Desert Island movie #6
Would you believe there was actually a time when romanticism and good looks and not acting or story or even directorial razzle-dazzle could not only power a film but could also push it into the realm of becoming a classic? One example that comes quickly to mind is An Affair to Remember (1957). Leo McCarey’s remake of his own Love Affair (1939) which was then remade again in 1994 with Warren Beatty and Annette Benning with less happy results proving my point that it was the stars not the story or the acting that made the two previous versions so memorable.
My desert island pick this time around does not have such a lofty pedigree or reputation as the films mentioned before. In fact as far as I can tell it is just about forgotten by most people of a certain age who’ve seen it. Yet it is a film that got good reviews and showed a respectable profit at the time of its release. Since then it seems to have disappeared from sight. I hardly ever see it on TV or cable and it is never mentioned as exceptional in the filmography of its two major stars. Still it is a delightful movie and one that I keep going back to whenever I’m in the mood for pleasant, uncomplicated lightweight entertainment. The film I’m talking about is Melville Shavelson’s Houseboat (1958) starring Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. The main story itself isn’t much. It’s about a widower (Grant) trying to become a father to his three children after having been away for most of their young lives. Into their midst comes Cinzia (Loren) the daughter of a celebrated Italian symphony conductor, posing as a maid in an attempt at escaping from the stuffy world of her father and his friends.
Much of the film takes place on the houseboat of the title as Grant and Loren looking their glamorous best go through the dance of sizing up each other, interacting with the children and finally falling in love. There is a terrific supporting cast featuring Martha Hyer, Eduardo Ciannelli and Harry Guardino who nearly steals the film as Angelo whom Grant tries to pair up with Loren. The scene where he goes to pick her up for a date complete with flowers is laugh out hilarious along with several other moments in the film. Murray Hamilton is also in the film. It was his first and he remembered it as one of the most pleasant shoots he had ever been on.
But the thing that makes Houseboat special and memorable as far as I’m concerned is the pairing of Grant and Loren. She was 23 at the time and he was 53 but that didn’t matter they still looked great together. Actually they had been paired in a film once before The Pride and the Passion (1957) and it was on that shoot that Grant said he fell madly in love with Loren. He even asked her to marry him. And Loren, smitten for a while reciprocated his ardor but later on decided to marry producer Carlo Ponti instead. This troubled Grant and he actually tried to get out of acting with her in Houseboat but finally decided to honor his contract .And it is a testament to their ultimate professionalism that none of the tension of their strained personal relationship ever shows up on screen. They light up the film with the warmth and romantic aura that makes you wish they had appeared in more films together.
Cary Grant because of his poise, wonderful sense of timing, his acting savvy and his impeccable good taste has often been cited as the quintessential movie star. And I for one go along with that assessment. The greatest proof of this to me is the way he has lifted and improved so many indifferent films with his presence and charm…And Sophia Loren to me is one of those women who was born for the silver screen. From the first she appeared she lit up the screen with her beauty, her earthy sexuality, her personality and the inner fire of her creative abilities. And she just got better and better as the years went by. This was her seventh Hollywood film and after that she went on to have one of the most successful careers in the history of international cinema. A career filled with well known and well regarded films along with many, many acting awards. And like all legendary stars she brought something more to movies besides good looks and good acting… She brought the magic of her personality that lit up the screen and connected with each and every member of the audience. So when you put these two together even when the material isn’t spectacular they’re going to brighten it up with their own special glow. And that is what they do in Houseboat. He brings knowledge and experience; she brings youthful exuberance and her sense of humor to the enterprise. And together; along with everyone else (for film is a collaborative medium after all.) they deliver one of the most enchanting romantic comedies of the 1950s. The scene where they dance to the Academy Award nominated song “Almost in my Arms” is a prime example of the kind of romantic moment we long for in movies but rarely ever get any more. And the thing that makes it so special is the chemistry of the stars. Nothing else, just that and that alone. Murray Hamilton years ago said to me that looking back on all the films he appeared in (And the number at the time was around 300) the most beautiful actress he ever worked with was Sophia Loren. I told him that I envied him and he laughed and said; “You’re not the only one. The list is in the millions.”
Someone once said to Cary Grant that they wished that they were Cary Grant. And the former Archibald Leech answered that he wished he was too indicating that he knew the difference between the screen image and the real man. With Houseboat we have these two great screen personalities at their incandescent best. And any person lost on this mythical desert island won’t be lonely for long with these two for company.