Friday, May 21, 2010

"Rome," If You Want To...

Remarking recently on the (very!) lightweight romp Palm Springs Weekend reminded me of a boxed DVD set that’s out there containing a quartet of colorful, “romantic” Warner Brothers films, all from the same general early 60s time period. Of the four, Weekend is the weakest from my point of view, the others offering gauzy beautiful people in sometimes highly dramatic situations. Parrish and Susan Slade (both long sought after by camp buffs - with out of print VHS prices through the roof prior to now- Slade is John Waters’ favorite movie) offer up the most turmoil. The other film, Rome Adventure is the one I’m going to look at today.

With the working title Lovers Must Learn, the project was initially offered to Natalie Wood. She’d be playing a young teacher, Prudence Bell, at an all girl school who is called on the carpet for offering one of her students a book (called Lovers Must Learn!) that is considered inappropriate. Facing possible termination over it and tired of the stifling environment anyway, the teacher then decides to chuck everything and head off to Rome to learn something about love for herself.

Wood passed on the project (eventually titled Rome Adventure), which then went to starlet Suzanne Pleshette. Pleshette had a raft of experience in episodic and anthology television and had done a featured role in Jerry Lewis’s The Geisha Boy, but nevertheless received special introductory billing, coming in fourth behind her costars. The story revolves mostly around her, though, and she’s given a major buildup throughout.

Pleshette is barely on the ship to Rome when a misunderstanding leads to her getting to know Italian wolf Rossano Brazzi (of South Pacific fame.) She’s supposed to be pairing off with the son of her parents’ friends, Hampton Fancher, but now that Brazzi is around, the two men have to gently compete for her attention.

Once in Rome, Brazzi gets the young folks to a boarding house run by a Contessa and Pleshette gets her first glimpse of fellow boarder Troy Donahue. He has a memorable entrance, coming down the bleak, neutral-colored stairs wearing a blazing red sweater, his blue eyes darting out from his tan face, capped off by his trademark blonde hair. It’s quite obvious that the other two gentlemen can take a hike now, but there may be a hitch…
Donahue is off to the train station to try to stop his artist girlfriend Angie Dickinson from leaving the country over some tiff. Before the train pulls out, she convinces him to give her one last passionate kiss. Second-billed Miss Dickinson is then absent from the film for a very long period of time. Sulky Donahue eventually warms up to the new kid in town and from there the couple starts to see each other regularly, frequently zipping around Rome on his red Vespa while Pleshette clutches to his waist from behind. As this still shows, TD may not have always been the most secure driver. An accident looks imminent!

Suzanne also gets a job as an assistant to American bookstore owner Constance Ford. Ford (whose book store is festively titled The American Bookstore) owns a huge English sheepdog and offers an experienced point of view to Pleshette regarding the ways of Italy and the ways of love. (The fact that Ford comes off as a major lesbian is something you just have to sort of shrug off! Her character is there for the men.) Keen-eyed viewers will note that this photo of Connie is not from Adventure, but I simply could not find one of her from this movie! As Suzie crosses the street to get to the bookstore, she does one of my favorite things in the world, she attempts to run in a skirt that is too restrictive to allow it. I long for instances like this in all vintage movies.

One of the people Troy introduces Pleshette to on one of their jaunts is famous (and husky!) jazz trumpet player Al Hirt, portraying a version of himself. This sequence is more than a little strange. First of all, Donahue has purchased a three-pronged candlestick that has somehow been deemed to represent his integrity (in a joke that is overplayed in the extreme.) He takes it, lit, everywhere they go, the candles going up and down in length (due to continuity errors) as if some subconscious remark on the varying tumescence of his penis since nothing he can do will get Suzie into bed!
Then Hirt, playing himself mind you, introduces the couple to his girl, a buxom, sexually voracious siren who carried a knife in her garter! She displays this to the others (look at the fruity sort of shock on Troy’s face here!) and then, while Hirt is blowing his horn, makes out with another man, leading to a huge brawl in the nightclub. Check out the spike marks on the floor for the furniture in this uncropped still photo.

Donahue and Pleshette then enjoy a blissful holiday trip, marred only by her still-Puritanical outlook regarding sex and keeping up appearances. This part of the film can be really grating to today’s viewer not willing to suspend disbelief a little bit and buy into the fear of a scandal or of disappointing parents back home. It was a different world, folks, at least at the movies.

When they finally return to the boarding house, my favorite part of the film kicks in. Dickinson is back and ready to reclaim her boy! You know, I don’t dislike Angie Dickinson, but she’s just not one of those actresses who excites me much, especially in most of her early work. However, here she plays an elegant, haughty, selfish bitch extraordinaire and I love her!

She is so condescending to Pleshette and always has a snotty remark handy, though delivered with the vaguest smile. Her apartment is something to behold. She invites Donahue, Pleshette and Fancher over for dinner and sets the stage as if it’s for a performance, and it is! The ornate bed has speakers behind it, playing music, the furnishings are arranged exactly as she wishes, complete with an autographed photo of Troy and she’s done up in an embroidered silk getup that shows that she’s ready for business.

She won’t stop until she’s driven Suzanne to tears and then, when she realizes Troy is going to take Suzanne home, she resigns herself to the fact that she may have to settle for Fancher for the night. It’s a glamorous, seductive performance that may be my favorite work from her ever. She’s back another time near the end, but by then things have become a little ridiculous and I don’t care for the way her hair is done (I only care about the really important things! lol) I worship and adore Tippi Hedren, but seeing Ang here, one can almost picture her as Melanie Daniels in The Birds (a part that Suzanne coveted as well, but she ended up in a secondary role.)

Following this evening from hell, Pleshette decides that she should learn about love from a master and seeks out Brazzi, the ultimate Italian bachelor and seducer. Taking a page from Angie’s book, she slips on an embroidered silk jacket of her own and slinks down the stairs to meet Brazzi, the side of her hair curled up as if she were some 1920s taxi dancer!
If you have trouble figuring out how it all winds up, you must not have seen too many studio era Hollywood romances! That’s not the point, though. The film is gloriously beautiful from start to finish. An Italian love song, Al di la, is sung during the movie and many people find it to be the highlight. I definitely like it very much, but I’m equally enthralled with the amazing orchestral music that plays throughout, written by the legendary Max Steiner. Steiner knew a thing or to about romance, having written countless scores for all those Bette Davis weepies and for a little flick called Gone With the Wind. (Incidentally, even though I know it’s not him, I would have sworn that Andy Williams voice was singing Al di la in this movie!)

There is no way to overstate how stunning the Italian scenery is in this film. It mustn’t be viewed on a small television and it certainly must never be viewed in a pan and scan format! The city of Rome and the Italian countryside shown here are basically gone forever, at least in the way the makers managed to capture the streets and buildings at near desolation. One of Pleshette’s day trips has it almost as if there is no one around but her! Everything (including several elaborate fountains) is so beautifully shot and so artfully displayed, people seeing it in the U.S. in 1962 must have sat agape in their theater seats. The couple takes a ride to the top of a mountain on what is one really striking lift. They stand in slender cages as they swing up and up and up.

Audiences fell in love with the Vespa that Donahue drives around on and they also took to their hearts Miss Pleshette, whose breathy alto voice helps take at least a little of the saccharine out of her sometimes drippy role. She adds welcome sultriness to some of her love scenes with Donahue as well she might, the couple fell in love for real during the making of this movie and married in 1964. Sadly, the bliss was short-lived and they were divorced a scant nine months later. I can admit to admiring Troy’s eyes, but I’m not all that crazy about him, looks-wise or acting-wise. He resembles a tall Alan Ladd to me in this shot below of the (momentarily) happy couple.
A subplot of the movie focuses on a fellow boarder, Pamela Austin, and her chaperone Gertrude Flynn. Austin really overplays her dialogue as she often did (and, truth to tell, a lot of young actresses from this era did the same – think of the Beach Party ingénues), which is one reason why I never warmed to her. (Ford overplays here, too, most notably in her final scene, but she has enough sincerity and world-weary ennui in another sequence that I can forgive it. She and Donahue have a short scene together, having been bitter enemies onscreen three years earlier in A Summer Place.) As for Flynn, she was used three times by this film’s director Delmer Daves and also has the distinction of playing the ladies room attendant in the screamfest Valley of the Dolls, the one who fishes Susan Hayward’s wig out of the toilet!

Fancher, who plays an amiable and endearing nerd here, was an incredibly nasty stepbrother to Donahue two years prior in Parrish. Though he worked in TV though the mid-70s, he couldn’t seem to get a foothold in the movie business despite his versatility. (Granted, he didn't possess the glamor boy looks that were popular then either.) He’s shown here with his wife from 1963-65, Sue Lyon, and Sue’s hair. The worst injustice of all in the film goes to Chad Everett. You’re sitting there watching the credits – in which he’s maybe eighth-billed – and eventually the movie is over and you realize you never once caught a glimpse of him!! Turns out, he plays a tremendously sight-impaired surveillance man who watches Dickinson from afar. He has no lines at all and it utterly unrecognizable. I don’t think even his mother could have picked out that it was him in that part! He may have had a scene or two that was trimmed out of the final cut. Don’t watch this movie looking for him, though!

It’s a glossy, escapist confection that will probably surprise you with its visual and aural splendor if you give it a chance (or revisit it on DVD after a long time not seeing it.) None of the stills in this post even come close to doing the scenery a pinhead of justice. During image searches for this post, I kept seeing ugly, flip-flop clad people leaning on ruins with their midsections hanging out to pose for a picture. This time capsule is definitely one of the few ways to assure that any humans who happen to be in front of a majestic architectural relic are almost as appealing to the eye as the relic itself!


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