I’ve been a part of many incredible blogathons during the three years that I’ve been writing for Musings of a Classic Film Addict, mostly paying tribute to specific stars of yesteryear. Still, there have always been blogathon concepts that have made me wish that I had been the one to think of them first, and The Marathon Stars Blogathon was definitely one of them. I first discovered the blogathon earlier this year, and learned that in 2016, bloggers were encouraged to choose a classic film actor or actress whose work they had never (or had seldom) seen before, and watch and review at least five of their films. I admired this idea, but I was three years too late to join in on the fun. Only a short time later, I began discussing what would eventually become The Jean Harlow Blogathon with Virginie, one of my favorite bloggers and author of The Wonderful World of Cinema, and she informed me that she would be bringing back The Marathon Stars Blogathon this year with Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood! I was so delighted by this news, and even more delighted when they invited me to co-host the amazing event this time around!
Now that the blogathon was back in business, I have to admit that thinking of an Old Hollywood star to focus on was trickier than usual. I’ve been a classic film fan for years now, and I’ve reached the point in my cinema discovery that I’ve either seen over three films of any given star, or if I haven’t, it’s because I haven’t cared to or don’t have access to their work. It took quite a lot of pondering for me to even think of an actor or actress who I wasn’t entirely familiar with, but who I also admired enough to sit through at least five movies that featured them. I was nearly ready to give up on finding a star who miraculously fit both requirements until I found the answer right on my bathroom wall. You see, since I moved into my new apartment, I thought that some great decoration for the otherwise blank white walls of my bathroom would be some vintage beauty advertisements. It’s a work in progress, but so far I have four beside my mirror from 1953: Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Esther Williams, and Pier Angeli. I’m more than familiar with the first three actresses, but it wasn’t until I really gave the matter some thought that I realized that I’d only seen Pier in one film, and it was Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), which wasn’t even the movie featured in the ad! I’ve always been interested in the ethereal Italian beauty, but I had never taken the time to really figure out who she was beyond “James Dean’s girlfriend” or “Vic Damone’s wife”. More than that, I knew that there were over two dozen accessible movies of hers that I’d never seen, and it was then that I knew that she was meant to be the subject of my marathon.
The Story of Three Loves (1953)
As soon as I had chosen to watch Pier’s films, I knew that it would be pretty ridiculous to not discover the picture that’s depicted on the Pier advertisement that I own, The Story of Three Loves (1953). The movie is shown in three separate vignettes, with each section telling a different type of love story. The first, “The Jealous Lover”, tells the tale of Paula Woodward (Moira Shearer), a ballet dancer who learns that she has a heart condition that will threaten her life if she continues to dance. Fate steps in and tempts her to risk everything when she meets revered ballet maestro Charles Courday (James Mason), who seems to believe in her abilities and loves her at first sight. The second, “Mademoiselle”, shows a privileged eleven-year-old boy named Thomas Campbell (Ricky Nelson) who’s tired of being fawned over by his French governess, the romantic and idealistic Mademoiselle (Leslie Caron). When he meets a witch who magically turns him into an adult (Farley Granger) for one night, he finds his governess in Paris and realizes that the qualities that he had loathed about her as a child have now drawn him to her.
Pier Angeli is the star of the third and final story, titled “Equilibrium”, alongside Kirk Douglas. “Equilibrium” begins with a depressed Nina Burkhardt (Pier Angeli), who attempts suicide by jumping off of a bridge into the River Seine. She’s quickly rescued by Pierre Naval (Kirk Douglas), though at first he wants no recognition for his good deed or any contact with Nina after saving her life. Finally he visits her in the hospital, and after getting to know her, he invites her to visit him after she is released. She does so, if not for any reason other than that she has nowhere else to go, and while there she learns that Pierre was once a famed trapeze artist. He admires the fact that Nina has no fear of dying, and he believes that her courage makes her the perfect candidate to be his new partner. She agrees despite his friends’ warnings and despite learning that Pierre’s obsession with perfection and attempting death-defying stunts cost his former partner his life. The pair train while falling for each other at the same time, and their hard work culminates in their most dangerous feat, “The Leap of Death”, in which Nina blindly jumps through a paper screen into Pierre’s arms on the trapeze, without any help from a safety net. Will they succeed, or will Nina’s love for Pierre make her value her life enough to make a fatal mistake?
I was truly impressed by this film. I found some issues with the thought of an eleven-year-old boy in a man’s body falling for his governess in “Mademoiselle”, but “The Jealous Lover” and “Equilibrium” were both sublime. While Pier was more of an object of Paul Newman’s affection in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), The Story of Three Loves (1953) really gives her an opportunity to shine without fully depending on her male lead in her scenes, though I have to admit that Pier and Kirk still ooze chemistry. This particular plot allows for some really tender and intimate moments as Pierre and Nina put full trust in each other on the trapeze, which is why I wasn’t too surprised to learn that Kirk Douglas and Pier Angeli were actually engaged during the film’s production. They truly look like they belong together onscreen, and every scene feels genuine. It even appeared to me that Kirk and Pier did the majority of their own stunts for the picture, which was such a delight to see. For the few shots that required a stunt double, clever camera angles and editing were used, far better than those of most other features that I’ve seen from the same time period. All in all, The Story of Three Loves (1953) was a fantastic introduction to Pier’s work, and I was excited to discover more of her films as my marathon continued.
For the second movie of my marathon, I watched Pier in her American film debut, Teresa (1951). It begins with Phillip Cass (John Ericson), an introverted young man who discusses his life with a psychologist (Rod Steiger) as he struggles to find work. He talks about his belief that his henpecked father (Richard Bishop) and his overbearing mother (Patricia Collinge) affected his current disposition, and that his first attempt to leave home was when he was reluctantly drafted into World War II. The war was an arduous experience for Phillip, but while his superior Sergeant Dobbs (Ralph Meeker) made an admirable attempt to toughen him up, he gained little confidence during his time on the front lines in Italy. If any good came out of his deployment, it was meeting angelic local Teresa Russo (Pier Angeli), the daughter of the family that housed his platoon. After being injured in battle, Phillip returns to Teresa’s village and marries her, but immigration laws on top of his desire to get a job and earn a place for the couple to call their own lead to Phillip returning to America without his bride. Once he returns to the States, he moves back in with his family, waiting for the right time to tell them about his marriage as he pounds the pavement for work and sends for his wife. His mother accidentally finds out about the wedding soon afterwards and is immediately against any woman who threatens to take her son away from her, but when Teresa arrives, Mrs. Cass attempts to make the best of the situation in hopes that the newlyweds will continue to live with the family. When Phillip finds a job as a salesman, he realizes that he isn’t tenacious enough to make a success of the position, but when Teresa reveals that she’s pregnant, he realizes that he has to overcome his timid nature if he’s going to be able to provide for his new family.
When I first read the plot of this film, I expected that it would be focused more on Teresa’s struggle to adjust to life in America, and that the couple’s main conflict would be building a home for themselves after the war. I find that description to be somewhat misleading, as most of the movie focused on Phillip’s time in the war and needless battle sequences that had little bearing on the rest of the story. In fact, I don’t think a film named Teresa (1951) should have pushed Pier’s role to the back burner as much as it did, and I would have been far more interested if the plot put more focus on everything that she went through, from her starvation in Italy, her marriage to a foreigner, her long journey to a strange land, and giving birth to a child alone, away from her absent husband and her family. I didn’t think much of Phillip’s character at all, especially because it took nearly two hours for him to grow a backbone, and that was only after his wife endured every hardship without him. Still, Teresa (1951) was quite the box office success for MGM, earning $1,783,000 worldwide, and it was among the first of the studio’s productions to profit more from its overseas box office than it did in America. While Teresa (1951) had its drawbacks, there were also aspects of the film that I admired. For one thing, I think Fred Zinnemann’s documentary-like direction as well as the cinematography of this picture are phenomenal. Much of the shooting in Italy was done on location, which made for some shots of post-war Italy that were absolutely magnificent and reminiscent of one of Zinnemann’s earlier films that I admire, The Search (1948). Pier made the most of the part that she was given, and it’s no wonder that Teresa (1951) started her career along with that of Rod Steiger and John Ericson.
The Silver Chalice (1954)
Next up, I followed Teresa (1951) with The Silver Chalice (1954), a movie that I’d been curious to see before I even knew who Pier Angeli was. Today it’s known not only as the first film of legendary actor Paul Newman, but also as one of the most monumental flops in cinema history. If you give the biblical epic a chance, however, you’ll find that it’s about Basil (Paul Newman), an artist who is adopted by Ignatius (E.G. Marshall), a wealthy merchant who sees potential in Basil’s skills as a sculptor. When Ignatius dies, his jealous brother Linus (Herbert Rudley) attempts to erase all evidence that Basil was ever adopted, and as the new heir of Ignatius’ estate he sells the young man into slavery. His new masters force him to create priceless treasures for their shop, but they soon sell their servant to the highest bidder, who we find out is a Christian sent to set Basil free and escort him to Jerusalem, where he is commissioned by Joseph (Walter Hampden), one of Jesus’ disciples, to create a silver chalice adorned with the faces of Jesus and those closest to him that could house the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus drank at The Last Supper. Basil is eager to complete his task, but a multitude of challenges stand in his way. For one thing, he struggles with the obstacle of carving the face of the Messiah he has never seen, while at the same time the false prophet and magician Simon (Jack Palance) threatens to steal the cup in order to prove his strength and convince Christians to convert so they can fight for his own causes. To make things even more complicated for Basil, his former love Helena (Virginia Mayo), a slave who he helped escape from his childhood home, now works for Simon, and he finds himself still drawn to her while also falling in love with Deborra (Pier Angeli), the pious granddaughter of Joseph who shows him that there’s still faith and humanity in the world.
The Silver Chalice (1954) is better remembered for its shortcomings than it is for any particular aspects of its plot or characters. Paul Newman, the film’s lead, made it no secret that he loathed the production from the beginning, calling it “the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s”. What’s more, when the epic premiered on television in 1966, he even took out advertisements in a variety of newspapers, writing a sincere apology for his involvement and performance while urging the public to avoid the picture. I personally don’t think that it deserves nearly as much ridicule as it’s received over the last sixty-five years. If anything, the blame should go to director Victor Saville. This feature was the last that he would direct and it shows, as actresses like Virginia Mayo and Natalie Wood, who normally possessed worlds of talent, appeared at their worst here. The camera shots were glaringly lazy, and the coaching of the actors was nonexistent. I might be biased, but the silver linings of The Silver Chalice (1954) were Paul Newman and Pier Angeli, who seemed to be the only two cast members who belonged in the picture. Their performances perfectly suited the story and roles, and even after appearing in a flop of this magnitude, I can see why both of them went on to establish prominent careers in film. Just as Pier found real romance offscreen during the making of The Story of Three Loves (1953), Cupid found the actress once again on the set of The Silver Chalice (1954). While James Dean dodged a bullet by rejecting the role of Basil in this film, he had previously befriended Paul Newman during the audition process for East of Eden (1955) as both newcomers were finalists for the role of Cal Trask. While Dean was shooting scenes for East of Eden (1955) nearby, he decided to visit Paul on the set of The Silver Chalice (1954). While there, Dean caught sight of Newman’s leading lady Pier Angeli, which sparked a brief but intense romance that lead many today to consider James Dean the love of her life and vice versa.
The Light Touch (1951)
I continued my journey of discovering Pier Angeli’s work by watching a lesser-known feature called The Light Touch (1951). At the start of the film, we meet the ever-so-slick Sam Conride (Stewart Granger) as he waltzes into an Italian museum of art. Though the opening sequence is nearly silent, it doesn’t take long for us to figure out his plan: enter the gallery with an accomplice carrying an antique tapestry, pretend that he’s hanging the tapestry when he’s in fact cloaking a priceless Renaissance painting of Christ underneath the fabric, and make a clean getaway with the artwork in tow. The scheme is almost too ridiculous to be real, but with a crowded museum, a lot of luck, and the baffling concept that crime was much simpler in the fifties, and he executes the crime to perfection and takes possession of the painting, which was on loan from a Catholic church. The next step of Sam’s daring escape is by boat, which he sets ablaze as soon as he reaches a safe distance from the shore, but we soon learn that the thief’s plan isn’t completely foolproof when the inflatable raft that’s meant to escort him to safety instantly capsizes. We watch with both suspense and amazement at Sam’s plight as he navigates a flaming vessel to his destination without receiving the slightest burn. Once back on dry land, he encounters his partner, Felix Guignol (George Sanders), who’s brought along an obsessed buyer (Kurt Kasznar) with an offer of $100,000 for the painting. Sam shocks his partner and everyone else involved in the transaction when he “reveals” that the painting was destroyed in the fire, in spite of the truth that it’s still hidden in his possession. Of course Felix is infuriated by this news, but Sam softens the blow by devising yet another plan. Taking advantage of the fact that no one else knows about the painting’s destruction, the pair decide to forge copies of the artwork and sell them to private collectors, giving Sam the opportunity to sell the original on the side without being detected by anyone else involved. At the same time, Sam meets Anna Vasarri (Pier Angeli), a beautiful aspiring painter who just so happens to paint copies of existing works for fun. It takes a good deal of convincing and romancing, but eventually Anna agrees to create the forgeries for him. Her devotion to Sam grows deeper and deeper until eventually she has to choose between her love for him or her integrity, while Sam has to decide whether he’ll give in to the pursuit of profit or the one girl who might make him go straight.
If you’re thinking to yourself that the role of Sam seems like a part meant for Cary Grant, you’d be right. Grant was director Richard Brooks’ first choice to play the lead, and he ended up feeling quite disappointed that Stewart Granger was cast in the role. Granger’s reaction was mutual, as he was aware of how antagonistic Brooks was and held a grudge against the man after finding out that he had made his childhood hero, Ramón Novarro, cry on set years before. Granger later said in his autobiography that, “Making The Light Touch (1951) was fairly uneventful, and I knew as I made it that it would add nothing careerwise to anybody connected with it. Pier Angeli was adorable with an anxious mother in attendance at all times and Brooks was his apparently usual, unpleasant self.” The public didn’t seem to appreciate the finished product either, as it recorded a loss of $406,000, equivalent to $3.8 million today, but personally I think that audiences have been sleeping on this underrated heist drama. With twist after twist, I was certainly kept on my toes, and every single acting performance was something to admire. I went into this movie having negative experiences of Stewart Granger’s work onscreen, having seen him in Green Fire (1954) and Bhowani Junction (1956). To be blunt, he was an absolute bore in both pictures, and I expected nothing less from his performance in The Light Touch (1951), but I couldn’t have been more mistaken. He tackles the part with ease, bringing more charm and wit than he has to any other film that I’ve seen him in. In all honesty, if you think you’ve seen Stewart Granger onscreen, think again! Even more delightful to watch was George Sanders as his usual gorgeous and devious self, and Pier Angeli as a painter turned art forger. It’s a role unlike anything she had done before, and she perfectly blended cuteness with tenacity, looking adorable in her artist’s smock while fiercely protecting the priceless art piece and the one she loves.
Spy in Your Eye (1965)
Before I knew it, I reached the final film of my Pier Angeli marathon. Considering the fact that Pier starred in nearly two dozen picures that were almost all brand-new to me, I had a lot to choose from, but as soon as I read the plot for Spy in Your Eye (1965), I knew that it would be a hilarious send-off to my quintet of this Italian beauty’s work. In this Eurospy feature clearly inspired by the James Bond series along with other movies of its day, Secret Agent Bert Morris (Brett Halsey) is sent by his superior, Colonel Lancaster (Dana Andrews) to surreptitiously venture into East Germany and retrieve Paula Krauss (Pier Angeli), the daughter of a scientist and inventor of a powerful death ray. Despite Paula’s claims to the contrary, it is believed that her father entrusted her with the instructions for how to assemble and operate the machine, which puts her in grave danger as multiple intelligence agencies threaten to kidnap or kill her in order to extract this information. The mission is treacherous as Agent Morris battles all kinds of tactical forces using karate and elite weaponry. Meanwhile, yet another classified mission puts the Americans’ entire plan in jeopardy. While Colonel Lancaster awaits his agent’s return, he decides to replace his ordinary glass eye with one of finer quality, technologically designed to move in the same direction as his working eye. Unbeknownst to him, the clinic in which he’s undergoing the procedure is filled with Communist spies, who skillfully install a camera into this new eye so that they can track the Colonel’s every movement and intercept all of the sensitive information that he receives. Will Agent Morris successfully rescue Paula, or will Colonel Lancaster unknowingly commit treason and endanger her as well as his colleagues?
There are countless things that I can mention about Spy in Your Eye (1965), but this movie is honestly too ridiculous and convuluted to attempt to discuss at length. Realizing how silly the plot sounded, I decided that it would be entertaining to watch and joke about, and in that aspect it delievered in spades. One thing that I wasn’t originally aware of was that it was shot in Italian and all of the actors but Dana Andrews and Brett Halsey were dubbed in English, with Pier Angeli clearly dubbing over own native tongue. This alone made for some comical scenes, as nearly all of the dialogue doesn’t match the actors’ lip movements whatsoever. While the I’m well aware that countless movies were produced in this manner without being inherently bad, it’s obvious that Spy in Your Eye (1965) would have been poor in any language. Even the dubbing had some mistakes, and there were a few scenes in which different characters would have a conversation in English, and right in the middle there would be lines in Italian, much to my confusion. On top of that, it seems like the location scouting for this film consisted of the crew pointing out their surroundings, like some ancient ruins, a yacht, a helicopter, or a clinic with moving rooms that eerily resembles Disney’s Carousel of Progress, and saying “That’d make for a great shot!” whether it made sense for the plot or not. Surprisingly, most of the actors appear to be taking their roles seriously, and because of that the acting isn’t as terrible as I thought it would be, especially on the parts of Dana Andrews and Pier Angeli. It makes me wonder how on Earth two stars of their caliber were ever roped into such a farce, somehow far worse than The Silver Chalice (1954), but if you don’t put too many expectations on this campy flick (or any at all, really), you’ll at least be amused by it during it’s brief runtime of an hour and twenty-four minutes.
It would seem that the purpose of this blogathon was to choose a movie star who we originally didn’t know much about, watch a variety of their films, and hopefully come away from this experience having learned a few things and having gained a positive outlook on the actor’s work as a result of our journey into his or her filmography, but that wasn’t really the case with me. I went into this marathon with the belief that Pier Angeli was an absolutely gorgeous Italian actress who was unfortunately consigned to roles in B-pictures for the majority of her career, and after watching some of those pictures (even a couple of truly stellar ones), I came away from this experience with the same belief. Still, I’m endlessly glad that I chose Pier as my subject because I was introduced to her effervescent onscreen quality firsthand. While most audiences today would write her acting abilities, the common theme of these five features to me is a truly talented woman who steals every scene that she appears in, and if that doesn’t deserve some recognition, I don’t know what does. What were my favorite pictures that I discovered this month? Easily The Light Touch (1951), followed closely by The Story of Three Loves (1953). Teresa (1951) was quite the bore, and I disliked John Ericson’s character so much that I wouldn’t put myself through that level of annoyance again, but I highly recommend it for its visuals alone. The Silver Chalice (1954) and Spy in Your Eye (1965) were both enjoyable despite their terrible production quality, and even though they might be considered two of the worst films of all time, they’re good for a laugh and neither of them were painful to sit through. Overall, I can easily say that I would watch more of her work in the future, and Pier will always go down in my book as one of the loveliest and most underappreciated actresses of the fifties.