By Alan Hurst
I will admit to being star struck on the rare occasion I’ve encountered one of my idols. It happened in 1981 seeing Elizabeth Taylor leave the theatre after a performance of The Little Foxes on Broadway, it happened meeting Mary Tyler Moore on the street (and getting an autograph) in between the matinee and evening performances of her Broadway play Sweet Sue in 1987, and it happened again in 2000 meeting Julie Andrews after a lecture in Toronto. After it’s over you stand there thinking, did that really just happen? But they didn’t prepare me for getting up close to Sophia Loren in a question and answer session a few years ago at a film festival screening of her Oscar nominated work in Marriage Italian Style (1964). She was in her 80’s, still stunning, still classy, and full of fascinating anecdotes and stories from her days in Europe and Hollywood making films. I’m not sure if it was the way she carried herself, her humility or her measured way of talking but you felt like you were in the presence of a star. She was mesmerizing.
Like most, my first exposure to Loren was through her early Hollywood films of the late fifties and early sixties, usually on the late show. There is no question that Loren’s major cinematic achievements can be found in her Italian films but there is something quite charming about the early Hollywood Loren – still becoming comfortable with English, possessing an uninhibited screen presence, and setting off sparks with pretty much all of her leading men, even when some of them seemed oddly inappropriate (Anthony Perkins, Tab Hunter). Some of them were also pushing 60 when paired with Loren, who was in her 20’s. But more on that later.
It Started in Naples is probably the most enjoyable of Loren’s Hollywood films, and the one that cements her status as a major star. The film is a valentine to both Loren and the stunning beauty of Capri – and even Capri takes a back seat to Sophia.
The film opens with a terrific credit sequence filled with eye-popping illustrations by George Hoyningen-Huene (a Vogue photographer), who also served as color coordinator on the film. With the Italian-tinged orchestrations on the soundtrack, it’s a dazzling and romantic start to the film. Hoyningen-Huene’s influence is felt throughout the film and the use of vibrant colour is a dominant visual thread in almost every scene – to the point where color gives film is own energy beyond the story and Loren (its sole Oscar nomination was for art direction and sets).
After the credits, we are immediately introduced to Clark Gable arriving in Naples to help settle the estate of his deceased brother who decided to remain in Italy at the end of World War II. Gable meets with the attorney managing the estate (Vittoria De Sica) and learns that his brother died in a boating accident with his girlfriend, leaving behind Nando, a young boy (Marietto) who is now living with his aunt. Loren plays the aunt, a cabaret entertainer who lives off the coast of Naples on the Isle of Capri. The stage is set for the clash of the uptight American encountering a more free-wheeling Italian lifestyle that he can’t begin to fathom – at least in the beginning. Gable doesn’t approve of the young boy hustling tourists, hawking photos and smoking, so he puts the wheels in motion to gain custody from Loren and take the boy back to America (where he’s engaged and about to be married). It’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that everything works out in true romantic comedy fashion.
The film was directed by Melville Shavelson who had helmed Houseboat (1958), another vehicle for Loren, this time with Cary Grant. Shavelson had success with these lightweight, straightforward comedies both as writer and director. He knew how to keep things moving and show his stars off to the best advantage. He really doesn’t do anything ground breaking in It Started in Naples, but he did make sure that the film was a visual treat with enough laughs and the occasional tug at your heartstrings. He’s helped here with a screenplay by Suso Cecchi D’Amico that’s just a little more adult and slightly more nuanced than his usual fare. There’s a bit of an edge in some of the scenes between Loren and her nephew, and between Gable and Loren, that helps ground everything.
In terms of ensuring the film was a visual treat, Shavelson and producer Jack Rose were wise to film the movie’s exteriors on location in Rome, Naples and Capri. The scenes on the Mediterranean and in Capri are travelogue catnip and it’s a treat watching the film today and seeing how much – or little – has changed in the last 60 years.
Now to the cast. I’m a huge Clark Gable fan and there was a reason he was known as the King of Hollywood, but he’s 59 here and looks a little older. Much too old to be entirely believable as a romantic interest for a 26-year old Sophia Loren. And I’m wondering if Gable felt ill-at-ease with the idea himself. But, being the pro he is, he does his best to make it work. The gruffness he gives the character in the first part of the film makes complete sense. This guy is on a mission and, once he discovers there’s a nephew in the picture who needs some structure, he’s determined to do the right thing, romantic feelings be damned. When that gruffness starts to wane, and Gable allows the character to soften to charms of the boy, Italy and Sophia, the age difference becomes less of an issue for the audience. And at the end of the day, he’s Clark Gable – still very masculine, still handsome, and still demonstrating his charms with the opposite sex.
Providing Gable with a good sparring partner (in addition to Loren) is Marietto, the young actor who plays Nando. It’s very easy for writers to give child actors adult dialogue and have it be funny just because it’s coming from a kid, but here it works. Nando is a kid who has lived the bulk of his life on the streets, and his behaviour and way of speaking reflect that. This is one smart kid – and the spin he gives his lines provides the film with some of its funniest moments.
While Sophia Loren’s reputation is that of a naturally intuitive and emotional dramatic actress, as well as a great beauty, she was also a delightful comedienne. That’s on full display here. She makes the character of the aunt both vulnerable and volatile, she’s beautiful and a bit of mess, and she’s completely at ease with the banter between her and Gable. And she can even sing! One of the film’s highlights is Loren’s performance of “You Want to Be Americano” in a nightclub scene. Throughout the film Loren’s mere presence dominates – her laugh, her look, her confidence, her passion – they all take your breath away and remind you that THIS is a movie star.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.