Mamma Mia! ‘Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell’ Explains How to Have Three Fathers

Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell is a '60s sex comedy in which the characters actually have sex.

Have you heard the one about the mother who has to tell her grown daughter that she doesn’t know which one of three men is her father? You’ve probably heard of it under the name Mamma Mia, the ABBA musical. Less well-remembered is Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, a Hollywood comedy shot in Italy at the dawn of the MPAA’s rating system. This means it’s a sex comedy in which the characters have actually, at some point, had sex — and in some cases are even having it now, as opposed to merely talking about the possibility of threatening to have it.

Mrs. Campbell (Gina Lollobrogida) was a virginal 16 during the war, freshly orphaned, when her home was used to billet a succession of American soldiers. She “comforted” three of them in a serial monogamy of ten days’ duration. Upon discovering her pregnancy, she wrote to all three men and gave them to understand (each unbeknownst to the others) that they owed her child support — and they all paid for 20 years. In her home village, she concocted a story about being the widow of an imaginary soldier named Campbell, named after the soup. Now, their regiment is holding a reunion and each man wants to meet “his” daughter (lovely Janet Margolin), who is clueless about all this.

The men are played by Phil Silvers (mugging all over the place), Telly Savalas (generally angry and insecure) and Peter Lawford (tired and dapper), while their respective wives are Shelley Winters (typically perfect in a shrill role), Lee Grant (generally angry and frustrated) and Marian Moses (chic but ignored). Philippe Leroy plays Mrs. Campbell’s moody employee and boytoy, who bickers a lot over being a kept man. He proves that Mrs. Campbell’s still got it (or is still getting it), and we also learn that the daughter is carrying on with a married professor. The Americans are all weary and, typically of the waning Hollywood, back away from offers of immediate sex, never wanting what they might have.

The producer-director is Melvin Frank, who also co-wrote it with Dennis Norden and Sheldon Keller. Frank was a comedy veteran who worked a lot with Bob Hope and Danny Kaye, and he’d directed Lollobrigida in Strange Bedfellows with Rock Hudson. The script is very well-constructed and the story is good; its only weak element is blunt, unfunny dialogue, but the actors were directed to cover for it by screaming their lines and mugging. The scenes are staged smoothly in beautiful, colorful settings, shot gracefully by Gabor Pogany, with the editor periodically inserting those mugging close-ups. More pleasing to the ear is Riz Ortolani’s score, a set of bouncy variations on the title song and a few riffs on American classics.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray presentation is very attractive. The relatively subdued Technicolor matches the late ’60s, although we must wonder if a restoration would bring it out more. The only extra is the trailer, which runs through the whole story using the split-screen style that was epidemic in 1968; we’re surprised there are no examples of it in the movie.

RATING 6 / 10