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:
- Sophia Loren; and
- 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.
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 . . .