Sunday 18 September 2016

The Bobo (1967)

Director: Robert Parrish
Writer: David R. Schwartz, from his own play, in turn based on the novel, Olimpia, by Burt Cole
Stars: Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland, Rosanno Brazzi and Adolfo Celi

Such are the dangers of selecting pictures that I haven’t seen for my centennials project! Today would have been the hundredth birthday of Rosanno Brazzi, an Italian actor who became a success in the English language too. His international fame was sparked by Three Coins in the Fountain in 1954, quickly followed by a lead role opposite Katharine Hepburn in David Lean’s Summertime. He made prominent pictures with prominent actors: South Pacific opposite Mitzi Gaynor, The Story of Esther Costello with Joan Crawford and The Barefoot Contessa with Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner. Aiming more at interesting but more obscure titles, I thought about Legend of the Lost, in which Brazzi hires John Wayne to guide him towards a city of gold, but I’d heard bad things. He was the lead in Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, but I have a bunch of horror movies coming up. So I picked The Bobo, a Peter Sellers comedy, in which he co-stars with Sellers’s wife of the time, Britt Ekland. It’s a fascinating film to review, but Brazzi is hardly in it!

The script was written by David R. Schwartz, as an adaptation of his play of the same name, but the novel upon which it was based was called Olimpia, the name of Ekland’s character; she’s prominent early and often and is inextricably woven into the plot. Sellers plays the lead, of course, which role involves many scenes with his wife. Brazzi, however, third credited, gets less screen time than Hattie Jacques, Ferdy Mayne or Kenneth Griffith, who all languish down in the ‘with’ section of the opening credits. His part is also far less substantial than that of the remaining ‘co-star’, Adolfo Celi, who does at least drive the plot. Of all these, Carlos Matabosch of Matabosch Tractors, who is only in the film so that he can lose his new Maserati to Olimpia, is the easiest to lose and so Brazzi is the easiest to replace. He may be in the final shot, but that doesn’t mean that this is about him in the slightest. I’ll need to go back to his career and pick out a more appropriate title when I collate these reviews into book form at the beginning of next year.
We’re in Barcelona, Spain and Olimpia Segura is a piece of work. In the admittedly beguiling shape of Britt Ekland, she wears mini-skirts, drives fast cars and does a powerful job of keeping her many older, richer beaus at arm’s length. The friend of one describes her as ‘the most desirable witch in Barcelona’. According to Pepe Gamazo, he had ‘two ecstatic months together’ with her, but now she’s kicked him out of the apartment his grandmother left him and changed the locks. She drives his sports car and won’t let him anywhere near it. He’s a complete wreck and not only because Kenneth Griffith’s Spanish accent is far from pristine. She has such power over him that, before he knows it, he’s playing a journalist for her to blackmail another sucker, Silvestre Flores, into giving her that Maserati, a special order that took nine months to acquire for Matabosch and cost 800,000 pesetas. He does get a new key for his troubles, but it turns out that it doesn’t fit the lock to the apartment. What a piece of work she is!

Into town and into the cafe opposite Olimpia’s apartment, where Pepe Gamazo blubbers like a broken man, comes Juan Bautista, a matatroubadour as he puts it. ‘I am Spain’s greatest singing matador,’ he pronounces with authority, and he’s here to audition for Francisco Carbonell, the impresario who runs the local theatre, even if Francisco Carbonell doesn’t want him to. In a film with two thoroughly unsympathetic leads, I found Adolfi Celi’s portrayal of Carbonell the most traditionally enjoyable. He channels Sidney Greenstreet as a relatively static but highly characterful character and his expressions while a captive audience to Bautista’s song in the cafe are priceless. I even liked his office, given that his window is part of the vast billboard to his theatre. And it’s Carbonell who places our story into motion, even if he’s inherently absent from its development and returns only once it’s done to start the process of wrapping things up. I know Celi from Thunderball and Danger: Diabolik, but I’ll remember him from The Bobo too.
I should pause to attempt a definition of the title, which is never explained in the film beyond a supposed gypsy proverb quoted at the beginning that, ‘It is said in Barcelona, ‘A Bobo is a Bobo!’’ I doubt it’s real but know it isn’t helpful so I googled around to find a better explanation. Dictionary sites suggest that it’s ‘a member of a social class of well-to-do professionals who espouse bohemian values and lead bourgeois lives’, the word taken from ‘bohemian’ and ‘bourgeois’. In Ghana, it’s the name given to a child born on a Tuesday while, in the Philippines, it’s a fish trap made of bamboo. My better half knows it as a carny term for someone who uses insults to get customers to pay to throw balls at him, in hope of dunking him into something, but the web identifies that as a ‘bozo’. I know it as the pet name we had for my granddad, taken from my cousins playing peek-a-boo behind him. None of these fit, so I’ll go with the Spanish word that translates most politely as a ‘fool’. Why Sellers would name his yacht after that, I have no idea.

With that in mind, we wonder who the fool is in this film. Is it Francisco Carbonell, who is pressured into giving Bautista a chance at landing a week’s contract for 2,000 pesetas when he’s clearly told this matatroubadour to go back to his village? Is it any one (or even all) of the various men of means who Olimpia has so capably wrapped around her finger? Is it Bautista himself, who takes on the challenge of conquering such an unconquerable woman, specifically to remain in her apartment for long enough for the lights to go off and remain off for an hour? Is it Olimpia herself, who has no idea that she’s being used for someone else’s benefit just like she’s used so many others? Arguably, it could be applied to every character in the picture who has a line of dialogue, except only Eugenio Gomez, who runs the cafe. Al Lettieri, an Italian American actor playing very much against type, given that he portrayed so many villains and heavies in seventies Hollywood, may here play the only character who isn’t a Bobo.
I’d start talking here about the story finally finding its way, given that Sellers doesn’t even show up for ten minutes and Carbonell doesn’t issue his challenge until almost half an hour into the picture, but we’re about to be detoured into an odd diversion. Just as Bautista begins to win over Olimpia, we’re ripped away to watch a five minute chunk of flamenco. Patrick Boone, writing at From the Sidelines, ably describes the sudden prominence of Antonio Santiago Amador, known as La Chana, and Los Tarantos Flamenco Company, as a misstep we would see as ‘unforgiveable if it weren’t for how hypnotically fascinating La Chana’s staccato footwork is.’ I couldn’t tell if this Catalan gypsy was in severe pain or the heights of ecstasy, but she’s so magnetic that I couldn’t look away. Boone astutely points out that, ‘Unlike the filmmakers’, every one of her steps is executed with amazing power and precision.’ I’d second that, because there isn’t another magnetic moment in The Bobo unless we watch it not as a film but a layer over reality.

As she tells it, Britt Ekland was a fat and ugly Swedish child who used humour to get past her looks. After some travelling theatre and a brace of bit parts and walk on roles, she was cast in a small role in Guns at Batasi, which was shot at Pinewood Studios. Over at MGM British Studios, Peter Sellers was finishing up a fraught shoot for the second Pink Panther movie, A Shot in the Dark. The story goes that he saw her picture in the paper and knocked on her door at the Dorchester Hotel to invite her to his suite. Next morning, he took her to Kensington Palace to meet Princess Margaret and ten days later they were man and wife, a marriage which Ekland has said she should never have entered into. This was their third of three films together, after a TV movie called Carol for Another Christmas and After the Fox, but as riotously funny as the latter was, the marriage had found rocks almost immediately, crippled by Sellers’s jealousy and paranoia. Even when Victoria Sellers was born in January, 1965, things didn’t get better.
Like many comedians, Sellers was a highly troubled man and Ekland has suggested that he was bipolar. Certainly he clashed with many of his directors and fellow actors. He had trouble understanding Vittorio de Sica, the director of After the Fox and attempted to have him fired. He had trouble with his wife’s performance in the same film and arguments escalated to his throwing a chair at her. He left his next film, Casino Royale, before completing the shoot because of clashes with Orson Welles; he demanded that they never share the same set. Before quitting that film, he was honoured with a CBE but an argument the day before his investiture at Buckingham Palace required a make-up artist to cover up the scratches on his face from Ekland’s nails. Three weeks into The Bobo, according to Ed Sikov’s Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers, he’d already had the script girl fired when he told director Robert Parrish, ‘I’m not coming back after lunch if that bitch is on the set.’ He was referring to his wife.

Kenneth Griffith, a friend of Sellers who played Pepe Gamazo, told Sikov that when he arrived on set, Sellers was directing rather than Parrish. Asking the latter how this had come to pass, he was told, ‘He just announced that he was taking over and I felt that I had a duty to sit quietly and be a servant to the film. You know, the number one job is to get this film finished.’ It cost a friendship and Parrish’s wife explains that they saw the film as ‘a disaster that we considered a death in the family and never mentioned.’ In such a light, it’s hard to hurl barbs at Parrish or his writer, David R. Schwartz, who was, after all, adapting his own play. Sellers is surely the appropriate person to take the credit or blame, depending on how you view the film. And, to focus back on my point, I found that this knowledge flavoured my take on the movie to the degree that its real value is neither as art or comedy but as the documenting of a powerful love/hate relationship.
I should note that I make no suggestion that there’s a parallel in how their relationship begins. Ekland told the Daily Telegraph that, ‘I was very young and he swept me off my feet. He gave me a puppy for God’s sake.’ She can’t explain why. ‘What was he thinking? And what was I thinking? You can’t bring up a dog before you’ve brought up yourself.’ Olimpia, on the other hand, is easily conned because her Achilles heel is so obvious: money. Her unashamed gold-digging heart visibly perks up when he unfurls words such as ‘royalty’, ‘wealth’ and ‘position’, while suggesting that his master, the Count of Something or Other wants to pay her to meet with him. No, it’s in how this real life couple interact on screen that the honesty shines past the fiction. In a scene at a romantic retreat, there’s real charisma between them, suggesting that they really cared for each other, but in another, an argument over a 275,000 peseta fur coat at Castillo’s, shows how much they also hated each other too. They divorced soon afterwards.

What makes these scenes so powerful is that they appear to be honest. Outside these moments, I never bought into Juan Bautista as anything but an act. Sure, Juan is lying through his teeth for most of the film, but I never felt like I saw the real character once, just Sellers putting on a Mediterranean tan and a dubious accent. The only times I bought into what I was seeing was when I was watching Peter Sellers rather than Juan Bautista and, to a lesser degree, Britt Ekland rather than Olimpia Segura. For all the great talent of the man, Ekland did the better job here for no better reason than I think she wanted to. And that said, both of them were easily outdone by Adolfo Celi, Hattie Jacques as Olimpia’s maid and Ferdy Mayne, whose own centennial I celebrated in March, as the car dealer, Silvestre Flores. Only when both these unlikeable and unsympathetic characters are taken down a peg or two are they really enjoyable to watch. I was fascinated for an hour and a half but I only really enjoyed Juan and Olimpia towards the end.
So, this is a really odd film. It’s not particularly funny, Sellers trying too hard without particularly getting anywhere. I felt like he was often flogging a dead horse with his dialogue because each explanation was so overdone. It succeeds much more as a tragedy than a comedy, the well-deserved come-uppances providing a belated grounding to the characters that was so sorely missing for so long. The sets are immersive, but most of them are obviously sets, this being shot at Cinecittà Studios in Rome rather than the memorable streets of Barcelona, regardless of how much of them we see behind the opening credits. The retreat, at least, is wild and wonderful, a grotto bathed in blue light until we pan over to lush red interiors. The music is forgettable and the direction no better, given that the film seems to exist primarily to let Sellers do his thing while his wife serves as decoration. No, this is much more interesting a film than it is enjoyable. Watch if you’re more interested in Sellers and Ekland as people than as actors.

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