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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Cinemascope's Tour Ends Here --- Part One

A lot of 20th Fox Cinemascope was travelogues that only incidentally told a story, to which novelty besotted customers responded Give Us More! as record hits were made of Three Coins In a Fountain, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing and others that saved them air fare to places gloriously captured on newly-wide screens. Cinemascope avoided 3-D's flame-out for being not such an obvious gimmick, but like anything shiny and new, wore down as movies again were judged for content rather than size. Best Picture-winning Marty bespoke patronage done with vistas and little else, its award less recognition for modesty than rebuke to Hollywood's over-size to fit all. Fox began losing money on Cinemascope from a first anniversary of the process and The Egyptian celebrating same. 1955 would be back to business as usual of grosses made on merit, Cinemascope's crutch having been snatched from the patient.

Still there was hope that lightning could be pushed back in wide bottles. A short novel revolving around Greek treasure hunts was bought by Fox in mid-1955, this just off euphoria Three Coins and its Rome locale excited. Boy On A Dolphin was among ideas seemingly good at the time. Why not an exotic adventure filmed on sites not before captured, let alone by anamorphic cameras? Tense, lively, and good-humored was the book, said reviewers, so approach to its content seemed wide-open. Initial casting of Bob Hope suggested the humor, but that may have been more a joke on trades. By July '55 and serious reflection, there was Clifton Webb for menace with Joan Collins the menaced, then months-later possibility Robert Stack to romantic lead. How Boy On A Dolphin bloated from said manageable beginning was a saga typical of stars and expense frittering hope of Fox's eventual $3.3 million (over) investment coming back.

So many bad decisions came in the wake of Darryl Zanuck leaving Fox to pursue independent production. That happened in 1956, just as Boy On A Dolphin hoisted anchor on what would be six months spent shooting in Greece, then Rome, under direction of Jean Negulesco, whose previous trip to the latter yielded Three Coins In A Fountain. 20th production management now vested in Buddy Adler, his look and carriage ideal for studio chiefdom, even if he'd prove, in modern putdown terms, to be All Hat and No Cattle. Veteran producer/writer/directing talent saw Fox as treading water after Zanuck's departure. Few or none had confidence in Adler. East coast commander Spyros Skouras, kept at bay by DFZ, now moved in to implement his notions of pic making, creative walls easily breached with on-lot leadership now in a vacuum.

As was often case with shaky propositions, Boy On A Dolphin took out policies of star insurance. Director Negulesco was already filming Greek backgrounds when Alan Ladd was signed back home to play Dolphin's lead. Fox had scotched Gina Lollobrigida for fresher pasta Sophia Loren, proof if nothing else of inroads foreign pics had made since the war. Loren's casting promised a bonus of infatuated-with-her Cary Grant, willing to do another bad picture, it seemed, so long as it was with Loren (their just previous together was The Pride and The Passion). Grant's sudden withdrawal necessitated but-quick signing of Ladd, it being felt that Boy On A Dolphin needed top marquee bait to justify $ already splurged in Greece.

Ladd was paid, perhaps overpaid, with $275K up front (some put it at $325K), plus a percentage. Either way, Fox's largesse overlooked reality of Ladd's decline. Would Zanuck have approved this gift? Negulesco thought it crazed that Adler and administrators would pair 5'6'' (if that) Ladd with strapping Loren, 5'8'' or better stripped. Leading men were in any case interchangeable for much of what Fox shot wide during the fifties. Boy On a Dolphin might have seen profit had a cheaper-bought Dick Egan or Victor Mature paired with Loren. Either would certainly have been more credible in the clinches than a Ladd she could as readily toss over either shoulder.

There was an unfinished script, by-now customary for on-location Fox, Ivan Moffat being flown over to continue the writing barely ahead of cameras. Meanwhile, Fox was laying off employees at home. Projects scheduled for summer '56 had been postponed, leaving little to do on the lot. Department heads were told to trim staff, beginning on back-lots not being used thanks in part to Boy On a Dolphin's interiors being filmed in Rome, funds frozen by the Italian government thawed by virtue of shooting there.

Part Two of Boy On A Dolphin HERE.


Anonymous Mike said...

Interesting post. I have never seen BOY ON A DOLPHIN and all I know of it is Julie London's recording of the film's title song.

I would definitely peg Ladd as being on the downhill side of his career by this point, but maybe that's something that's much easier for us to see in hindsight than it was at the time. His is definitely not the first name to come to mind when I think of the ideal men to pair off with Sophia Loren.

4:16 PM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

I saw this movie a couple of times when I was a kid - and loved it. And Variety's annual list of box-office rentals that year pegged its domestic total as a healthy-looking 2.8 million (ahead of Disney's "Westward Ho! The Wagons" and just slightly behind "Tammy & the Bachelor", both of which seemed to me (at the time) to be very popular attractions. And, given the name value of Ladd and Loren abroad (his admittedly waning - but hers definitely on the rise), I'd have expected it to do really well overseas. So I was surprised at the indications from your post that "Boy on a Dolphin" was a money-loser. I do know, though, that I'd be far more likely to believe your box-office info ahead of what were probably just optimistic studio projections Fox fed to Variety. Anyway, I've rewatched the film a few times over the last year or so. and - you know - I still love it. Even though I've got to admit that Ladd is just a shell of his former self in the film - drifting through it looking sad, uncomfortable, unengaged and certainly miscast.
But liking Alan Ladd as much as I do (and he was still fully Alan Ladd onscreen even a year before), I find this actually adds a poignant gravity to the proceedings. As for the rest of the film, I've only got undiluted praise for it. The story's absorbing; a lot of the dialogue's right on the money. Loren's amazing - an earthy, endearing and comically sharp leading lady who made most of her 1958 Hollywood counterparts look pretty pallid. And why doesn't Clifton Webb get more credit for his portrayal here? I'd rank it very near his best performances (which, for me, would be in "The Razor's Edge" and "Titanic"). His final scene and final line are classic. Furthermore Greece has seldom been so ravishingly photographed. I've replayed those fantastic opening credits over and over again. And remain transfixed. Plus the wonderful score (a mix of Hugo Friedhofer and largely uncredited Greek sources) makes for a great experience even on its own. You can purchase the soundtrack on itunes, by the way. It's a honey.
Anyway, just wanted to let you hear from someone who's a fan of this picture. And - you know what - I suspect there are lots of others out there.

9:53 PM  
Anonymous Ken said...

My initial attempt to comment got lost in cyberspace. And when I dashed it off a second time, I missed a couple of points I meant to make. My affection for "Boy on a Dolphin" isn't just based on stars, scenery and score. I actually find the plot - with its characters all at cross-purposes - pretty absorbing. And - to my mind - a lot of the dialogue's sharply written and delivered. Of course, the movie's title is beautiful. And the central motif of the priceless artifact buried for centuries beneath the sea - well, that's something I just find hard to resist.

2:59 AM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Webb is wonderful, and makes anything watchable! Too bad he was married to Fox -- if he were a freelancer, there were so many wonderful pictures that would've been perfect for him (including De Witt in All About Eve).

Good Lord, look at Ladd. He certainly looks as if his leading man days were well behind him. I must confess that his appeal has always been a mystery to me. He always seemed like Dana Andrews lite...

1:39 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

im truly enjoying your posts, ive reread most of the older ones, full of colour and passion and insight. "boy on a dolphin" is a film i could scarcely tolerate for years, but i revisited it last night, thanks to your post, and because im on an alan ladd kick, and i was surprised how i responded to a viewing of the "full" picture (ie letterboxed version). the opening shots are relatively stunning, indeed, as is loren. i won't comment on the plot, or ladds sad demeanour as thats been done. but it reminds me that ones response to any film is heavily dictated by personal mood, time and place, not to mention presentation. generations who watched these films on TV were robbed. as a direct result of rediscovering 'dolphin', im revisiting another negulesco fox cinemascopic 'epic' ive previously abhorred - "rains of ranchipur", this time in widescreen. here's hoping! by the way, where do you get your box office figures? variety's website? are they online? im intrigued!

7:41 AM  

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