Review: The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969)

>> Saturday, April 30, 2011

USA/C-140m./Dir: Stanley Kramer/Wr: William Rose & Ben Maddow (based on a Robert Crichton novel)/Cast: Anthony Quinn (Italo Bombolini), Anna Magnani (Rosa), Virna Lisi (Caterina Malatesta), Hardy Krüger (Capt. Von Prum), Sergio Franchi (Tufa), Renato Rascel (Babbaluche), Giancarlo Giannini (Fabio)

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Stanley Kramer was Hollywood’s message man, having directed such sober, thought-provoking fare as The Defiant Ones (1958), On the Beach (1959), Inherit the Wind (1960), and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). However, L.A.’s most moralistic auteur was also capable of working in a lighter tone, as evidenced by his 1963 mega-comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. After that foray into slapstick, Kramer combined his didactic moralizing with light comedy for the fondly remembered (but merely passable) interracial love story Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and then again (more successfully this time) for the forgotten vino-centric gem The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969).

The latter film is set during World War II in the small wine-producing village of Santa Vittoria. When news reaches the town that Prime Minister Benito Mussolini has died, the municipality’s biggest lush, Italo Bombolini (Anthony Quinn), climbs the water tower to paint over the name of the fascist leader. This act of drunken courage prompts the townspeople to imprison their fascist counselmen and elect Bombolini their new mayor. While Bombolini initially enjoys the respect that comes with his new position, he finds headaches aplenty when the German army threatens to occupy and loot the town. The thought of losing the stores of 1,317,000 bottles of wine fills the town’s wino-in-chief with dread, so he concocts a plan to hide a million bottles from the invading Nazis.

Running 140 minutes, The Secret of Santa Vittoria comes across as a bit bloated. The main problem is the film tries to cover too many storylines--the plot to fool the Nazis, Bombolini’s estrangement from his wife (Anna Magnani), an affair between the local Contessa (Virna Lisi) and an army deserter (Sergio Franchi), what to do with the imprisoned Fascists, etc. The picture’s pace is also a bit too languid at times, especially during the romantic subplots. However, the positives far outweigh the negatives in this enjoyable, lighthearted serio-comedy.

Chief amongst the movie’s merits is Anthony Quinn’s bombastic, big-hearted performance as Bombolini, which consistently pushes the picture back into gear every time it begins to drag. While Quinn is a formidable spotlight-stealer, much of the cast matches his energy, especially Anna Magnani as his ball-busting wife, Renato Rascel as Bombolini’s right-hand man on the town counsel, and a youthful Giancarlo Giannini as a rabble-rousing college student. Hardy Krüger also makes a fine antagonist as the semi-civilized Nazi commander, Captain Sepp Von Prum.

The technical aspects of the movie are also quite accomplished, including beautiful cinematography from frequent Fellini collaborator Giuseppe Rotunno and music from It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World composer Ernest Gold. The lushness in the look and feel of the film makes even the slowest sections of the story enjoyable to watch.

Soused cinema enthusiasts are strongly encouraged to seek out this lesser-known gem. It goes down nicely with several goblets of a full-bodied red.

Drinks Consumed--Wine and more wine

Intoxicating Effects--Sneakin sips, depression, public disturbance, and hangover

Potent Quotables--VON PRUM: Where’s the wine?
BOMBOLINI: Sir, I have told you. I promise you. There is no wine.

Video Availability--The Secret of Santa Vittoria - Widescreen DVD (United Artists)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--The residents of Todday, a small island off the coast of Scotland, race to save 50,000 cases of whiskey from a sinking ship in Whisky Galore (a.k.a. Tight Little Island, 1949).


Review: The Country Girl (1954)

>> Saturday, April 2, 2011

USA/B&W-104m./Dir: George Seaton/Wr: George Seaton (based on the play by Clifford Odets)/Cast: Bing Crosby (Frank Elgin), Grace Kelly (Georgie Elgin), William Holden (Bernie Dodd), Anthony Ross (Phillip Cook), Gene Reynolds (Larry), Jacqueline Fontaine (Lounge singer)

Genial crooner B-B-B-Bing Crosby and porcelain princess Grace Kelly took 180-degree turns from their familiar screen personas for the Hollywood adaptation of the Clifford Odets’ play, The Country Girl. Crosby set aside his easy-going charm to dive into darker Lost Weekend-esque emoting, while Kelly de-glamorized as his dowdy, long-suffering wife. Both the risky performances and the soapy story (a drunken has-been attempting one last shot at the big time) had the luster of assured Oscar-bait. As expected, both Der Bingle and the princess scored Academy Award nominations, and Kelly even took home the coveted statuette.

The story centers upon a Broadway musical in the making. When the star of the production is fired, the show’s director, Bernie Dodd (William Holden) gambles on hiring Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby), a washed-up, balding actor-singer with a bad reputation as an unreliable boozer. In hiring Elgin, Bernie discovers that the alky’s domineering wife Georgie (Grace Kelly) comes as part of the package. While the woman-hating director blames the Missus for Elgin’s weaknesses, in reality, she is only thing keeping the actor from slipping into a pit of self-loathing and depression. Will Georgie be able to keep Frank’s fragile psyche from unraveling or is another bender in the offing? Actually, it’s all rather predictable.

In many ways, The Country Girl has not aged well. The script (which won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) is trite and overly melodramatic, employing obvious plot contrivances such as the loss of a child, the love triangle, and the triumph over personal demons. The soapiness of the story isn’t helped by the fact that director George Seaton occasionally lets his actors stray too far into histrionics. In addition, the play within a play, “The Land Around Us,” which the company is trying to mount, consistently comes across as a turkey. It is hard to believe that any star, let alone a broken-down drunk, could breathe life into a musical with no memorable songs. The only musical number that truly shines in the film is an impromptu number that has nothing to do with the show in question--a drunken duet in a bar between Bing and lounge-singer Jacqueline Fontaine.

The Country Girl remains watchable today mainly due to the curiosity value of Bing and Grace’s against-type performances. While both can be caught acting at times, it is interesting seeing each of them in an unfamiliar context. Overall, the experiment is a success. However, the one truly great performance in the film is given by William Holden, one of the most reliable screen actors in Hollywood history.

While The Country Girl is a bit of a slog at times, there is enough that is interesting and good in the picture to ultimately recommend it. It also is an important title in the “alcohol-as-disease” canon, which should be enough reason for soused cinema enthusiasts to give it a once-over.

Drinks Consumed--Beer, 44-proof cough medicine, and whiskey

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, depression, harmonizing, public disturbance, destruction of property, and jail time

Potent Quotables--BERNIE: Frank, there are as many reasons for drinking as there are drinkers, but there are only two reasons why a drinker stops--he dies or he decides to quit, all by himself.

Video Availability--The Country Girl DVD (Paramount)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Bing and Grace re-teamed in 1956 for High Society, the champagne-soaked remake of The Philadelphia Story (1940).

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About Me

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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