June 14, 2016


I marked the arrival of summer by watching one of Delmer Daves’ grandly romantic teen melodramas, Rome Adventure (1962). It is earnestly sweet travelogue about a 21-year-old ex-librarian who seeks her independence in Italy and falls for blonde bombshell Troy Donahue. Like the other films Daves made with Donahue (A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade), Rome Adventure is disarmingly frank about the desires of its randy young characters. Instead it revels in the unstable beauty of these kids and their still-forming moralities. Rome Adventure pairs teen idol Donahue with the plucky, world-weary Suzanne Pleshette, an immensely likable personality to follow for the two-hours of the film’s Roman tour. Much of the film’s pleasures derive from simply walking around Rome with two-good looking kids while admiring Charles Lawton’s Technicolor cinematography. Since I won’t be making any European vacations myself this summer, Rome Adventure will have to do.


Delmer Daves suffered a heart attack in 1958, and was instructed by his doctors to avoid physically taxing shoots like the Westerns he had become known for (3:10 to Yuma, The Hanging Tree). So he abruptly switched gears to melodrama, which necessitates less running around. This sunk his stock with critics, who have never come around to these films, but kept his commercial success rolling. In both his Westerns and his melodramas, he had an unerring eye for locations, able to build up detailed social milieus for his inevitably forthright and sincere characters. For Rome Adventure, Delmer Daves dusted off Irving Fineman’s 1932 novel Lovers Must Learn for his adapted screenplay, lending some of the film an anachronistic quality – like the transatlantic steamship that takes Prudence Bell (Pleshette) from New England to Italy. It’s appropriate for a girl with an old-fashioned name like Prudence, though she does her damndest to undercut it.


Prudence opens the movie by quitting her job. She is working as a librarian at a hoity-toity New England college, and the spinster professors disapprove of a novel she personally lent to a student: Lovers Must Learn, by Irving Fineman (!). So she read the book the movie she is appearing on is based on – and will go on to act it out. Before they can fire her she quits, calling it “my independence day.” Just like that she jumps aboard a ship to Rome by herself, hoping to experience the kind of passion she only had read in literature. She will go on to test herself in a variety of romantic entanglements to see what works for her temperament. The movie is focalized through her perspective, so the film’s gaze is pointed outward from her and towards the men in her life, wondering which one will really ring her bells.



The first men she meets are a mousy student named Albert Stillwell (Hampton Fancher, who would go on to write the Blade Runner screenplay) and Roberto (Rossano Brazzi), an older slick tongued Roman who continually tries and fails to win Prudence’s heart. Albert is her parents’ choice, a safe milquetoast type whose only topic of conversation is the Etruscans. Naturally Prudence gravitates towards the more dangerous Roberto, who at least offers the possibility of new experiences. Both men try to lead her around town, but once Prudence sets her sights on the baby-blue eyes of Don Porter (Donahue), no other man stands a chance. Daves said that Donahue “looks like Young America wants to look”, and he was one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood in the early ’60s. This blonde-haired blue-eyed lunk was handsome but still retained some of his baby fat, giving him the unbeatable combination of beautiful and non-threatening.


What makes these films so pleasurable, though, are the characters that surround the main company, the little worlds that Daves is able to build. At her Rome home Prudence has the pensione owners and employees, a gaggle of sweet old Italian ladies who cluck over her every move. The most fascinating character is Daisy (Constance Ford), the owner of the “American Bookshop” where Prudence works. Daisy is a true independent spirit, a model, one would think, for what Prudence is trying to do in Rome. Daisy lives alone with her big English Sheepdog Mcguinness – having left her schoolteacher gig behind to follow her dreams of the romantic life in Italy. Introduced in yellow pajamas, thick glasses, and smoking a cigarette in an elegant holder, she is the vision of  a self-made eccentric. Constance Ford is hilariously funny in the part, playing Daisy as a woman with no filter. I wish she was more of a central character, as the tidbits we do learn about her are so tantalizing. She mentions that she makes yearly vacations to Ischia on which she inevitably meets and loses a man in the same weekend. I would have loved to have seen a spinoff movie (directed by Rohmer, ideally), that followed Daisy on one of these amorous trips, to see more of what makes her tick.


But alas, the movie returns to Prudence and Don as they make their way across Italy, traveling to Lake Maggiore, where they stay in a tiny chalet by the water. Prudence is reluctant to sleep with Don, worried it would break the spell that they are weaving. Things start to unravel when Don’s ex-girlfriend Lyda (Angie Dickinson) returns to the scene. Something of a man-devourer, Lyda had dumped Don out of boredom, but has come back to toy with him some more. Gorgeous and imperious, she is the one thing more beautiful that Don. Dickinson is devilishly good in the part, chewing up the scenery just as she gnaws at Don’s ego.


The film ends on a disappointingly paternalistic note, one that undermines Prudence’s so-called “Independence Day”. Roberto, who early on promises to offer her a sexual education, later offers a narrow definition of a woman’s role – that of companion who is there to tame a man’s baser instincts. Essentially, to be a babysitter. Throughout the entire film Prudence has been the driving force of the plot, making her own romantic decisions, and then in the penultimate sequence Roberto swoops down like a mansplainer-ex-machina to throw the movie off balance. Prudence and Don are destined to be together, but it was a misstep to have their union decided not by Prudence, but by the kindly old Italian lech who lives around the corner. But this does not eliminate the multifarious pleasures of Rome Adventure, a relaxed, charming travelogue that I would have been happy to tag along on for many hours more.


December 17, 2013


If my blog posts were the only articles you read this year, you’d come away thinking Delmer Daves was the most popular man in America. Alas, this is only true in my living room. But this was the year I delved into Daves, helped along by a two-part retrospective at Anthology Film Archives. The first was way back in May (of which I gushed here), and the second wraps up today, for which programmers Nick Pinkerton and Nicolas Rapold culled from Daves’ less reputable potboiler period. After a long career of open-air Westerns, Daves made a surprising turn to soapy melodrama. The change was necessitated by his health. Daves suffered a heart attack in 1958, and was instructed to ease back on stressful location shoots for the relative safety of studio-bound pictures. So he turned to the soaps, for which he escorted Troy Donahue into stardom. The most famous of these is A Summer Place, which scored a #1 pop hit while embracing the sexually permissive mood percolating in the country. Anthology is screening A Summer Place (yes, which I also wrote about), as well as Youngblood Hawke, his last melodrama for Warner Brothers, and the much-derided topic of today’s post.


The implausible novel by Herman Wouk regards a coal miner launched to stratospheric celebrity through his doorstopping book “Alms For Oblivion”. Hawke is also bulging with ravenous sexual appetites, though framed in Charles Lawton’s restrained B&W rather than the ripe Technicolor of Harry Stradling’s work in A Summer PlaceYoungblood didn’t match its predecessor’s success, and very rapidly became a punchline. John Gregory Dunne lays the groundwork in the December 4th, 1964 issue of Life magazine. After admitting he has a “perverse predilection for the awful”, he declares Youngblood Hawke to be the, “hippiest and funniest motion picture in years, one which not only summons up the implausibility of the vintage Marx Brothers epics but also is sure to be discussed by the long-haired Cahiers du Cinema crowd for some time to come.” Truffaut was an avowed Daves fan, though I don’t know if Hawke ever got the full Cahiers treatment. Dunne closes by saying Dr. Strangelove was “made by the hipsters unwittingly for a mass audience”, while “Hawke was made by a mass filmmaker unwittingly for the hippies. See it now or see it later: in years to come it should be the highlight of Delmer Daves festivals at the Museum of Modern Art.”

He is calling it camp, a source of unintentional hilarity made for hipster guffaws that might yet be over-interpreted by cinephiles. His prediction has not yet come true, as it faded into obscurity instead of into Mystery Science Theater or Cinema Scope.  Released in a restored DVD by the Warner Archive last year, I think it’s worthy of reconsideration as both ridiculous and sublime, a narrative absurdity and an aesthetic marvel, a grim B&W vision of mid-century NYC, with the emptied out modern design reflects the hollowed out characters. Dunne’s final jab may yet come true, as new adjunct curator at MoMA, Dave Kehr called Youngblood Hawke the “sleeper” of the Anthology series.


Warren Beatty was originally cast to play the title Hawke, and Hedy Lamarr was competing with Gene Tierney to land the role of Frieda Winter, the rich socialite who inducts Hawke into the ways of the city and her boudoir. None of this worked out. Jousting with WB management, Beatty quit the production, and Lamarr and Tierney were passed over for French actress Geneviève Page. After getting tossed off the studio lot for intransigence, Beatty eventually agreed to appear in Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964). To replace him, Daves and the production team chose James Franciscus, the blonde-haired monolith who was starring in the NBC high school drama Mr. Novak. Instead of an alluring contrast of New and Old Hollywood,  Daves was left with incompatible parts. The bland functionality of Franciscus is a poor fit for the volcanic virility of Hawke, whom women “could feel across the room”, per the salacious tagline. He has rangy good looks but moves like a disgruntled mule, appearing as though he suffers from indigestion more than arousal or emotional turmoil. Geneviève Page was still adapting to Hollywood productions after years in Europe, and her English had not yet been perfected, yet hers is a more layered and affecting performance.


As Frieda, Page has to convey a flightiness masking a bone-deep melancholy. As an aging beauty (she was 37 at filming), Frieda needs to convince herself she can still bed the latest hot young literary thing – despite her rich husband and two kids. In one of the many hauntingly composed shots, Daves frames Page in the dark foreground, her faced edged by an adjacent lamp, while Fransiscus is immobile with lust by the fireplace behind her. They are both looking forward, their desires in momentary abeyance, when a smile flashes across Page’s face, an acknowledgement of the utility of her own beauty. Their bodily distance will soon be closed, but her smile announces this encounter as a mutually selfish act, a union of vain bodies. The lady whom Daves and Wouk’s script position as Hawke’s true love is Jeanne Green (Suzanne Pleshette), the Ivy League grad who edits Hawke’s unwieldy tomes. She is the modern future of femininity, on the inside of a publishing business at which Frieda can only chip at with her sexuality.

hawke 4

Art director Leo Kuter and DP Charles Lawton do quite a bit to contextualize Hawke’s emotional state through mise en scene. His first NYC apartment is a dingy attic in far out Brooklyn Heights, in which laundry lines run through his workspace. Then, after his second novel (Chain of Command) wins the Pulitzer, he starts his own publishing company complete with his personal skyscraper and posh penthouse pad. Even back in the halcyon days of publishing this gargantuan wealth was far-fetched for any writer – Hawke even has cash to invest in a Long Island shopping mall scam. Most of it is poured into his home,  but all the angled wood and Eames furniture can’t suppress Hawke’s low-class lineage, as clothes lines still criss-cross the space, cutting it up into cramped squares rather than the luxurious open concept it’s supposed to realize. Hawke is constrained by the space around him as well as his own outsized ego. While Youngblood Hawke is not one of Daves’ masterpieces, it at least proves his unerring visual knack. Even if it never ends up at MoMA, it deserves a place in your living room.