Wednesday 11 June 2008

It Started in Naples (1960)

It's telling that I finally tracked this film down through a festival of Sophia Loren movies on TCM. Time was that Clark Gable movies were precisely that: Gable needed a movie, so someone at MGM wrote one for him, and the leading lady was whoever the starlet of the time was. By 1960 times had changed. Now Paramount presumably needed a film for Sophia Loren, so looked around for who could play a romantic lead opposite her and the King of Hollywood got the job. He looks good here, though this is well into his career and he's certainly not as young as he used to be. Only The Misfits came after this one, with another young starlet actress, Marilyn Monroe.

Gable plays Michael Hamilton, an American lawyer who travels to Naples to settle the estate of his late brother and discovers a nephew he didn't know he had. This brother is very much the black sheep of the family, having left his wife in Philadelphia to get a cold beer, only to die ten years later in Italy, with an apparent new wife and a son called Nando, short for Fernando. He also apparently spent all the money that his brother sent to him on fireworks. Hamilton's plan was to sort out the estate quickly and head back home to get married and go on honeymoon. Without an estate, it seems even quicker, but it doesn't turn out to be quite so easy.

As the title would suggest, we may begin in Naples, where Hamilton first meets Lucia Curcio, Nando's aunt, playing the Queen of Aragon in some street festival. She appears to be rich and important and lives at some sort of palace. However we soon shift to Capri, where she lives, and Hamilton discovers that she's neither rich nor important and her home may be named for a palace but that's the only connection. She's a nightclub entertainer, singing and dancing while her nephew lives out on the streets as a petty thief and jack of all trades, drinking, smoking and hawking fliers for his aunt. Soon there's a battle for custody, but it's unlike any regular custody battle you've ever seen, only partly because it forms the basis for an unconventional romance with Nando right in the middle.

Gable hid his age pretty well here, playing a successful romantic lead at the age of 58, just as he did in Teacher's Pet two years earlier, even though he'd been unable to be anywhere near as dynamic a year earlier in Run Silent, Run Deep, making much of the film lying down. It's been fascinating watching Gable films from the later era, when the studios couldn't work out what to do with him in a changing world. They tend to be far better than they should be.

His leading lady here, Sophia Loren, was only 24, but her maturity and ease in front of the camera makes her seem older. She dances around her character, playing with it and throwing different nuances at it every chance she gets. She's a queen, a maid, an artiste, a woman, a lady... and she switches between them at will, acting out a part that is often acting another part. She's very impressive.

Backing them up are two performances that may be even better. Nando is played by Marietto, credited in French style with only one name, though his real name is Carlo Angeletti. He was only nine years old when the film was released, younger when it was made, but he proves to be a very clever little scene stealer, using both English and Italian with great inflection. It's not surprising to find that this was his fifth film, though it's certainly surprising that there would be only six more. The other is the lawyer who appears here and there throughout the film when he's needed. He's played by film director Vittorio de Sica, who is no doubt responsible for the believably Italian flavour of the film and has a riot with his character, somehow melodramatic and subtle at the same time. That's no easy feat.

The plot is fun but throwaway, but I couldn't help but catch a couple of pointed lines. At one point when Lucia is being melodramatic, Hamilton asks who won the Academy Award that year. Loren won in 1962 for another 1960 film, Two Women, directed by Vittorio de Sica, who may just have. Earlier, Lucia pretends to be an actress and tells Hamilton that she does it for the art and what do contracts matter? Gable had been saddled with a contract for decades, that brought him great success but in many ways kept him from the art of the industry.

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