Sunday, April 16, 2017

BOY ON A DOLPHIN: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1959) Kino Lorber

The majestic sun-kissed coastal enclaves of the Greek Saronic Islands, notably Hydra, and the sight of a bra-less Sophia Loren, rising like Venus from the sea, her soaked-through, lemon yellow dress exaggerating the bulbous contours of a pair of very perky breasts, nipples protruding, are the main selling features in Jean Negulesco’s Boy on a Dolphin (1957); a very loose adaptation of David Divine’s 1955 novel by the same name; the book more heavily concentrated on the rivalry between an affluent English archaeologist and an impoverished Greek student in search of sunken treasures.  2oth Century-Fox and the Ivan Moffat/Dwight Taylor screenplay sought to inveigle the charm of these locales (and Loren’s undeniable talismans in exotic beauty) on a romantic triangle, thereby bungling most of the page-turning excitement to be found elsewhere. With Fox’s debut of Cinemascope, the edict on high was for pictures with ‘width’ instead of ‘depth’. There is plenty of gorgeous scenery to fill the screen in Boy on a Dolphin, but precious little beyond to captivate once the allure of both Greece and Loren – in her English-speaking (such as it is) debut has worn off…or rather, worn thin. Loren compensates for her Carmen Miranda-esque fracturing of the English language with a sort of Chaplin-esque verve for being a comedian, occasionally at odds with her already ensconced reputation as the movie’s ‘Italian Cinderella’.
Worse for Loren, and the picture, is the casting of Alan Ladd as love interest, Dr. James Calder. At a diminutive 5 ft. 6 inches (to Loren’s 5 ft. 8), and looking as though his head had been used for a punching bag (aged beyond those matinee idol good looks that made Ladd so gosh darn appealing in movies like 1942’s The Glass Key, and, 1953’s Shane), producers herein were to compensate by digging trenches on the beach for Loren or having Ladd perched upon a box to even out their heights for love scenes – a considerable blow to his conceit and very awkward for either to play genuine passion. It might explain for the complete lack of it in Boy on a Dolphin; virtually zero chemistry here, except in a sort of antiseptic and acrimonious way; Ladd, constantly restrained or clumsily diverted in his amour by his character’s ‘pure of faith’ archaeological pursuit of an ancient Greek statue depicting a boy astride a dolphin, rumored to be at on the bottom of the Aegean Sea, and for whom a portion of its mate already hangs in Calder’s modestly established museum of artifacts. Into this mix is dropped the unscrupulous ‘treasure hunter’; Victor Parmalee (the sublimely effete and wicked Clifton Webb) whose only real interest in the statue is to beat Calder to the chase and claim grazing rights. Phaedra (Sophia Loren, in a part originally announced for Joan Collins), an impoverished Greek sponge diver, toiling for her lazy Albanian boyfriend, Rhif (Jorge Mistral) off the coast of Hydra, inadvertently discovers the statue beneath the waves, obscured by a sunken wreck and heavy plankton, while on one of her routine dives. Shortly thereafter Phaedra becomes Parmalee’s unwitting accomplice, helping to misdirect Calder from finding it first – this, after having already promised Calder to take him directly to its whereabouts.
The rest of the plot is basically a half-ass and very cockeyed attempt to enrich the (choke) ‘love story’ between Calder and Phaedra; Loren’s devious poor girl not nearly as clever as she pretends to be smart; Calder, never fooled for a minute by her naïve dumb show, but tolerating her repeated delay of his efforts, I suspect, if only to be near her skimpily clad hourglass figure as they repeatedly scuba dive up and down the coastal islands in search of fortune and glory. Calder befriends Phaedra’s young brother, Niko (Piero Giagnoni). Running true to movie-land lore, the child possesses more intellectual wherewithal and perceptive clarity in making judgements about people than the adults who surround him. Niko gives away Phaedra’s secrets one by one; Calder taking advantage of their ‘father-ish/son-ish’ friendship to eventually beat Parmalee at his own game; though not before the latter, with Rhif’s brutish complicity, has dragged the boy on the dolphin half way across the bottom of the Aegean to a remote sunken grotto: yet again to misdirect Calder from reclaiming it as a true object of art. Depending on the source consulted, either Sophia Loren (or Marni Nixon) warbles ‘What is this thing they call love?’ (Tι΄ναι αυτό που το λένε αγάπη in Greek), ably assisted by a guitar-strumming Tony Maroudas. It is a diverting vignette, staged at an outdoor nightclub where seemingly all of the patrons are immediately enamored by Phaedra’s olive-skinned beauty and prowess as a sultry seller of songs. There’s dancing too, by some of the local color, and a glass-smashing sequence aboard Parmalee’s palatial yacht, just in case the audience has forgotten our story is set in Greece – Ώπα! And an easy thing to do, since the very Roman Catholic Loren is frequently heard praying ‘sancta Maria’; words that would never be uttered in a Greek-Orthodox setting. Oh well, I suppose ‘Panagia mou’ was too cryptic and chichi for the ticket-paying public of 1957. 
Boy on a Dolphin would have more going for it if only its central focus were not so heavily weighted on extolling the virtues of Cinemascope on location. Greece is the real star of this movie, as Milton R. Krasner’s extensive outdoor cinematography (with very few interiors photographed at Rome’s famous Cinecittà Studios) and the movie’s prologue (a TripTik through the various Greek Isles, also, an extensive pan through Athens ancient city ruins) attest. There’s also a sequence in which Parmalee, out to conduct all the research he can on the missing statue, takes a brief respite at the reclusive Eastern Orthodox monastery at Metéora (later, to be made more enduringly famous in the 1981 James Bond flick, For Your Eyes Only); only to discover Calder already pouring over ancient texts inside its suspiciously set-like library. Jazz singer, Julie London contributes a smoldering love song under the main titles, and composer, Hugo Friedhofer affords the picture some lush groundswells of orchestral accompaniment elsewhere (and in the lushness of Cinemascope’s 4-track magnetic stereo no less), but basically, Boy on a Dolphin is just a flimsy reason to island hop around the Aegean; the weakest part of the excursion, the script – barely linking up these causal passages, and even less coherently palpable, thanks to Loren’s exquisitely misfiring English. Honestly, I had to watch a few of her exposition scenes more than once to figure out what the hell she was trying to convey; frenetic hand gestures and fragmented – if nevertheless, passionately punctuated on all the wrong syllables.   
Sophia Loren’s allure as a movie star in English-speaking films has always escaped me. I think her best work here derives from the two elephantine epics she made for producer, Samuel Bronston – 1961’s El Cid (for which she caustically co-starred opposite a very demanding, and not altogether tolerant Charlton Heston) and 1964’s as gargantuan, The Fall of the Roman Empire (where she was nearly burned at the stake along with her love-interest, Stephen Boyd). I will also give Loren top marks for knowing exactly how to market her sex appeal, both on and off the screen – savvy enough to trade in a flagrante delicto with Cary Grant on the set of 1957’s The Pride and the Passion (briefly to spill over into 1958’s Houseboat) for a life and career-altering amour with film producer, Carlo Ponti; chiefly responsible for her transformative international celebrity. It’s hard not to watch Loren in Boy on a Dolphin, though purely as a sexual object with the enviable proportions of an ancient Roman goddess. She generates kilowatts of sensuality to the point of near arousal…until she opens that garage door-wide mouth of hers to reveal those perfectly capped teeth. From then on, her influence is purely cerebral – at least for the male of the species – imagination blotting out the clumsily punctuated and often chirpy dialogue, perhaps even conjugating a few irregular verbs in Loren’s own native tongue to make time, as well as the illusion, pass for earthy sexuality.
The two male leads in Boy on a Dolphin are real wet noodles; Alan Ladd, his one-time chiseled visage appearing puffy and soft, his gazes as careworn and as bored with either prospect: of finding the statue in time or undressing his costar with his eyes (other appendages optional), and Clifton Webb (who developed a head cold that quickly blossomed into pneumonia during filming - dear boy/poor boy), emitting his usual subliminally gay-grandfatherly ‘charm’ as an aged oily ‘sugar daddy’ for whom no woman need fear he has sex on the brain as remuneration for the trinkets being offered in exchange.  Exactly what Webb’s Parmalee is expecting from Phaedra – well, that’s really left open to interpretation, and never explored in the Moffat/Taylor screenplay, all too interested in just getting through 111 minutes of Fox fluff on the way to cashing their own paychecks. Boy on a Dolphin might have been at least fun, in say, the same way some of the studio’s other Cinemascope travelogues, like 1954’s Three Coins in the Fountain (still MIA on Blu-ray); another Jean Negulesco classic, are; but herein, the writers and cast have sincerely forgotten that in absence of a good story, Cinemascope still needs more than sun-drenched cityscapes and a good-looking costar to sail this tale to port. A few light touches of comedy might have helped. But instead what we get are Parmelee applying Clifton Webb’s smugness; a quality for which erudite social commentary undeniably takes its backseat to ethnocentric arrogance, referring to the Greek peoples as ‘simple’ and later, showing outward disgust for the primitive hoist used to deliver him to the clifftop retreat at Metéora. Dull, dumb and diminishing of an entertainment so transparently assembled with glittering coastal scenery and shiny stars to settle the score for a celebrated ‘good time’. It never happens alas; because there is virtually no suspense to the treasure-hunting sequences, no sex appeal to the romance, and absolutely no symbiosis between characters and plot beyond the floodgates of gorgeous imagery taking the casual viewer on a horse and buggy ride through ancient Greece. Disappointing – very!
One could say the same about Kino Lorber’s new to Blu transfer, except that the results are actually modestly impressive to down-right ravishing with minor caveats to be addressed herein. A slight teal bias still persists, especially during the underwater sequences and a few of the scenes shot under the cover of night. I really cannot explain why so many of Fox’s Cinemascope movies released to Blu-ray have adopted such a skewed color palette; the most egregious transgressors mentioned elsewhere on this blog. Boy on a Dolphin isn’t nearly as awful as some, but it continues to lean toward a queer ‘teal’ tint for which vintage Color by DeLuxe did not suffer and surely did not adopt. Vinegar syndrome or just some colorist asleep at the helm during the remastering process? Who can say? Flesh tones are rather jaundiced throughout this presentation. Contrast is weaker than anticipated during interior photography. But exteriors look positively picture postcard perfect. Vintage Cinemascope had its disadvantages and this Blu of Boy on a Dolphin exposes some of them in 1080p; blurry dissolves and fade outs, softer than anticipated background detail, a slight vertical warping of the image to the extreme left and right of center frame, and, finally, an exaggerated amount of film grain during transitional sequences, montages, etc. On the plus side, the image is free of age-related artifacts and has obviously been given some consideration in preparation for this hi-def release. The 5.1 DTS audio delivers some startling clarity; Julie London’s song and Hugo Friedhofer’s score sounding magnificent. Less impressive, Sophia Loren’s dialogue, infrequently grating and strident. Extras are limited to trailers for this movie and a few others starring Loren that Kino Lorber is hoping to market. Bottom line: Boy on a Dolphin is a middling effort. The Blu-ray is as unprepossessing. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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