Friday, 22 April 2016

Film Friday: "Come September" (1961)

In honor of Sandra Dee's 74th birthday, which is tomorrow, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you the first film I ever saw her in. Incidentally, this is one of my personal favorites.

Original release poster
Directed by Robert Mulligan, Come September (1961) follows the tribulations of Robert Talbot (Rock Hudson), a wealthy American businessman and confirmed bachelor who, once a year always in September flies to Italy to romance his beautiful but temperamental Roman mistress, Lisa Fellini (Gina Lollobrigida), at his luxurious seaside villa in Portofino. Although Lisa loves him, she has grown tired of waiting for his elusive marriage proposal and has decided to marry instead a stuffy Englishman named Spencer (Ronald Howard). However, when Robert moves up his annual visit to July and calls her on his way from Milan, Lisa cancels the wedding and rushes to meet him.

Upon his arrival, Robert discovers that, in his absence, his major-domo, Maurice Clavell (Walter Slezak), has transformed the villa into a hotel, currently holding a group of six American teenage girls, including Sandy Stevens (Sandra Dee), and their chaperone, Margaret Allison (Brenda De Banzie). Outraged, Robert demands that the guests leave immediately, but before eviction can be accomplished, Margaret slips on a champagne cork and injures her back. Another setback occurs when four American college boys, led by the lustful Tony (Bobby Darin), set up camp just outside the villa and begin courting the girls. To avoid the risk of being arrested on a morals charge, Robert, accompanied by Lisa, decides to chaperone the girls and keep Tony from seducing Sandy. When Lisa learns that Robert told Sandy that men do not marry girls who "give away free samples," she storms out of the villa and rejoins Spencer in Rome. Robert follows her and proposes, but the infuriated Lisa sends him away. After a talk with Sandy, who is unsure about her own relationship with Tony, Lisa has a change of heart and races, in her wedding gown, to catch Robert. They reconcile, marry and then return to the villa for their honeymoon. They are shocked to discover that Maurice has turned it into a hotel again. This time Robert is confronted with a different problem: his "guests" are a group of vacationing nuns!

Lisa Fellini: Why be miserable with someone you don't love? Better to be miserable with someone you do love!

Culture has always played an important role in the perception of Europe by Americans. In the 19th century, Americans admired European culture; in the 20th century, American culture in turn played a dominant role in Europe, which appeared increasingly "quaint" for Americans. In the years after the end of World War II, the "bourgeois and bohemian" ideals of life in Europe began to expand beyond the wealthy, the writers and the artists to the American middle class as well. At the same time, popular culture, as expressed by Hollywood pictures in which American characters visited or lived in Europe (usually France and Italy), allowed filmmakers to comment directly on sociocultural matters pertaining to the "Old World." Besides glamorous backgrounds and happy endings, romance was a crucial theme in these films, as Europe was seen as "almost intrinsically romantic." Among such productions as Roman Holiday (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Summertime (1955) and Love in the Afternoon (1957), we find Come September.

Making his screen debut in an uncredited role in Raoul Walsh's Fighter Squadron (1948), Rock Hudson spent the majority of the 1950s playing stalwart heroes, in such films as Captain Lighfoot (1955), Giant (1956) and A Farewell to Arms (1957). Later in the decade, he demonstrated his flair for romantic comedy in the smash hit Pillow Talk (1959), his first of three pairings with Doris Day, who became one of his closest friends. To capitalize on his newfound success in this genre, Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin, half of the team that had won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for wrirting Pillow Talk, created Come September especially for him. While the film was still in pre-production in late 1959, Shapiro said in an interview: "I write all day at my office from 8:30 until 6:00, then have dinner and go home and spend two or three hours fixing, polishing or rewriting the day's output."

Gina Lollobrigida and Rock Hudson
Although Marilyn Monroe was initially considered for the female lead, that role was eventually given to Italian sex-symbol Gina Lollobrigida. A former beauty pageant contestant, she began acting right after World War II, making her screen debut at the age of 19. In 1950, after spotting a photograph of her in a magazine wearing a then-shocking bikini, eccentric business tycoon Howard Hughes, the owner of RKO Pictures at the time, invited Lollobrigida to Hollywood, where he signed her to contract. When she refused to become another one of his conquests, Hughes kept her from working in American films for seven years, using an obscure provision in her contract. She was, however, able to appear in American productions shot in Europe, beginning with John Huston's Beat the Devil (1953). Her co-star in that film, Humphrey Bogart, once said that she "made Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple." Lollobrigida and Hudson later reunited in Melvin Frank's Strange Bedfellows (1965).

The supporting cast in Come September was headed by teen idols Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin. A former child model, Dee began her Hollywood career at the tender age of 15, debuting opposite Joan Fontaine in Until They Sail (1957). After the success of Gidget (1959) and Imitation of Life (1959), she became the personification of the "pure American girl" in the late 1950s and early 1960s, emerging as one of the biggest box-office attractions in the country. As for Darin, he was a popular, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, known for such hits as "Splish Splash," "Dream Lover," "Mack the Knife," and "Beyond the Sea." Come September marked his film debut, two years before he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a shell-shocked soldier in Captain Newman, M.D. (1963). 

Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin
Dee and Darin met each other for the first time on location in Italy, where Come September was filmed in and around the pictoresque fishing village of Portofino on the Ligurian coast, in the summer of 1960. By all accounts, their first encounter was a typical Hollywood "meet-cute." After seeing her face-to-face, Darin reportedly said, "As I live and breathe, Tuesday Weld! I enjoy your pictures so much." To what Dee retorted, "And I buy all your records, Fabian." (Weld and Fabian were also popular teen idols during the late 1950s and 1960s.)

There is another version of the story of how Darin and Dee became acquainted, which is just as cute. Darin was standing on the shore at Portofino, wearing a canary yellow suit with white shoes and waving at her, while Dee was on a boat pulling in to dock. When she looked up at him, she was not impressed. She thought, "Is that him? Oh my God!" He called out to her, "Hi, I'm Bobby Darin. You're going to be my wife." She replied, "Not today."

The "brash and cocky" Darin immediately began pursuing the "pristine, untouched" Dee. Despite her possessive mother's contast vigilance, Darin would always find ways of getting Dee alone every day so they could walk together through Rome or Portofino. A romance soon blossomed and they decided to get married. When they returned to the United States after filming ended in November 1960, she was wearing a large six-carat emerald-cut diamond ring as they announced their engagement to the press. The young couple was married in New Jersey, Dee's homestate, in early December and welcomed a son, Dodd, a year later. Although they divorced in 1967, they remained close until Darin's death from heart disease in 1973. In addition to Come September, Darin and Dee co-starred in If a Man Answers (1962) and That Funny Feeling (1965).

Hudson and Lollobrigida between takes
Directing Come September was Robert Mulligan, who had risen to prominence working on some of the most successful anthology television series of the 1950s, including Studio One (1948-1958), Playhouse 90 (1956-1960) and DuPont Show of the Month (1957-1961). The following year, Mulligan directed Hudson a second time in The Spiral Road (1962), just before achieving widespread recognition with the critically acclaimed To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), an adaptation of Harper Lee's best-selling novel of the same name.

Distributed by Universal Pictures, Come September opened on August 9, 1961 to generally positive reviews and great box-office results. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times described it as an "energetic film" with "a good musical score and excellent color." He thought Rock Hudson was "in the right spots doing the proper funny things, sometimes with apparent comprehension and flexibility, sometimes not"; called Gina Lollobrigida "a superb commedienne, making the mistress a model of dexterity and physical allure"; and considered Walter Slezak "perfect [...] as the slightly corrupt major-domo." As for Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin, Crowther found them "attractively droll and impish, though Mr. Darin does act at times as though he has seized, with a little too much fervor, the torch that Donald O'Connor has flung."

The Variety reviewer also liked the cast, writing: "Under director Robert Mulligan's generally keen command, Hudson comes through with an especially jovial performance. Gina Lollobrigida need just stand there to generate sparks, but here she abets her eye-to-eye appeal with plenty of comedy savvy. Slezak is excellent. His scenes with Hudson are the best in the picture. Sandra Dee has the misfortune to be overshadowed in the glamor department by La Lollo [Lollobrigida's nickname], but the young actress is plenty decorative and capable in her own right. In his first cinematic exposure, Bobby Darin does a workmanlike job." The Hollywood Reporter, too, had high praise for the entire cast, especially Hudson, "who is an expert at this sort of thing, and has seldom been better."

Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee, Gina Lollobridga and Rock Hudson

Although Bobby Darin performed only one song in the film, "Multiplication," it became a moderate chart success once Come September was released. The catchy tune, with words and music written by Darin himself, was filled with double-entendres, such as pointing out that "two hares with no cares" can soon lead to "a room full of rabbits." It reached #30 in the United States and did even better in England, shooting to #5. In addition, Darin was responsible for composing the film's theme, which charted at #113 in America in at #50 in the United Kingdom.

Come September also became a footnote in cinema and aviation history. When airlines began showing films on flights in the early 1960s, Come September was the first picture to be played on transcontinental and intercontinental plane trips. It was Walter Slezak who delivered the film to Trans World Airlines (TWA) which was actually under Howard Hughes's ownership between 1939 and 1966 for its premiere in-flight screening.

Bobby Darin: A Life by Michael Seth Starr (2011) | Howard Hughes: The Untold Story by Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske (2004) | Imagining Europe: Europe and European Civilisation as Seen from its Margins and by the Rest of the World, in the Nineteeth and Twentieth Centuries by Michael J. Wintle (ed.) (2008) | Italian Sketches: The Faces of Modern Italy by Deirdre Pirro (2009) | Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin by David Evanier (2004) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE this movie. Everyone does great, but especially Rock and Gina -- they're hilarious. So glad to see you adore it, too!