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It Started in Naples

Director: Melville Shavelson
Cast: Clark Gable, Sophia Loren

(US DVD: 10 Jun 2014)

As he explains in his narration, American banker Mike Hamilton (Clark Gable) has come to Naples to settle the estate of his brother, who died in a boating accident. A local attorney (Vittoria De Sica) reveals that the brother died with a girlfriend, leaving behind their illegitimate son, little Nando (played by the single-named Marietto, mugging adorably). Nando lives on the island of Capri with his Aunt Lucia (Sophia Loren), a gorgeous and strangely unattached nightclub performer who dotes on the boy because “he’s all she has”. Neither of them seem to be doing much grieving over the dead couple.


Since eight-year-old Nando lives as a grubby urchin hustling the tourists, smoking cigarettes, and staying up all night without going to school, Uncle Mike would like to take custody and raise him at the American School in Rome. As unlikely as this set-up seems, you can write the rest of the story from there, including all the arguments and delays that exist in romantic movies simply because people don’t speak intelligently to each other or else the thing would be over in half an hour.


The movie’s certainly predictable and unless you’re a fan of the actors, there’s no special reason to seek out this inessential bauble. That said, there are a couple of interesting points here.


This is a postcard picture with ravishing shots of Capri, though the Blue Grotto scene looks fake. The photographer is the great Robert L. Surtees, whose 16 Oscar nominations include films as diverse as Oklahoma, Ben-Hur (a win), The Graduate, The Last Picture Show and The Sting. Surely it’s easy to make Capri look glorious, but even indoor and non-spectacle scenes look bright and colorful, and that’s a largely a function of the film’s design.


The movie deserved its Oscar nomination for art direction and sets, and I suspect much of the glory for those blue and red color schemes belongs to the un-nominated Vogue photographer credited thus: “Titles Created by Color Coordinator Hoyningen-Huene”. Those retina-popping credits should be listed as “Color Contrasting” as you can hardly even name the shocking hues.


He took similar jobs on The Chapman Report and A New Kind of Love, two other breathlessly colorful movies of the early ‘60s. That last title, like It Started in Naples, is directed by Melville Shavelson; its view of Americans in Europe is significantly sillier, but he knew a great color coordinator when he paid one.


One element of the movie’s design is that virtually every scene is packed with dozens, nay hundreds of people milling around in all kinds of outfits from skimpy to colorful to official to religious. Were they all color coordinated? They can’t all be paid extras, because many of them stare at the camera, making this a snapshot of a particular time and place in the burgeoning postwar tourist industry that yielded lots of “European vacation” movies from Hollywood at this time.


Try this one on a triple-feature with Come September (Rock Hudson, Gina Lollabrigida) and Rome Adventure (Suzanne Pleshette, Troy Donahue). Then counter-act them with Purple Noon, the first film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley. These were all made within a few years of each other.


Aside from the sometimes delirious shine, there’s something bubbling not too far under the surface of the contrived shenanigans: contrasting philosophies of America (embodied in a brisk Philadelphia banker and ex-soldier) and Italy, or least Naples, populated by people whose livelihoods depend on the swarms of tourists from America and elsewhere. The Italians consent to their own exploitation and make it mutual, but they partly resent it.


Sometimes this is expressed through mild satire, like Lucia’s performance of “Tu vuo’ fa’ Americano” (“You want to be Americano”), with its lyrics about “whiskey and soda and rock and roll”. Sometimes the superficial nonsense takes a bigger bite, as when Lucia screams to her neighbors that a rich American wants to kidnap her nephew. This causes one man to shout down to Mike: “Get out of the Middle East! All you want is oil! Oil! Oil! Oil!” Perhaps that was good-natured ribbing in 1960, though it doesn’t feel like it.


While based on an idea by British comedy writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies, the screenplay credit goes to Shavelson, producer Jack Rose, and a woman named Suso Cecchi d’Amico, who is listed in a way to imply that the other two went over (or fiddled with) her original script. Shavelson and Rose collaborated on several movies, working a lot with Bob Hope and Danny Kaye. They starred Loren in a previous, rather better romantic comedy, Houseboat with Cary Grant.


I’m guessing that the script’s glimpses of “meat”, those moments that come close to insight or criticism, belong to Cecchi d’Amico, arguably the most important writer in postwar Italian cinema. As responsible as any director for neorealism, she wrote for pretty much everybody, including De Sica, Visconti, Fellini, Zeffirelli, Monicelli, Antonioni, and Rosi.


When Mike overhears American tourists taking him for one of them and repeating the same judgments he made in the opening scenes, he knows he’s undergone a change that allies him with his late “lazy, irresponsible so-and-so” of a brother, who left his wife and moved to Italy ten years earlier. Mike himself had been conducting an exasperating long-distance wedding plan for “tax reasons”. The movie uses noisy Italy to argue that the character who most needs to change is Mike, even though he’s been trying to remodel Nando and Lucia to suit his own ideas.


This links the film to a strand of escapist pictures, including Summertime with Katharine Hepburn, about uptight, clockwatching Americans seduced by the supposedly looser, freer, laxer ways of Italy. For more complex romantic negotiations and exploitations between the Old and New Worlds, check the 1962 classic Light in the Piazza.


This sparkling print of It Started in Naples is a new made-on-demand disc from Warner Archive, and it’s a straight reissue of the 2005 Paramount DVD.

Rating:

Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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