In honor of the Oscars this Sunday, I decided this week to dig up a sunny vintage film to chase away the blues on this wet dreary day. The choice? 1958’s Cary Grant and Sophia Loren’s romantic comedy-drama vehicle Houseboat which was Oscar®-nominated for Best Original Story and Screenplay!
Filmed in color, the film begins with a largely estranged father Tom Winters (Cary Grant) coming from Europe where he conducts business to collect his three children from their Aunt Carolyn’s plush manor on the Chesapeake after the death of his wife, her sister, in an automobile accident. He had been separated from his wife for some time, and had largely been absent from his child’s lives for some three to four years. Since their mother’s death the children have each been exhibiting particular behaviors; David the eldest (played by Paul Petersen who has an uncanny resemblance to Cary Grant) has developed kleptomaniac inclinations, the middle child Elizabeth can’t sleep at night, and the youngest, seven year old Robert has become incredibly sullen, stubborn and developed a liking to playing the harmonica. His proclamation of “I hate everybody. I hate everybody in the whole wide world” in the opening scene while twirling around is both incredibly funny, but also rather heartbreaking.
It is Robert who is truly the most important of all the children; the catalyst in that he runs away from their father after he takes them to Washington DC, and in an attempt to amuse them, takes them to a symphony concert. Robert hides on a row-boat following the concert where Loren’s Cinzia, , the spoiled daughter of that night’s featured conductor subsequently steals to get away from her overbearing and overprotective father. Robert comes out of hiding. While sullen, Robert still hasn’t lost his boyishness and the two shortly become friends and Cinzia eventually returns Robert to his father. Robert wants her to stay as their maid. Tom asks her to be his children’s maid or governess and she rejects the offer, only to return the next morning to accept.
The titular houseboat doesn’t appear until forty minutes into the movie; the family is meant to move into their Aunt Carolyn’s former guest house which was supposed to be moved to a new lot, but it subsequently gets crushed by a train. The inept mover responsible for its destruction, Angelo, offers them the use of the houseboat and that’s where the comedy antics and true love story start to form. The fact the titular plot-device arrives so late in the film is an intriguing decision but one really doesn’t notice its late arrival since the movie is so breezy the pacing doesn’t particularly feel like its been that long.
The movie is charming watching both the severely tanned Loren and Cary Grant (rather aged and wrinkled) banter and spat with great chemistry and Loren’s natural magnetism. There is no wonder Cary Grant was head over heels in love with her in real life. Compared to modern family and romantic comedy films the film is restrained never quite reaching exaggerated levels of slapstick and bawdiness that one may be used to, but the resulting tone is consistent and butter smooth. While mainly full of fluffy wish fulfillment and what could be seen as upper middle class 1%er “white people problems” the film does have a very realistic side concerning family, trauma and how a parents actions affect children and the mending of that bond. Even the richer Aunt Carolyn is unlucky in love, estranged from her own absent husband whom she does proceed to divorce and her stifled and ultimately unrequited affections for her brother-in-law Tom. The children; David, Elizabeth and Robert are all rather well cast; they look like they could be Cary Grant’s children and while mouthy in that 1950’s child actor way, they don’t appear too artificial unlike other films of the period and are more realistically caustic and have moments of pretty sharp clarity and an honest manner.
Loren is beautiful and charismatic as Cinzia and is amazing with the children. Her relationship with Robert, whom she calls affectionately Roberto is perhaps the true “romance” of the movie, if you can call it that. One forgets Loren was so young in the movie; she and her character where both twenty-two years old. For the modern viewer Cinzia’s dress and composure may seem much older than that, mainly due to societal shifts; girls today are allowed to act much younger and dress much younger and more casual than they were in the 1950’s. By the time you were twenty-two you were certainly firmly an adult.
Regardless if you enjoy refined comedy and romantic comedies or prefer a more kid-friendly family film, you will surely enjoy this film as it can fit the bill for either demographic; it is warm, summery, quirky and charming especially for those who live on the East Coast and know what summers on the Chesapeake and on the Atlantic bays and coasts are like. For those who live land locked; this is a great escapist romp through the Maryland and Virginia maritime. It is perfect for a hot summer evening or like tonight, a cold and dreary one, as it can be either refreshing or utterly warming. Highly recommended! è bello!
Staff Writer/The Doctor