Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: HOUSEBOAT (1958)

Cary Grant and Sophia Loren make a charming pair in Melville Shavelson's romantic comedy, Houseboat (1958), which earned Oscar nominations for both its screenplay and the song, "Almost in Your Arms." Their chemistry is hardly surprising, given that Grant had fallen hard for Loren during the filming of The Pride and the Passion (1957), but the real life romance was even more complicated than the protagonists' love affair in the film. Grant fans who know the story will find Houseboat worth watching for its stars alone, but the picture doesn't rely solely on the considerable sex appeal of its two leads. In addition to Grant's smoldering interest in his leading lady, Houseboat offers some real laughs, several very solid supporting performances, and a believably bittersweet family story about a father trying to connect with his three grieving children.

Grant plays Tom Winters, a busy government employee whose impending divorce is derailed when his estranged wife dies in an accident. Tom returns home to claim his three children rather than let his wife's family raise them, even though the youngsters regard him with suspicion and hostility. To appease them, he engages the attractive Cinzia (Sophia Loren) as a maid, although she's really a runaway Italian socialite looking for freedom from her overbearing father (Eduardo Ciannelli). The awkward family group ends up inhabiting a dilapidated houseboat, where Tom and Cinzia develop their relationships with the children and each other.

Grant, thirty years Loren's senior, still manages to pull off the virility and charm needed to make him a credible romantic interest, not only to Cinzia but to Tom's lovestruck sister-in-law, Carolyn (Martha Hyer). Perhaps Loren's continental air narrows our sense of the divide; she might be young, but she's no ingenue, and she radiates a knowing sensuality to match her impressive figure. Cinzia knows how to handle men, even the ardent Angelo (Harry Guardino), who pursues her relentlessly until he realizes she's the kind of woman who makes a man think of marriage. The fuse to light the protagonists' flame is a slow-burning one, giving them time to size one another up and consider their options, but once it lights it blazes through the final scenes of the picture.

The supporting performances from the three children help to sell the family side of the story, with each child enjoying a few key scenes in which to shine. Charles Herbert takes the early spotlight as Robert, especially since the opening credits offer us his perspective of the world. Mimi Gibson is the most emotionally mature of the three as the daughter, Elizabeth, even though her fear of thunder sends her seeking refuge in her father's bed. Paul Peterson slowly unfolds the grief and confusion of the oldest child, David, who has taken to stealing things in the wake of his mother's death. Each of the young actors reveals the complicated emotions of children who have lost their mother and don't know what to make of the stranger their father has become. The pathos of their situation is never laid on too thick, and it doesn't weigh the lighter elements of the picture down, but it gives Houseboat more heart than other Cary Grant vehicles like Indiscreet (1958) or Charade (1963).

For more from writer and director Melville Shavelson, you might try The Seven Little Foys (1955), The Five Pennies (1959), or Yours, Mine and Ours (1968); he and Jack Rose also wrote the screenplays for films like It's a Great Feeling (1949), On Moonlight Bay (1951), and the Cary Grant picture, Room for One More (1952). See more of Sophia Loren in Two Women (1960), El Cid (1961), and Marriage Italian Style (1964). Mimi Gibson appears in The Children's Hour (1961) and provides the voice of Lucky in 101 Dalmatians (1961), Charles Herbert has a significant role in The Fly (1958), and Paul Peterson can be found on The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966). Cary Grant didn't play fathers very often, but for more familial images of the star, try Penny Serenade (1941), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), and Room for One More.