Tag Archives: The Brady Bunch

Sophia Loren in a Gown of Gold

The German Poster for "Houseboat."

The German Poster for “Houseboat.”

First of all, I want to make it clear that I do not recommend “Houseboat” (Paramount, 1958) as a good picture (which it isn’t), nor as a good and tiresome example of a late-era Production Code Hollywood hybrid of Family-Values/Peek-a-Boo Sex Comedy (which it is), nor even as an enjoyable piece of fluff (which it isn’t). It’s mostly excruciating. But there are at least two good reasons I want to bring “Houseboat” to your attention.  They are:

  1. Sophia Loren; and
  2. Sophia Loren in a golden dress.

If it were not for la Sofia e il suo abito d’oro, I wouldn’t bother you with “Houseboat,” not even for the juicy off-camera gossip that goes along with it.  I was a little kid when I first saw “Houseboat.” We had a black and white TV, so I didn’t know la Sofia’s amazing dress was made of gold fabric. But even in black and white, the impression she made on me was unforgettable. When I first saw “Houseboat,” I was about ten — the same age as Charles Herbert in the picture below. Every time I see the sequence where she ends up in a row boat with a ten year-old kid, I remember how the scene shook me to my core when I first saw it, and how poignantly I wished I were in Charles Herbert’s place — he never seemed to realize how lucky he was, the ungrateful little rat bastard.

Charles Herbert, Sophia Loren: Row, row, row your boat . . .

Charles Herbert, Sophia Loren: Row, row, row your boat . . .

Even with Sophia Loren at her most beautiful and charming, “Houseboat” sorely tried my patience when I saw it a dozen years ago, but I kept watching it just to see her walk out onto the deck of the houseboat in that incredible dress of gold. I was not disappointed: whenever I return to the scene after a long absence, I always laugh at the sight, but also get a lump in my throat. I confess to having an appetite for certain kinds of crummy, meathead entertainment, but my tolerance for adorable moppets is about zero. Every so often, a child’s performance is so conspicuously terrible that I find myself transfixed by it — Judy Nugent’s stupendously bad performance in “Magnificent Obsession” springs horribly to mind — but in this one, the kids aren’t terrible enough to hold my interest. They’re merely badly trained and directed and stuck with idiotic, non-human dialogue. Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose were nominated for Best Original Story and Screenplay (they lost to Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith, who wrote “The Defiant Ones”). La Sofia transcends all the coarse banality and insipid sentimentality of “Houseboat”; she makes it all irrelevant when she shows up in that gold dress. She’s so delicious, she makes you feel sorry for Cary Grant, who could not win her.

I consider Sophia Loren the sexiest movie star of them all, and one of the most agreeable presences in the history of the movies. She hasn’t been in a lot of very good pictures, but every time she’s onscreen, I’m reminded of what I like so much about the whole idea of the movies. In Stella Adler’s class, whenever a student said some performance was “bigger than life,” Stella always interrupted. “Darling: nothing is  bigger than Life.” Well, maybe.  If so, Sophia Loren is the exception that proves the rule.  Sophia Loren is bigger than Life.  And a lot better than Life, too. She’s so spectacularly beautiful that she barely makes sense in most pictures: how can she be anything but an internationally famous movie star? She can’t really be a housewife or a clerk or an average person.  She can’t be anything but what she is — an impossibility who somehow . . . is. I cannot look at her or hear her musical voice without being filled with joy and gratitude.

“Houseboat” is terrible in the way that “The Brady Bunch” is terrible. It’s coy, it’s idiotic, it’s phony, it’s sentimental, illogical, preposterous . . . and it features atrocious, cutesy-pie kiddies who act in the studio-approved, devoid-of-the-human-experience style that only recently seems to have disappeared. Mind you, I don’t blame the kids: they were taught to act artificial and over-emphasize their words. But that they’re blameless doesn’t make them any easier to watch.

A little background about the three clips I’ve selected. Runaway Italian socialite ends up working as a maid for widower Cary Grant on a houseboat. (Don’t ask.) Grant is on the brink of marrying American socialite, Martha Hyer, the sister of his late wife.  (Don’t ask.) Loren falls for Grant, but he doesn’t know she’s alive. (Don’t ask.) Loren is about to return to her glamorous life, when Grant gives her a parting gift — a golden dress with big purple flowers sewn on to it. It was chosen by Martha Hyer, who foolishly believes she can embarrass Loren and hurt her feelings.  Harry Guardino is a local Romeo, who’s got the hots for Loren, but is not interested in settling down . . . ever.

First clip: Cary Grant gives the vulgar dress to la Sofia, not realizing how potentially insulting it is.

Second clip: Immediately after the departure of Harry Guardino, other guests arrive to take Grant to the country club dance. “Comedy” ensues; argument ensues; romance ensues; childish heartbreak ensues. The vulgarian who insults la Sofia’s dignity is character actor Murray Hamilton. He’s probably best known as Hizzoner the Momser, the mayor who refuses to close the town beaches in “Jaws.” The little kid is Paul Petersen, who played Jeff Stone on “The Donna Reed Show.”

Third clip: La Sofia wows the fellas at the country club dance. Va-va-va-voom! Man, oh, man, I love Sophia Loren!

Now, about the behind-the-scenes gossip. The year before “Houseboat” was made, Cary Grant starred with Sophia Loren in “The Pride and the Passion.” During the shooting of that picture, Grant (who was married to his third wife, Betsy Drake, at the time) fell madly in love with la Sofia. He wooed her in the old fashioned way: candlelit dinners, gifts, the works. But she was already emotionally committed to her mentor, producer Carlo Ponti. Ponti was 22 years older than Loren, but Grant was eight years older than Ponti. There are conflicting reports about how far Loren allowed Grant’s advances to go, but the fling was big news for the short time it lasted. He proposed marriage; she refused. While all this was going on, Betsy Drake came up with the story for “Houseboat,” which she conceived as a star vehicle for herself and her husband. But Grant was hopelessly infatuated with Sophia Loren, despite her giving him the air. He arranged to have his wife replaced with Loren as his co-star. Shavelson and Rose were brought in to overhaul the script completely. First, Betsy Drake lost her starring role, then received no writing credit for the picture.

When shooting began, la Sofia brought il signor Ponti to the set every day she was called. To make matters worse, during the shoot, Grant learnt (from an item in Louella Parsons’ column) that Ponti had obtained a quickie Mexican divorce and married la Sofia. Grant drowned his sorrows at Chasen’s and eventually got on with his life. His marriage to Betsy Drake lasted until August 1962. God knows how . . .


Katharine Hepburn in a Pair of Stinkers

I don’t think time is being kind to Katharine Hepburn’s reputation:  it’s incredible how many terrible pictures she made, how often she was bad in them, and how seldom she was in a good picture.  She’s terrific as Rose Sayer in “The African Queen,” and as Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” She’s pretty good in “Summertime.”  She may be okay in “The Philadelphia Story,” but it’s a rotten, woman-hating picture, as is “Woman of the Year.”  I hate every one of those bum comedies she made with Spencer Tracy — the most overrated actor in pictures.

'I'll be a son of a bitch.'  You said it, buster.

‘I’ll be a son of a bitch.’ You said it, buster.

The last picture they made together — “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — is so stupendously terrible that I sometimes find it hard to dial away from it when it’s on TCM — its dreadfulness creates something like a magnetic force field or an electrical charge, rather like the shock you can expect if you take a shortcut while monkeying with an electrical circuit.  It hurts like hell while it’s got you, and you know the ominous current will kill you, but it’s hard to pull free.  Hepburn’s especially terrible in the performances for which she won her four Academy Awards.  “On Golden Pond,” for example, is unwatchable.  I can’t think of it without shuddering.  Jane Fonda told a funny story about it.  Both she and Hepburn were nominated for Best Actress that year.  Hepburn already had three Oscars; Fonda had two.  And one of Hepburn’s was a tie (with Barbra Streisand).  So when Hepburn got the Oscar for “On Golden Pond,” she rang Fonda the next day and crowed, “You’ll nevah catch up to me now!”

Dragon Seed

Turhan Bey, Katharine Hepburn:  Me no rikee.

Robert Bice, Katharine Hepburn: Me no rikee.

A friend lent me his DVD of the expensive MGM 1944 epic “Dragon Seed,” based on the best selling novel by that Great Lady of China, Pearl S. Buck, and for my sins, I watched it.  It’s as bad as, perhaps even worse than, “The Good Earth,” the other lavish Chinese epic with no Chinese actors in major roles.  James Agee’s original assessment of “Dragon Seed” was  a b s o l u t e l y  correct.  He wrote that it was an “unimaginably bad movie,”  full of “such distinguished Chinese as Katharine Hepburn, Akim Tamiroff, etc.” all performing in Chinaman drag against “unearthly, sepia-tinted landscapes, speaking their inhuman language.”  (The prosthetic epicanthus folds over Hepburn’s eyes make her look like the Cowardly Lioness.)  Agee continued with a litany of complaint about how every last detail was wrong, including the shape of Miss Hepburn’s eyelids, and finished by observing, “Indeed, I’ve never seen another picture so full of wrong slants.”  He was a very funny writer, but not as funny as the authors of “Dragon Seed.”  Two screenwriters are credited:  Marguerite Roberts, who later wrote the screenplay for 1968’s “True Grit,” and Jane Murfin, who, after a long, prolific career (“Lilac Time,” “Smilin’ Through,” “Roberta,” “The Women,” to name but four of her 66 titles), never wrote another screenplay after this one, though she lived another eleven years.

Walter Huston, Frances Rafferty, Robert Bice:  Huston said, 'I'm paid to make to make the bad lines sound good.'  Not this time . . .

Walter Huston, Frances Rafferty, Robert Bice: Huston said, ‘I’m paid to make to make the bad lines sound good.’ Not this time . . .

Agee is right about the “inhuman language” spoken in “Dragon Seed.”  The dialogue in this wretched picture is terrible beyond belief . . . every minute there’s a new outrage.  For instance, in one scene Turhan Bey (a/k/a “the Turkish Delight”) looks upon a long parade of refugees and says, “We are an island in a river of fleeing people!”  And a minute later, comes the following bit of turgidity, with nary a syllable of overlapping dialogue (for these were the good old days when everyone politely waited his turn to speak, no matter how overwrought):  Henry (Clarence Oddbody, AS2) Travers, as Wise Old Chinaman No. Two (Wise Old Chinaman No. One is Walter Huston),  watches an endless line of coolies hauling heavy machinery on shoulder-borne litters across a rugged terrain, and asks Turhan Bey:  “Cousin, what are these?  They carry different burdens!”  Bey says noisily to the passing parade, “Only a fool would carry iron on his back when sacks of rice are so much lighter!”  An anonymous coolie on the line responds with considerable spirit, “This is not iron, but a factory, that we carry on our backs!  Behind us follows a whole city!”  Bey and Travers shake their heads in bewilderment.  Only Katharine Hepburn, with an inverted basket on her head, fully understands the social change that is taking place.  Out of the corner of her mouth, like a gangster, Miss Hepburn observes, sotto voce, “These are not as the others were . . . They seem to have a plan!”  Viva Hollywood!  Those big studios really knew how to make a stinker.  I laughed and laughed.

When the picture was made (1944), there were more than a half billion Chinese on the planet, yet to look at the credits, no more than a half dozen were in Hollywood.  There are four Wongs in uncredited roles (as Japanese soldiers),  Four Wongs don’t make it right.

 Song of Love

Several years ago, Renee Fleming was TCM’s guest programmer on Monday night and for the second movie of the night, she chose the 1947 MGM biopic of Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann called “Song of Love.” Katharine Hepburn plays Clara and Paul Henreid plays poor doomed Prof. Schumann.  I’d seen about ten minutes of it two or three years earlier and was appalled by what I saw, but when it was on again I happened to be in the mood for it — probably because of the bludgeoning my senses took from watching “The Great Waltz,” which was Miss Fleming’s first pick for the night.  Miss Fleming has a beautiful voice, but it appears that all her taste is in her mouth.

Song of Love:  Awful Wieck

Song of Love: Awful Wieck stuff.

“Song of Love” is every bit as bad as I had remembered, but I couldn’t stop watching it.  Brahms is played by Robert Walker, who gulps and stammers so much, you’d think he was playing Bashful the Dwarf.

Kitten on the keys.

Kitten on the keys.

The script was written by the doyenne of the Classical Music Cinema, Irmgard von Cube, who also wrote “They Shall Have Music,” which was one of the few times Heifetz ever appeared in a Hollywood picture.  Apparently, Miss von Cube was besotted with music, but her imagination was so trivial and vulgar that she turned the story of these great artists into one of suffocating, sit-com domesticity.  The story of Herr and Frau Schumann and their complicated friendship with Johannes Brahms unfolds as a series of silly little housekeeping turmoils, hardly worthy of “The Brady Bunch”:  how will the Schumanns get their important dinner party on after their maid walks out two hours before the guests arrive?  Clara is too featherbrained to have mastered any of the domestic arts, so Johannes and Robert agree to cook the meal themselves . . . if they can work up the nerve to kill the clucking chicken.  “Comedy” ensues.  Honestly, it was a scene straight out of “Ich Liebe Lucy,” minus the laugh track.

That ubiquitous Nellie from the forties, Henry Daniell, in an unbecoming Prince Valiant wig, is on hand as Franz Liszt, glowering over the keys and banging with all his might.  In one scene, he bangs away so hard that the strings snap as he plays, whereupon he moves to a second piano, stage left, and proceeds to bang even harder on that one.  (As a matter of fact, this is quite accurate:  before their plates were made of cast iron, pianos literally used to fall apart under Liszt’s hands in the middle of his concerts, as in a Warner Bros. cartoon.)

Henry Daniell as Franz Liszt:

Henry Daniell as Franz Liszt:  Flame on.

We can be grateful that Miss von Cube rarely allows any of her characters to say a word about music, other than things like Clara’s, “Your latest work is lovely, darling,” or the startled observation made by one of the Schumann children upon hearing his mother in concert:  “Her hands move so FAST, Mr Bwahms!”  There is one scene, however, in which Clara so abominates Lizst’s inventions on a piece of her husband’s that she complains about it during the performance and then noisily chastises him afterwards for ruining it with what she calls “glittering pyrotechnics.”  Daniell swallows the opprobrium like a good sport; when one of his friends leans into him and says, “She insulted you!,” Daniell replies in his nasal hiss, “She did worse than that:  she dessssscribed me!”

As Robert Schumann, Paul Henreid does what he always does:  nothing at all.  As he descends into madness, dark greasepaint is smeared on the bags under his eyes and when he attempts to conduct his own work, the orchestra is obscured by buzzing . . . ah, the poor loonie!  With all that buzzing, his music sounds like Varèse.  His final madness takes the form of benign reasonableness:  he goes about with a distracted, lopsided half smile and seems utterly resigned to failure.  Henreid’s Schumann is so meek and gentle, I couldn’t understand why anyone fretted over his mental health:  he didn’t need an alienist — he needed water and plenty of sunlight.  But I screamed with laughter when I saw that Clinton Sundberg of Appleton, Minnesota — an MGM contract player who always looked and sounded as if he’d just fallen off the turnip truck — was Schumann’s alienist and eventual coroner.

Henried, Hepburn:  'Come, darling, let's get you to the nuthouse.'

Henreid, Hepburn: ‘Come, Liebchen, let’s get you to the nuthouse.’

There was one lovely little exchange near the end of the movie, however:  after Schumann is in the cold, cold ground, Clara attends a gathering at which a violinist, hitherto unknown to her, plays the wedding music that Robert had specifically written for her.  Tears come into her eyes.  “That’s the first time I’ve had it played for me by someone else,” she tells the violinist.  “How did you happen to know it?”  The violinist replies, “I am a musician, madame.”