Posted by Moira Finnie on June 2, 2010
“Forgive me for being profound, but it’s good to be alive,” mumbles Troy Donahue to his date, Suzanne Pleshette, as Italian singer Emilio Pericoli warbles the reverberating “Al-Di-La,” in Rome Adventure (1962-Delmer Daves). Well, forgive me for being a goof, but this girl’s fancy, (and questionable taste) finds such fare pretty irresistible as the days are getting longer and Spring melts into Summer. Besides, this movie, filmed in Roma, Firenze, and Lago Maggiore is a cheap, vicarious way of visiting Italy without having to stand in line at the airport or mispronouncing this beautiful language myself. The fact that it also features two actresses I’ve always loved–Suzanne Pleshette and Constance Ford–was icing on this Italian ciambella.
I have an admitted weakness for director Delmer Daves‘ movies in any season; from the powerful Pride of the Marines (1945), to the fine western, The Hanging Tree (1959). Daves’ late career splash making embarrassingly enjoyable sudsers such as A Summer Place (1959) and Susan Slade, (1960), catering to the emerging youth market, became highly successful velvet traps for the aging filmmaker. While his later movies have often been sneered at by critics who feel superior to the hapless characters trying to cope with the emotional, social and sexual contradictions, the lives they depicted weren’t always too far from the mark, reflecting the turmoil that was roiling beneath the surface of society in the ’50s and early ’60s, that led to the youth movement as well as the women’s movement. Regardless of the subject matter, that devil Mr. Daves knew how to ring my Pavlovian bells on screen, making me care about John Garfield’s fate as a Marine, Maria Schell’s likelihood of survival in a raw wilderness, and wondering whether any heavy-breathing characters would ever find happiness living in a fabulous, mid-century modern house by the sea. In the process, Daves usually drew good performances from even the most inexpressive actors (such as Troy Donahue), and made films with compensatory production values to make up for some of those later scripts’ shortcomings.
The travelogue aspects of this movie were a real plus in this film, with (the curiously empty) streets of Rome, Italian cathedrals, their art treasures, the towering Dolomites and alpine chalets making up for some of the more tedious romantic complications of the characters’ contrived lives, providing a viewer with a glimpse of another age and the mores of that period, as indicated by this trailer for the film:
In the case of Rome Adventure, the story begins with an act of rebellion by the character played by the ravishingly beautiful, smoky-voiced and undeniably intelligent 25 year old Suzanne Pleshette, who played her first leading role in this feature film. While she had appeared on screen previously in one supporting role in Jerry Lewis’ The Geisha Boy (1958), the actress had extensive theatrical and television experience already under her belt. I suspect that asking the audience to buy her as a college librarian called Prudence Bell (love that name!) was still a bit of a stretch.
As Prudence, Suzanne Pleshette, a sophisticated New York born show biz pro, makes an unlikely dyed-in-the-wool Yankee with a streak of repression and a longing for sexual liberation, but her natural sultriness and sometimes amusing wide-eyed expressions of surprise almost make her character work and certainly made her a bit more entertaining.
In the first scene Pru quits her job after being called on the carpet by a gaggle of dessicated biddies, crones, her colleagues at Briarcroft College for Women, led by an uncredited Norma Varden, who conveys her distaste for this upstart with just the right touch of lady-like disdain. Prudence’s apparent sin, other than being young, is having loaned her copy of an apparently steamy, revelatory tome called, not so coincidentally, Lovers Must Learn by one Irving Fineman, to a confused young student looking to unravel love’s mysteries. I kept mentally picturing Sylvia Plath as the student, though we never get a glimpse of the poor schlub, whose mother reportedly warped her view of amore prior to her arrival at this college. (Come to think of it, maybe she looked like Sandra Dee, and her mummy bore a more than passing resemblance to Constance Ford–but hey, that was another Delmer Daves flick, from another author, wasn’t it?)
Prudence demands her book back before leaving, stating boldly that she is “going where they really know what love’s about…to Italy.” The film’s then fresh acknowledgment that a healthy interest in sexuality might be a valuable part of personal development may seem quaint now, but at the time when this film was made, it was fairly risque, even progressive. The fact that Prudence seems to need to go to Italy to explore this aspect of life also seems to indicate that America just wasn’t ready for this…though where all those Americans came from seems to belie this assumption! (Btw, the author’s name and this book title were mentioned so many freakin’ times in the movie, I began to expect Irving to show up as a flesh and blood character. Mr. Fineman must have had an inordinate amount of pull with the producers to warrant these numerous salutes to his book in the script). The appealing and plucky Pleshette succeeds in making her character’s determination to gain amorous experience admirable, though she also inspires a protective feeling; making one hope that she does not get hurt in the process.
Rome Adventure was based on a 1932 novel by Mr. Fineman called (*surprise*) Lovers Must Learn, and Daves, who wrote the script as well as produced and directed this movie from a then thirty year old book, may have taken some of the more archaic features of the story from that book–such as gadding about on an ocean liner to Europe. Not that I’m complaining, since going to Europe the same way that Fred and Ginger used to certainly has considerable hold on my imagination, though it seems a little odd in the then newborn jet age. Once Pru (Pleshette) is on board the ship and on to Italy, she is watched over by the three bears, a series of suitors, some naughty, (a slightly seedy but still attractive Rossano Brazzi, playing a worldly aristocrat), some inept, (Etruscanologist and ridiculously repressed Mama’s boy, Hampton Fancher) and one just right, (Troy Donahue, ablaze–well, as ablaze as Mr. D. can be on screen–with a passion for architecture, sweet Suzanne and a coyly vampish Angie Dickinson). While I kept thinking that the ambivalent and inexperienced Pru might put some of those hypotheses she held about love and s-e-x to the test by canoodling with Brazzi, the audience demographic that Warner Brothers sought to appease led her to a fairly chaste romance with Troy, who eventually shares a bus trip with her up and down the boot of Italia–though he sleeps on the chaise lounge on a balcony when they are assigned a room together during their idyll.
The sensory pleasures of seeing Italy so lushly captured on screen does add to the romance of the piece, and a singularly memorable moment with a spark of real feeling is conveyed all too briefly when the twosome hold hands beneath the table at the pensione where both characters are staying, any sexual tension between Pleshette and Donahue, who were involved and briefly married after making this movie, is pretty tepid on screen, at least to me. Long involved with the vixenish Angie Dickinson, who plays an ex-pat artist with a big bank account, a designer wardrobe, and a well-appointed apartment fit for a party scene from La Dolce Vita, Donahue‘s jaded character thanks Pru for helping him to see Rome (and presumably life) with fresh eyes. To prove his new found spontaneous playfulness, he buys a candelabra from a man catering to the tourists, toting it around to various nightclubs, and he scampers around the Eternal City on a red Vespa that matches his windbreaker and pullovers with Pru in tow, (and no crash helmets or traffic jams in sight).
The peregrinations of the characters and the hurdles met in their sprint toward romantic bliss are helped by several additions to this heady cocktail. While I could have lived without the repetition of “Al Di La” on the soundtrack, it didn’t hurt that Max Steiner poured on the swooning violins in one of his later film scores. Without the cinematography of Charles Lawton, Jr. of the gorgeous locations throughout Italy, this film might be utterly forgettable. At the same time, the presence of jazz trumpeter Al Hirt (as himself) and his stacked girlfriend (with her hidden knife) was truly puzzling, since he didn’t really add to the story–except for straining credulity just a tad, (see photo below), and for inserting a trumpet solo of “Al Di La” into the movie one more time.
One welcome distraction from the plot and offering a glimpse of an alternative future to Pru’s quest for love and sex (not necessarily in that order) was the character of single gal Daisy Bronson, played by the estimable Constance Ford as the sadder but wiser owner of the American Book Store in Rome. Hiring Pleshette for the summer, the pair exchange views on Pru’s hectic love life while working in the splendidly appointed bookstore, (which was actually the rearranged set of the library where Robert Preston as The Music Man wooed Shirley Jones as Marian the Librarian in the Warner Brothers movie of the same period). While watching Ford and Pleshette together, (and wondering why there never seemed to be any customers in this place), I was reminded that Constance Ford, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, may have been one of the best actresses in a series of unfortunate if colorful film roles, most memorably playing the pathologically repressed harpie of a mother who wanted poor Sandra Dee‘s virginity medically checked in Delmer Daves’ entertaining, occasionally overwrought and touching A Summer Place. I like her slightly overplayed character of Daisy in Rome Adventure, with her English sheep dog companion, and wry remarks about life and love. Ford, who went on to playing a beloved, earthy character on the soap opera Another World until her death in 1993, brings a needed shot of Auntie Mame bohemianism to the sometimes overly serious movie.
Other films featuring Ford in her more customary casting as a figure of strength and sometimes scary intensity include schlockfests such as the rural drama Claudelle Inglish (1961), and House of Women (1962), (a variation on director John Cromwell’s indelible Caged in 1950), both of which should be prime candidates for TCM Underground one of these days. I have always been partial to the appearances of the Bronx-born Ford in small roles as rather likable broads who know the score in films such as The Last Hunt (1956), Home From the Hill (1960) and All Fall Down (1962), though the protective realist she plays in Rome Adventure appears to be one of the actress’ most enjoyable parts in any movie. On the small screen, the actress would have far more range, playing diverse roles from the lead in a critically well received live television version of Anna Christie, as well as part of the ensemble cast of Playhouse 90′s The Comedian (1957), to her notable supporting work in several classic television series, including The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason.
I guess Suzanne Pleshette never really went on to make many good feature films, other than another highly enjoyable travelogue film, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969) with Ian McShane and the fine Western comedy with James Garner as her co-star, Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971). Since I’ve always liked this woman’s manner, I’ve caught most of the turkeys efforts that Pleshette found herself in over the years, with particular favorites Youngblood Hawke (1964) and A Rage to Live (1965) among the best of guilty pleasures, featuring the actress in diverse roles that might have been forgettable if played by someone without her fierce intelligence, humanity and subversive sense of humor.
I’ve never quite forgiven Hollywood for their neglect of the potential of Pleshette as an actress in feature films, though her success on the small screen has made her a beloved figure. Irrational, I know, but I used to resent that Alfred Hitchcock for offing the far more appealing Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds (1963) in favor of his protegee Tippi Hedren. Annie Hayworth, the brooding, Bodega Bay school teacher played by Pleshette and her admission to the cool, detached Melanie played by Hedren that she stayed because of Mitch (Rod Taylor) always seemed far more interesting than the bland heiress in the mink and sports car! Recently though, I came across this truly splendid retrospective interview for the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television with Suzanne Pleshette that indicated there were more factors at work behind her career development, (like a healthy private life). In the course of this wide-ranging (and often hilarious, bawdy and frank interview) the actress revealed that she was under personal contract to Hitchcock for a time, though she made sure the legal wording allowed script approval.
According to the tale that Pleshette tells, while working with Hitch, she used much of her brief time under his tutelage to tease the maestro by showing up on the set wearing a blonde wig in accordance with his usual tastes (and making the laughing director tell her she looked like a female impersonator), and asking him questions about his film techniques, (though she wished she had known enough to ask him more). In this same interview, Pleshette also gallantly described Troy Donahue, to whom she was married for less than a year, as a gentle man. During the filming of Rome Adventure, she mentions that, while he was not a great actor, he was exceptionally kind to her, helping the neophyte film actress find her way around a movie set as much as possible, (and later protecting her interests during their divorce).
Chad Everett, btw, is one of the actors listed prominently on the cast list of this film. If you can find anyone who looks even vaguely like the future clog-wearing star of the tv series, Medical Center, your eyes are better than mine, though I believe that a detective in coke bottle glasses tailing Angie Dickinson may be the actor…or maybe not?
Rome Adventure, along with the other films in the Warner Bros. Romance Classics Collection, Susan Slade, Palm Springs Weekend, and Parrish are available on DVD and occasionally appear on the TCM schedule.
Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings has also published an excellent appreciation of Rome Adventure, found here.
Out of the Past‘s Raquelle also gave an amusing account of this movie’s irresistible (if odd) charm here.
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