) and opportunistic psychiatrist Dr Adrian Bland (Dennis Price) muddy the waters.

Mostly, the film gets by on old-fashioned charm – and while, as noted, Sellers’ performance is outmoded in his impersonation of an Indian he is quite believable as an honorable man unlikely to fall for the first beautiful woman to come his way.

Sophia Loren (Arabesque, 1966) carries the picture with her exquisite comedy timing and even when the posters emphasized her various states of undress there is much more to her ability, as audiences were already aware, than taking off her clothes. She is an absolute delight, both as the demanding haughty heiress and the spurned lover and in any other movie her romantic enterprise would be applauded and just as with Houseboat she drives the narrative, the object of her affection not quite putty in her hands, and with the bonus of a song, a duet this time (“Goodness Gracious Me”) rather than the two solos of the previous picture.

Peter Sellers (The Pink Panther, 1963) was still in search of his screen persona and to some extent is blown off the screen by Loren who seems much more comfortable with the material, extracting humor without needing to rely on funny voices. Sellers changed the character of the doctor in the original play from an Egyptian to an Indian for no particular reason and in fact the nationality of the doctor would have made little difference to the story, it was a character, disinterested in woman and contemptuous of wealth, that provided the narrative impetus. Oddly enough, although at the time the deceased George Bernard Shaw was considered one of the world’s greatest playwrights the 1936 play on which this is based had never been a big success, reception so lukewarm on its out-of-town opening that it did not reach the West End,  Broadway run delayed till 1949 and then only lasting 13 performances (i.e less than two weeks).  

Director Anthony Asquith had made a huge success out of the author’s Pygmalion (1938) (the source material for musical My Fair Lady) and specialised in bringing stage plays to the cinema – The Browning Version (1951) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) – so was acquainted with handling big stars and opening up plays for cinema audiences. He shows a sure grip on the action and allows Loren to build up a beguiling character so that audience sympathy for her dilemma never runs dry. Wolf Mankowitz (The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll, 1960) and the debuting Riccardo Arragno wrote the screenplay.

The material would have more suited the colder, sharper tongue of a Katharine Hepburn (who did at one time play the character on stage) but Loren’s portrayal avoids the temptation of adopting a more spinsterish approach.

Watch it for Loren and the clever Alistair Sim and try not to cringe at Peter Sellers.

The Original Magnificent Showman – Samuel Bronston

Even by Hollywood’s notorious standards, independent producer Samuel Bronston went from boom to bust in record time – three years flat. But by the time he left he had fuelled the roadshow boom, infuriated Hollywood by raising the bar for actor salaries ($1 million for Sophia Loren) and delighted the industry by opening up Spain as a cheap production center. He wasn’t the first indie to make a big splash in the business, David O. Selznick, Edward Small and coming up fast Joseph E. Levine were all significant players. 

Whereas most indies raised finance from conventional sources, Bronston, born in what these days is known as Moldova, found investment from an unusual source. In probably the grandest Hollywood wheeze of all time, he became an oil broker. He sold DuPont oil to Spain. But since that country would not pay in American currency, he parlayed the pesetas into moviemaking. Like any industrialist convinced society had not recognized his efforts, Pierre DuPont III reckoned that dining at the Hollywood high table – guests including John Wayne, Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston – might provide sufficient recompense. Bronston used pesetas reaped from commodity broking to make movies and repaid DuPont from the revenue the movies accrued on the international market.

While their first venture John Paul Jones (1959) was a flop it opened up Spain as a potential source of low-cost production at a time when studios, most on the verge of collapse, were desperate to cut expenditure.  

Previously, Bronston had enjoyed a low-key Hollywood career, producer, credited or otherwise, on City without Men (1943), Jack London (1943) and A Walk in the Sun (1945) before disappearing off the movie map. But that short career was not without incident, and somewhat marred by the financial repercussions for which he would be later better known. He was sued by the backers of A Walk in the Sun – Hollywood outsiders Walter E. Heller & Co and Ideal Factoring Co. who had ponied up $1 million of the $1.25 million budget. And by a former partner who also claimed he had not been paid.

He resurfaced following a spectacular gambit, gaining access to the Vatican to make a documentary. Using a perceived Papal connection as some kind of approval he spun that into international distribution for his first roadshow King of Kings (1961), a good earner around the world, $24 million gross worldwide on an $8 million budget, and a reissue banker when Easter came round. Spain stood in for the Holy Land and although production began, possibly for publicity reasons, in April 1960, Bronston had begun pre-production two years earlier on developing costumes and sets.

Like Cecil B. DeMille, Bronston exhibited a mania for historical detail. He could bring in experts, make use of local craftspeople, and thousands of extras were available at a fraction of the cost of their Hollywood counterparts, not to mention the Spanish Army at his beck and call. But the set was riven with intrigue, screenwriter Philip Yordan pulling more weight with Bronston than director Nicholas Ray. Bronston soon had a production team established at his mini-studio.

El Cid (1961) was a natural to establish cordial relationships with his national hosts, the character a legend in the country, many events depicted taking place in locations which still existed. But wooing Charlton Heston, at that time the biggest star in the world following the unbelievable success of Ben-Hur (1959), to make this his follow-up to the Biblical epic was a spectacular coup. The fact that he paid more – a reputed $1 million – to secure the services of Sophia Loren proved he could attract the biggest stars and, not as helpful, pay way over the odds.

Costing less than King of Kings and making far more, with superb direction by Anthony Mann and acting by the principals, it was both critically well-received and a massive hit at the international box office, running in roadshow for months. Perhaps more importantly, Bronston’s success attracted the attention of a major Hollywood studio, Paramount, which agreed to partner him in future endeavors and perceived him as the natural successor to Cecil B. DeMille.

Heston returned for 55 Days at Peking, one of the cycle of “siege” pictures – The Alamo (1960), Zulu (1964), Khartoum (1965) fall into the same category – popular if only among filmmakers during the decade. There was a lot more to the picture than art direction but it was not as well-received as the Bronston’s first pair of the decade, and the fact it went through three directors, Nicholas Ray retiring through ill health replaced by Guy Green (A Matter of Innocence, 1967) and finally Andrew Marton who had directed the chariot sequence in Ben-Hur, contributing to the notion of an organization in chaos.

With a $17 million budget, a $5 million U.S. gross ensured there was little profit to be had once the movie had completed the international round. However, luckily for Bronston, roadshows tended to be more popular abroad and could often play far longer in their initial bookings than would occur in the U.S.

When Heston turned down The Fall of the Roman Empire that should have proved a portent. Megalomania or extravagance or an inability to keep a budget in check fuelled the wild overspending on The Fall of the Roman Empire, a title that should have provided a roadshow par excellence, with action and drama of the kind that had driven Ben-Hur. But with a final tab of $24 million it would have required to be the biggest picture of all time just to break even.

By this time, Bronston’s financial mismanagement was catching up with him. Although Paramount kept the faith, signing up for Circus World (1964) and pictures beyond, and with a new partner, Cinerama, ploughing money into the John Wayne three-ringer, Pierre DuPont III had had enough and pulled the plug. Bronston’s debts were in the region of $5 million – $8 million. Subsequent investigation into Bronston’s operation revealed unparalleled levels of waste, unscrupulous hangers-on and the inability to rein back on spending.

Perhaps as critical was that he was churning out roadshow pictures at too fast a rate for control to prove possible. Of course, the unprofitable pictures all went into considerable later profit from sale to television – U.S. networks bid $1 million for El Cid alone in 1966 –  syndication, VHS, DVD and streaming, as any star-packed big-budget pictures from that era did. And they have all been reassessed as having greater critical worth than was appreciated at the time.

Bronston consistently argued that he was on the verge of a comeback. He had other irons in the fire – The Nightrunners of Bengal to be directed by Richard Fleischer, Suez helmed by Jack Cardiff, Brave New World with David Niven, The French Revolution, Paris 1900 and Isabella of Spain later linked with Glenda Jackson and John Philip law.

Bronston did work again, credited or otherwise, on Savage Pampas (1965) starring Robert Taylor, Dr Coppelius (1966), Brigham (1977) – reuniting him with writer Yordan – The Mysterious House of Doctor C (1979) which reworked Dr Coppelius  and Fort Saganne (1984) with Gerard Depardieu.

His former studios which had gone unsold at auction with a price tag of $1.8 million were bought by the Spanish government and renamed the Luis Bunuel Studios and at one point were scheduled to come out of mothballs for the filming of Rustler’s Rhapsody (1985) starring Tom Berenger.

While Bronston certainly turned Spain into a production powerhouse, he will be perhaps better remembered for his financial finesse. He had a million-dollar guarantee from DuPont but he used it over and over again with different banks without anyone actually stopping to check whether it was already being held as collateral for another movie. In any other world apart form movie-making this would be held up as scandalous behavior, but only in Hollywood would this be applauded as a master showman at work.

SOURCES: SOURCES:  Mel Martin, The Magnificent Showman (Bear Manor Media, 2007); “Bronston in 63G Suit,” Variety, February 12, 1947, p9; “Underwriters Reclaim Bronston’s Walk in Sun,” Variety, August 10, 1949, p7; “Sam Bronston’s Film Shot Inside Vatican,” Variety, March 22, 1950, p1; “Bronston’s Brave New World,” Variety, September 4, 1963, p4; “Bronston and Paramount in 4-Picture Deal,” Box Office, December 9, 1963, p7;  “Bronston-Cinerama Unite on 2 Films,” Box Office, February 24, 1964, p5; “Bronston’s Comeback Plan,” Variety, June 10, 1964, p3;“Du Pont-Bronston In Accord,” Variety, August 4, 1965, p3; “Bronston Readying Isabela,” Variety, April 13, 1966, p3.

Selling Sophia Loren – The Pressbook for “It Happened in Naples”

Unusually for a movie of this era, Paramount took one image of Clark Gable and Sophia Loren up close and personal and stuck to it. It was more normal for an marketing campaign to include half a dozen different adverts each with a separate strapline. Here, while the copy occasionally changed the central image remained the same.

Unusually, too, Paramount made a big play of getting critics on board prior to the film’s release. So it came garlanded with the imprimatur of the likes of television host Ed Sullivan, famed critic Louella Parsons and syndicated columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. Plus the studio had embarked on a major promotional campaign in the Sunday supplements of the biggest circulation newspapers in the U.S.

Overall, there was a broad sell. While Clark Gable and Sophia Loren – “two prime examples of cinematic sex appeal” – were of course key, the marketeers also promoted “sensational young Italian boy Marietto” (playing the orphaned Nando) and Carlino, the Neapolitan answer to Elvis Presley who was Loren’s guitar-playing accompanist. In appealing to “those who like poignant drama” it also set out to hook “those who like musicals” as well as moviegoers who “like being magic-carpeted away to far-away places.”  In other words, something for everyone.

Cartoon of Clark Gable and director Melville Shavelson consulting on set. Cartoons like this were occasionally part of a promotional push, giving newspapers something different to use, and they were seen as a classier promotional device than just stills or adverts.

But the write-ups and photography favor Loren, who displays her legs in a revealing costume, as well as her cleavage and a separate article extols her singing and dancing, the latter described as “her secret career passion.” Audiences were promised an “all-out rock-and-roller.” Loren, of course, had come into her own as a singer in Houseboat (1958), where she performed two songs, but declined offers of a recording career.

The Pressbook is somewhat short on the nuggets that usually accompany this kind of promotional material because the two stars were already so well known. About all potential moviegoers learned about Gable was that he was now such a devoted father he brought his family on location.

There’s certainly a curious piece called “It Hurt Gable More Than Sophia” which, on reading the text, turned out to be untrue. When Gable was called upon to throw Loren out of bed in one scene, he “put too much Gablesque gusto” into it, flipping her out onto the marble floor.  Loren was the one who suffered bruises on legs, hips and shoulders. And in true Hollywood fashion producer Jack Rose “rushed to her aid” but only after ensuring that her startled expression had been captured on camera.

Tie-ups were travel agencies. Italian restaurants and department stores featuring Italian imports were suggested to exhibitors as cost-free ways of encouraging local support. A soundtrack album featuring Loren’s voice was released as well as a paperback novelization targeted at book stores, drug stores, supermarkets and newsstands.

Taglines employed included “you, too, will say it’s wonderful;”  “you’ll loosen up and pleasure up on the isle of Capri;” and “you’ll want to be there when the fun starts.”

It Started in Naples (1960) ***

By this point in her career Sophia Loren was adopted by Hollywood primarily as a means of rejuvenating the romantic screen careers of much older male stars. John Wayne was over two decades her senior in Legend of the Lost (1957), Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck nearly two decades older in The Pride and the Passion (1957, and Cary Grant a full three decades in Houseboat (1958). But where Grant was sprightly enough and with superb comic timing and Loren had the charm to make Houseboat work, the May-December notion lost much of its appeal when translated to her Italian homeland and an aging Clark Gable.

While engaging enough, the tale mostly relies on a stereotypical stuffy American’s encounters with a stereotypical down-to-earth Italian although Loren adds considerable zap with her singing-and-dancing numbers. Lawyer Michael Hamilton (Clark Gable), in Italy to settle his deceased brother’s affairs, discovers the dead man has left behind eight-year-old boy Nando (Marietto) being looked after in haphazard fashion and in impoverished circumstances in Capri by his aunt Lucia (Sophia Loren), a nightclub singer.  Determined to give the boy a proper American education, Hamilton engages in a tug-of-war with Lucia.

In truth, Lucia lacks maternal instincts, allowing the boy to stay up till one o’clock in the morning handing out nightclub flyers and not even knowing where the local school is. Hamilton is in turns appalled and attracted to Lucia, in some part pretending romantic interest to come to an out-of-court settlement. To complicate matters, Hamilton is due to get married back home.

At times it is more travelog than romantic comedy, with streets packed for fiestas and cafes full well into the night, a speedboat ride round the glorious bay, another expedition under the majestic caves, a cable car trip up the cliffs to view spectacular scenery, and the local population enjoying their version of la dolce vita. But the piece de resistance is Lucia’s performance in the nightclub, ravishing figure accompanied by more than passable voice as she knocks out “Tu vuo fa L’Americano” (which you might remember from the jazz club scene in The Talented Mr Ripley, 1999). She has a zest that her suitor cannot match but which is of course immensely appealing.

Lucia is torn between giving the boy a better start in life, already insisting for example that he speak English, and holding on to him while street urchin Nando is intent on acting as matchmaker.  Most of the humor is somewhat heavy-handed except for a few exceptional lines – complaining that he cannot sleep for the noise outside, Hamilton asks a waiter how these people ever sleep only to receive the immortal reply: “together.”

Gable lacks the double-take that served Cary Grant so well and instead of looking perplexed and captivated mostly looks grumpy. But this is still Gable and the camera still loves him even if he has added a few pounds. He was by now a bigger global star than in the Hollywood Golden Era thanks in part to regular reissues of Gone with the Wind (1939) but mostly to a wider range of roles and he was earning far more than at MGM, in the John Wayne/William Holden league of remuneration. Loren was the leading Italian female star, well ahead in Hollywood eyes of competitors Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida, and had the skill, despite whatever age difference was foisted upon her, of making believable any unlikely romance. Here, zest and cunning see her through. Vittorio De Sica (The Angel Wore Red, 1960) has a scene-stealing role as an Italian lawyer with an eye for the ladies.

Director Melville Shavelson (Cast a Giant Shadow,1966)  thought he had cracked the problems of the older man-younger girl romance having shepherded Houseboat to box office glory . While this picture doesn’t come unstuck it is nowhere near Houseboat. This turned out to be Gable’s penultimate film, not quite the fitting reminder of a glorious career, and he died shortly after its release. While Loren trod water with this picture she was closing in on a career breakthrough with her Oscar-winning Two Women (1960).

Heller in Pink Tights (1960) ****

Sophia Loren is enjoying a swansong with the Netflix feature The Life Ahead (2020), which may well net here another Oscar nomination to add to two wins for Two Women (1960) and an Honorary Award in 1991 and a previous nomination for Marriage Italian-Style (1964). She has dined at the Hollywood high table for over 60 years since taking America by storm in 1957 in a three-film blast comprising Boy on a Dolphin with Alan Ladd, The Pride and the Passion with Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra and Legend of the Lost with John Wayne. She was one of the greatest leading ladies of the second half of the twentieth century, combining style with ability. If you want an idea of how mesmerising she was in her pomp, check out this little number – Heller in Pink Tights.

Taken on its own merits, George Cukor’s western is a highly enjoyable romp. Hardly your first choice for the genre, Cukor ignores the tenets laid down by John Ford and Howard Hawks and the film is all the better for it. Although there are stagecoach chases, gunfighters and Native Americans, don’t expect upstanding citizens rescuing good folk.

Instead of stunning vistas Cukor chooses to spend his budget on lavish costumes and sets. You can see he knows how to use a colour palette, and there is red or a tinge of it in every scene (to the extent of rather a lot of red-haired folk), and although this might not be your bag – and you may not even notice it – it is what makes a Cukor production so lush. The film might start with comedic overtones but by the end you realise it is serious after all.

Sophia Loren is the coquettish leading lady and Anthony Quinn the actor-manager of a theatrical company managing to stay one step ahead of its creditors, in the main thanks to Loren’s capacity for spending money she doesn’t have. Of course, once a gunfighter (Steve Forrest) wins Loren in a poker game, things go askew.  Quinn had never convinced me as a romantic lead, but here there is genuine charisma between the two stars.

Loren is at her most alluring, in dazzling outfits and occasionally in costumes as skin-tight as censors would allow in those days, but with a tendency to use beauty as a means to an end, with the conviction that a smile (or occasionally more) will see her out of any scrape. There is no doubt she is totally beguiling. But that is not enough for Quinn, as she is inclined to include him in her list of dupes.

While primarily a love story crossed with a tale of theatrical woes set against the backdrop of a western, when it comes to dealing with the tropes of the genre Cukor blows it out of the water.  We open with a stagecoach chase but our heroes are only racing away from debt until they reach the safety of a state line. We have a gunfighter, but instead of a shoot-out being built up, minutes ticking by as tension rises, Cukor’s gunman just shoots people in sudden matter-of-fact fashion.

Best of all, Cukor extracts tremendous comedy from the overbearing actors, each convinced of their own genius, and the petty jealousies and intrigue that are endemic in such a troupe. An everyday story of show-folk contains as much incipient drama as the more angst-ridden A Star Is Born (1954), his previous venture into this arena. From the guy who gave us The Philadelphia Story (1940) with all its sophisticated comedy, it’s quite astonishing that Cukor extracts so much from a picture where the laughs, mostly from throwaway lines, are derived from less substantial material.

Quinn (his third film in a row with Cukor) has never been better, no Oscar-bait this time round, just a genuine guy, pride always to the forefront, king of his domain inside his tiny theatrical kingdom, out of his depth in the big wide world, and unable to contain the “heller.” I won’t spoil it for you but there are two wonderful character-driven twists that set the world to rights.

There is a tremendous supporting cast with former silent film star Ramon Novarro (Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, 1925) as a duplicitous businessman, former child star Margaret O’Brien, another star from a previous era in Edmund Lowe (Cukor’s Dinner at Eight, 1933), and Eileen Eckhart. Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach, 1939) and Walter Bernstein, who wrote a previous Loren romance That Kind of Women (1959) and had a hand in The Magnificent Seven (1960), do an excellent job of adapting the Louis L’Amour source novel Heller with a Gun, especially considering that contained an entirely different story.

Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) ****

There could not be a more contemporary picture. As an examination of the problems of assimilating different cultures it is hard to beat. As an assessment of the difficulties of the transition of power it is faultless.

In Gladiator Ridley Scott, taking a few liberties with the known facts, re-imagined the circumstances discussed here of the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the ascension to power of his son Commodus. Along the way, Scott stole a few of Anthony Mann’s visual ideas, snow falling on the battlefield, for example, and at the end the phalanx of guards, shields up, blocking in Commodus and the dethroned military chieftain (Stephen Boyd here, Russell Crowe in Gladiator) for their gladiatorial climax.

British advertisement for the film about to go on general release after a spell in the more expensive West End. The “normal prices” slogan was very commonly found on movies as they headed towards the more normal kind of cinema. in addition, by the time it was rest go into wider release the critics had delivered their verdicts and these could be tagged onto any advertising.

The title does not refer to an invasion of Rome by vast armies of barbarians but the internal corruption which signals the end of the empire. Audiences, taught Latin and Roman history as a matter of course at school around the time the film was released, would be more familiar with the subject matter, but hardly prepared for the spectacle.

Every extra in the known world must have been employed for several scenes, cities bursting with inhabitants, armies sprawling over vast tracts of land. One standout is the extraordinary chariot clash between the two protagonists, not in the confines of an amphitheatre a la Ben Hur, but on wild terrain, along narrow cliff roads, wheels tipping over the edge, down ravines and forest. The other is the soundless gladiatorial fight, not a whisper of music until there is a victor.

And there should be mention of the torture of James Mason, very well done. There is political intrigue, quite a clever way of poisoning an enemy, and plenty argument over the issue of accommodating different cultures, traditional punishment versus the novel notion of extending the hand of friendship and granting automatic citizenship.

The relatively short-lived “Show Time” fan magazine was launched in Britain as Odeon’s answer to the highly successful “ABC Film Review.” Both magazines were only sold inside cinemas but it was common for cinemagoers to purchase copies without necessarily going into to see a picture. This magazine ceased publication by the end of the decade. This was the launch issue in Janaury 1964.

Loyalty is also tested – is treason a form of loyalty? And how much does loyalty depend solely on payment? Proof is given of how integrating cultures can work, an idea that seems alien to Romans accustomed to beating subjects into submission. In some respects the drama takes second place to the discussion.

Christopher Plummer is the deranged Commodus who embraces and disdains in turn his friend Livius (Stephen Boyd). Sophia Loren, as Commodus’ sister (no incestuous suggestions here), is in love with Boyd and though married off to Armenian king Omar Sharif she manages to spend little time with her husband.

If approached as a political film rather than a traditional epic it has a lot to offer. If you want just battles and thwarted romance then a lot less. The mixture of both strikes a good balance. While there are arguments that it is too long, it could actually do with another twenty minutes or so to iron out narrative inconsistencies.  

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