Heller in Pink Tights (DVD Review)12 Oct, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Sophia Loren, Anthony Quinn, Steve Forrest, Margaret O’Brien.
The mere idea of George Cukor directing a Louis L’Amour Western (or any Western) will always shake up my day, and I have to say that I’ve just enjoyed this box office underperformer with a large budget more than on previous viewings. Which included: a Museum of Modern Art showing in the early ’70s (where they couldn’t get a 35mm print) and my own showing at the AFI not too many years later (where we did). Purely on a visual level, this is one gorgeous-looking movie deserving of Criterion-level remastering — yet its relative obscurity and a dramatic payoff possibly too modest for the outdoor demographic means that what we’re getting is a Warner on-demand reissue of a Paramount title, sans much polishing.
As it turns out, the Cukor angle made sense because this is a different kind of Western: one about an 1880s acting troupe whose finances are as threadbare the actors’ costumes. As a result, the ensemble’s covered wagon is forced to dodge pursuing Nebraska creditors until the Wyoming state line is reached — at which point, it then dodges creditors in Wyoming. So, OK: no one will ever put the result on the level of Jean Renoir’s thematically comparable The Golden Coach, but this does have some easy-to-take interplay between Anthony Quinn and, turns out, a dominant Sophia Loren. And despite Tony’s two supporting Oscars by that time, Loren even landed top-billing here amid that 1957-60 attempt to make her a Hollywood star — just before the Oscar-winning triumph back in Italy for Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (followed immediately, bang-bang, by El Cid). As it turned out, none of these earlier U.S. releases hit much with the public aside from Houseboat opposite Cary Grant — and following popular El Cid, the anemic box office continued on this side of the ocean. I can’t name many performers of Loren’s acting stature (we’ll leave physical stature out of this) who headlined so many Hollywood fizzles — not that she was in any way to blame beyond choice of material.
Heller’s other male role of note goes to Steve Forrest (younger brother of Dana Andrews), whose career, I’ve always speculated, never quite recovered from his Sequoia-caliber woodenness in 1955’s Bedevilled, which still has the feel of a “big break” gone stinky. Forrest comes off here as well as I’ve ever seen him playing a hired gun with an eye-twinkle, one whose lack of real malevolence fits in with the movie’s light tone (the same year as Heller, he played Elvis’s half-brother in Don Siegel’s cult-magnet Flaming Star). You can’t say that Cukor cast this one in any way lazily: We get Margaret O’Brien in the most notable of her rare grownup roles on the big screen — plus silent star Ramon (Ben-Hur himself) Navarro in his final theatrical feature as a crooked moneybags, about eight years before he was beaten to death in real life by a couple hustlers (which, as I recall, made the front page in my Midwest town, prurience being what it was and is).
For a director long identified with small-screen black-and-white movies at predominantly MGM, Cukor adapted on a dime to widescreen and color about as proficiently as anyone who immediately comes to mind. Heller is in 1.85:1, not Scope, but it continued Cukor’s association with the great color consultant /technical advisor (George) Hoyningen-Huene, which began with 1954’s A Star Is Born and continued through The Chapman Report eight years later. The two have a lot of fun filling the screen with some voltage-heavy apparel in the stage scenes; in these, ringleader Quinn’s cast tries bringing culture to the rustics in the audience, who just want to see Loren in … well, tights, if that’s the most they can get. And when the Indians attack (this is Louis L’Amour, after all), they have a grand old time plundering the players’ travelling wagon for colorful scarves and other duds that O’Brien’s mother (Eileen Heckart) is always trying to revitalize with needle and thread.
As was often true in his later career, Cukor was reportedly off-put by the studio’s editing — and it’s true that despite two name screenwriters (Dudley Nichols in his swan song, along with Walter Bernstein), the story doesn’t quite cohere as well as one might hope, though it does hang together better than I remembered. But if O’Brien certainly could have been given more to do (her character has a case on twice-her-age Quinn), this is a very good role for Loren — who, even at this stage of her career, had already co-starred with Quinn in Italy’s Attila (whose drive-in showings my local rock radio station promoted heavily) and Paramount’s Mob-widow drama The Black Orchid. It’s interesting when you go back and look at the Italian films that got thrust its sex-bomb lead actresses into the international arena — and by coincidence I’ve just seen The Gold of Naples (with Loren and Silvana Mangano) plus Bread, Love and Dreams and sequel Frisky (both with Gina Lollobrigida). All three, turns out, could really act in their native language — though Loren also registered exceptionally in English, which perhaps gave her an edge.