Still counting the considerable profits from Anthony Asquith’s The V.I.P.’s (1963), MGM reunited its director with screenwriter, Terrance Rattigan for The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1965); a tedious, if mind-bogglingly all-star drama, intent on following at least part of the life cycle of its famed luxury automobile as it changes hands between various owners en route to the inevitable scrapyard. Mercifully, we are spared the indignation of watching all that polished chrome and leather turned into a crumbled cube inside a compactor; the movie incongruously ending in mid-tale with the titular town car disembarking a European steamer, presumably bound for even more whacky misadventures on the open roads in the United States. One can only imagine what chichi Beverly Hills or Bel Aire excursions could befall it. Without a doubt, there remains enough tempered sex and intrigue, even a war in the Balkans, to threaten the Rolls and its occupants. Producer, Anatole de Grunwald has assembled a glittery roster of established stars to add majesty to this mishmash and some superb travelogue cinematography via the inimitable visual stylist, Jack Hildyard . In short, The Yellow Rolls-Royce had everything one could wish for in a movie except plot; Rattigan’s vignettes disastrously episodic and thoroughly dull in spots.
Asquith and Rattigan were old chums, each deriving a certain perfunctory contempt for the British aristocracy. Indeed, Asquith’s father had been Britain’s Prime Minister during the early part of the 20th century, while Rattigan came to the art of poking holes in its stiff upper crust by way of being the son of a high-ranking U.K. diplomat. Kindred spirits, Asquith and Rattigan had shown great promise, gaining success and momentum as a team. Hence, The Yellow Rolls-Royce ought to have worked. It doesn’t. At times, it has the look of an epic. But it submarines our expectations for a light and frothy comedic gem or even a winsome travelogue, afflicted with Tourette fits buffered by a staggering amount of overly-dramatic melancholy, almost always leading into a somber denouement. All too quickly, The Yellow Rolls-Royce starts to feel like an anthology piece, with disparate acting styles and plots barely sustainable at just over two hours. Because of Asquith and Rattigan’s background, the film’s first act has an air of stodgy authenticity, nee intimacy, wholly absent from the rest of the picture. Yet, despite its travelogue format, The Yellow Rolls-Royce doesn’t cover much ground, its journey from glamorous showpiece to all but forgotten clunker, resurrected to its former glory, hits multiple potholes and encounters far too many detours along the way; the road trip periodically interrupted by some heavy-handed melodrama – or is it the other way around? If only the narrative could have lived up to Jack Hildyard’s breathtaking cinematography, or the caliber of this internationally acclaimed all-star cast.
Since the early 1930s, MGM had been one of a few studios to successfully carry off the ensemble motion picture; the jam-packing of A-list talent into ‘B’, ‘C’ or even ‘D’ grade filler becoming more standardized, conventional and heavily recycled after the ‘30’s big scale wonderments; Grand Hotel (1931) and Dinner At Eight (1934) set the tone. What helped to propel these earlier offerings to popularity and acclaim (and snag the former a Best Picture Oscar besides) was the tenuous balance between carefully crafted melodrama and the spectacle of seeing so many big names casually pass before the camera, briefly sharing the same claustrophobic space and occasionally mingling in one another’s stratosphere. By the end of the 1940’s, this sort of ‘look who’s here’ had run its course to become passé, the audience more blasé then bemused. Even so, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio with ‘more stars than there are in heaven’, could not resist the formula for very long. So, in the mid-forties they remade Grand Hotel as Weekend At The Waldorf (1945); a watered down chestnut that, oddly enough, rang cash registers all over the country and turned a handsome profit besides. In the mid-1950’s, independent showman, Michael Todd tried his hand at the superstar gristmill, transforming Jules Verne’s cavalcade of short stories, collectively lumped together as Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) into yet another Oscar-winning Best Picture.
Indeed, there was still box office gold to be mined by the mid-sixties; producer/director, Stanley Kramer taking it to the absurd extreme in 1963 with It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. In hindsight, Kramer’s flick seemed to suggest both how far the star-studded cavalcade picture had come, and yet, emphasize it had nowhere left to go – except down. It would take another decade and the likes of visionary disaster/master, Irwin Allen to re-envision the ensemble picture yet again, this time adding peril to pageantry with The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). The Yellow Rolls-Royce cribs from a template much closer to home. The V.I.P.’s had been a curious moneymaker for MGM at a time when one had been desperately needed. A contrite tale of a bored sophisticate, played with lugubrious charm by Elizabeth Taylor and her slightly possessive husband (real life married, Richard Burton) and the former’s infidelity with an oily intercontinental suitor (Louis Jourdan) had been puffed out in all the right places by a few well-placed star turns from Orson Welles, Maggie Smith and Rod Taylor; all of them destined to never get off the ground during a dense fog bank, their various peccadilloes played out mostly inside the V.I.P room at London’s Heathrow airport.
In hindsight, The Yellow Rolls-Royce lacks the continuity of these aforementioned movies on several levels, chiefly because it chooses to chart the course of an inanimate object. The people who invariably come to possess it for a limited amount of time are simply necessary to keep the tank full of gas. But they never meet as the car exchanges hands, their stories incidental to what eventually happens to the automobile. Unlike MGM’s earlier efforts, The Yellow Rolls-Royce lacks the benefit of solidarity among its stock company. In the good ole days, Metro would have assembled a roster from homegrown talent under ironclad contracts. The homogenized look would also have extended to a uniform acting style. Watch an MGM picture from the 1930s or 40s and it becomes apparent there’s well-oiled machinery – all pistons firing in unison.
Without a star system in place, MGM did what was necessary; hire from without, picking up brand names the way one might gather paperclips – by the handful. Alas, decisions in casting were largely predicated on the hot star du jour; Rex Harrison (everyone’s favorite Prof. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady) assuming the fatally dull part of a boring aristocrat, Lord Charles Frinton; more invested in his box at the races than his crumbling marriage to Lady Eloise (a very wooden, Jeanne Moreau). From France too, came Alain Delon, herein, a thoroughly wasted stud-farm Lothario, lurking in the peripheries of a disastrous affair between Mafioso, Paolo Maltese (George C. Scott) and cheap trick on a string, Mae Jenkins (Shirley MacLaine). Sweden’s contribution to this international jet set is Ingrid Bergman, playing a heavily mascaraed haughty socialite, brought down a peg or two by the outbreak of a Balkan uprising; her valiant Partisan hero played with lethal turgidity by Omar Sharif.
The Yellow Rolls-Royce begins with Lord Charles Frinton, who spies the shiny automobile in a high-end luxury car shop in London. A Marquess, handling London’s foreign affair office with a certain noblesse oblige, and well aware he’s late in acknowledging a more meaningful date, Frinton buys the canary yellow car as a 10th wedding anniversary present for his wife, Lady Eloise (Jeanne Moreau). It should please her immensely, as presumably everything about their marriage has been copacetic thus far; except the lady of this sprawling country estate is having a torrid affair with Charles’ aid, Fane (Edmund Purdon). Purdon’s career is one of those utterly wasted opportunities in Hollywood: a pretty face who proved he could mime through The Student Prince (vocals supplied by Mario Lanza) and beefcake his way in a sword and sandal quickie, The Egyptian (both made in 1954); who faked acting enough to get by on his good looks and worked steadily, but never managed to rise above a largely forgettable tenure in films and on TV.
On the eve Fane is being sent off to the Far East to oversee affairs of state, a position presumably orchestrated to take both he and Eloise far away from Charles for a very long while, Charles unveils the luxury sedan for his wife’s benefit at a lavish house party. It’s too much, and it makes Eloise momentarily resist all the plans she and Fane have previously concocted. Good to see the gal has some scruples left in her brain, even if her heart is fickle. Eloise and Fane plot a lover’s rendezvous, unintentionally thwarted by Charles when Eloise announces she has a headache and the ever-dutiful Charles follows her to bed. The next day, Charles, still oblivious to what’s going on, plans to watch his prize racehorse ride to victory in the Gold Cup. The qualifying race goes off without a hitch. But then Charles is given an earful as to his wife’s whereabouts from the deliciously wicked, Hortense Astor (Joyce Grenfell). Disbelieving her innuendo, though nevertheless with curiosity peaked, Charles leaves his private box moments before his horse is set to run. He discovers Eloise in Fane’s arms inside the backseat of yellow Rolls-Royce. The horse wins the race, but Charles has been cut to the quick. He begrudgingly accepts the Gold Cup; a very bittersweet victory – returning home with Eloise and instructing his chauffeur to return the car to the showroom at once because it ‘displeases’ him.
From here, the story jumps ahead to Naples, Italy where Paolo Maltese (George C. Scott), the right arm of Al Capone, is entertaining his fiancée, Mae Jenkins (Shirley MacLaine) with hired gun, Joey Friedlander (Art Carney) in tow. To say Mae’s a diamond in the rough is being kind. Actually, she’s uncouth, though bumped out in all the right places; enough to mildly amuse Paolo, even as her periodic ennui leaves him fuming. Mae takes an immediate liking to the yellow Rolls-Royce currently parked inside an Italian showroom. Paolo strong arms the salesman into selling him the car – then learns of a gangland coup back in America that demands his immediate attention. In the meantime, Mae takes up with a gigolo, Stefano (Alain Delon) whom this motley trio first befriended while taking tourist photos at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Stefano seduces Mae, offering her a legitimate romance, alas with a pauper, to her pampered life of crime with Paolo. Their chance for happiness ends when Paolo’s returns. Pushed to consider her choices, Mae resolves to wed Paolo in America at the earliest possible convenience, leaving Stefano heart sore and betrayed.
This middle act is probably the weakest in the film; a loose regurgitation of the first ill-fated love story, ever so slightly redressed with an even more bittersweet and hard-candied center. As with the first segment, the cast – although accomplished in their own right – struggles to find a tangible chemistry to make their dumb show click. Arguably, it never does. George C. Scott is a flamboyant Mafioso; Art Carney, his empathetic stooge. These are two old hams in their prime. But both are working from caricatures to fashion a performance. There’s a lot of needless bumbling around, obviously meant to show off the resplendent and sundrenched Italian locations. It all looks as it should. Tragically, as with the first sequence, these locations are piecemealed with some woefully transparent sets constructed at Pinewood Studios. To some degree, the sets are less obvious during the first segment, already taking place in Britain, although no one could confuse Rex Harrison’s box at Ascot for the real thing. The soundstage recreations through this movie are brutally artificial.
As Mae and Paolo drive away to an uncertain future, our narrative jumps ahead again, to Trieste, circa 1941 on the eve Hitler is planning a military push into the Balkans. The Rolls-Royce is seen stripped of its tires, slightly beat up and resting on blocks inside a Yugoslav garage. Once again, the car catches the eye – this time of a wealthy American, Gerda Millett (Ingrid Bergman); a frivolous creature carting around her nattering Pekinese. Bribed by Yugoslav patriot, Zoran Davich (Omar Shariff) to smuggle him back into the country, Gerda first resists; then reluctantly acquiesces, only to find herself embroiled in the machinations of an organized freedom fighter. An unlikely romance blossoms between Zoran and Gerda as they rescue beleaguered townsfolk from Hitler’s bombs, survive a hotel bombing raid themselves, then band together with a troop of Partisans standing guard at a mountain retreat, and preparing to confront the advancing German army. The romance ends prematurely when Zoran informs his lover the best way she can help him is to return to America and persuade President F.D.R., presumably, a personal friend, to enter the fight against Fascism of Europe’s behalf. Gerda agrees and is smuggled safely beyond the border. The final shot in the movie shows a somewhat battered, but still intact, yellow Rolls-Royce being hoisted out of a European steamer’s cargo hold in America; its future uncertain, though likely ongoing.
The Yellow Rolls-Royce would be marginally satisfying as a screwball comedy if it weren’t such a crazy quilt of uninspired melodramatic remnants seemingly stitched together from castoffs of other movies. Composer, Riz Ortolani has given us an infectious main title, also serving as the Rolls-Royce’s theme throughout the picture; bright and bouncy and immediately hummable. Ortolani, with lyrics by Norman Newell, also gives us a sultry ballad, ‘Let’s Forget About Domani’, sung with a smoldering sensuality by Katina Ranieri. The song did well on the hit parade, particularly Sinatra’s re-orchestration. But otherwise, The Yellow Rolls-Royce is something of a grand disappointment. It isn’t simply that the events depicted herein lack continuity from one to the next. Rather, Terrance Rattigan’s integration of character, plot and dialogue is so remedial as to suggest a complete lack of investment in the project.
If anything, The Yellow Rolls-Royce illustrates the obviousness in the exercise; its attempt to recall all those star-studded spectacles from Metro’s heyday falling flat – and worse, completely resting on the laurels of its star power. Without a solid script to take us beyond the hook and worm stage of its pedestrian plot, the film becomes a series of badly timed, woefully mislaid skits, its cacophony of drama, occasionally agitated, though never to a point where we care about any of these characters. Traditional soap operas have more cohesion than this movie; a genuine shame too, because the cast is outstanding. None are pressed to the limit of their abilities, but each is a fondly recalled face and an asset to the picture. It’s frustrating, however, to think of their cumulative mega-wattage expended on so unworthy a subject.
Interestingly, The Yellow Rolls-Royce did respectable business in the U.S., grossing $5.4 million. A more curious oddity: the critics rallied to treat it with kid gloves. The Sunday Telegraph was particularly genial, saying, “anyone willing to be taken for a smooth ride could hardly find a more sumptuous vehicle, star-studded, gold-plated, shock-proof and probably critic-proof, too”. Time Magazine raved, “It’s an elegant, old-fashioned movie about roadside sex” that looks “appropriately over-privileged in high-powered personalities and spectacular sets.” Even The New York Times could not help but fall under its sway, although with a slightly more critical eye, commenting, “It’s a pretty slick vehicle…pleasing to the eye…but it hardly worthy of all the effort and noted personalities involved.”
Warner Home Video’s anamorphic widescreen DVD is generally a delight. Despite several sequences suffering from slight color fading, image quality is most often sharp and pleasing; full of bright and saturated colors. Flesh tones tend to appear slightly pasty, but fine detail is nicely realized, as are contrast levels. The audio is mono and, at times, quite strident. (It would have been prudent of Warner to give us at least Riz Ortolani’s buoyant main title represented in stereo.) Apart from a well-worn theatrical trailer, there are NO extra features. Bottom line: conflicted, but leaning towards a recommendation – for the flawed fluff and fun of it all. While I cannot deny its star power, the story left me flat!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)