January 25, 2016
My recent post about Dave Somerville—among other things, lead singer with The Diamonds—reminded me that that group’s most enduring hit, “Little Darlin,’ ” was introduced, with far less success, by a different group.
The song was written by Maurice Williams, and it was first recorded in 1957 by Williams’ rhythm-and-blues group, The Gladiolas. That original version was recorded on the Louisiana-based Excello label; the song reached No. 11 on the R&B charts.
Shortly after The Gladiolas introduced the song, The Diamonds covered it, cutting a single for RCA Records that was released on July 19, 1957. That version reached No. 2 in sales in the Billboard Hot 100; Billboard ranked it the No. 3 song for 1957 after Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” and Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand.”
The Diamonds’ rendering of this song has been described by some commentators as self-parody, and the group’s body language in THIS VIDEO might be admitted as evidence.
In any event, the impression The Diamonds made has kept the song popular for almost sixty years, and it has been covered or performed by a wide variety of artists, including Presley, Joan Baez, Sha Na Na, The Chevrons, The Four Seasons, and The Monkees. The song also surfaced, in a hilarious fashion, in the Columbia Pictures film Ishtar, which Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel jointly described as the worst movie of 1987. However that may be, THIS VERSION of “Little Darlin’,” performed by Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, is worth the click.
Don’t shed any tears for The Gladiolas, by the way. That group morphed into Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. Under that name, the group recorded “Stay” in 1960; Williams had written the song in 1953 when he was 15 years old, putting to words and music, according to him, an actual experience in which he unsuccessfully tried to convince a girl he was dating to stay out a little longer. The song was released on Herald Records and reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The recording–one minute and thirty-six seconds long– has the distinction of being the shortest single to reach the top of record charts in the United States. To date, an estimated ten million copies have been sold.
The Beatles performed “Stay” during their live appearances from 1960 to 1962, and the song has been covered by, among others, The Dave Clark 5, The Four Seasons, Cyndi Lauper, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
The Gladiolas’ version of “Little Darlin’ ” is HERE.
To hear The Zodiacs sing “Stay,” click HERE.
January 18, 2016
Tom Hanks’ father was not the lead singer with The Diamonds. He was not. That idea concerning Hanks’ parentage was presented the other day in one of those e-mail messages with the screaming warning sign in the subject line, namely “Fwd.” There are a couple of people, who have too much time on their hands, who circulate such nonsense to us and a long list of other addressees. We usually ignore them, but this one caught our attention because it was so far-fetched. How did such a notion originate, we wondered: was it concocted deliberately (and, if so, to what end?) or did it begin as a misunderstanding? Probably, we’ll never know; still, the false story led us to the true story, which was worth learning.
For the record, Tom Hanks’ father, Amos Mefford Hanks, was a cook. The lead singer with The Diamonds was Dave Somerville. I was familiar with The Diamonds because they became popular in the 1950s when I was in my teens. Their biggest hits, “Little Darlin'” and “The Stroll” were released in 1957. However, I didn’t know until the scurrilous e-mail piqued my curiosity what a varied and productive career Dave Somerville had.
Somerville, who was–as were all of The Diamonds–born in Canada, studied voice at the Royal Conservatory of Music at the University of Toronto. In 1953, he met Stan Fisher, Ted Kowalski, Phil Levitt, and Bill Reed, at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The four had formed a quartet, and Somerville coached them; when Fisher dropped out, Somerville became the lead singer. That group became The Diamonds.
In 1955, The Diamonds tied for first place on an installment of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a radio and television show that originated in New York. In 1956, they signed a contract with Mercury Records. The group had sixteen songs on the Billboard charts over the next eight years.
After leaving the Diamonds, Somerville worked for six years as a folk singer, using the name David Troy–Troy being his middle name. He also studied acting with Leonard Nimoy; his television acting appearances included The Fall Guy, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, Quincy ME, McCloud, Gomer Pyle USMC, and Star Trek.
Somerville and Gail Jensen wrote a song, “The (Ballad of the) Unknown Stuntman,” that prompted Glen Larson, the original baritone with the Four Preps, to conceive of the characters and format for what became the television series The Fall Guy, which ran for 112 episodes with Lee Majors in the title role. “The Unknown Stuntman,” which Larson embellished with added lyrics, was the theme.
Somerville also did voice-over for hundreds of radio, television, and cable TV ads.
In 1967, Somerville joined The Four Preps as a replacement for Ed Cobb. In 1969, he and Bruce Belland, the original lead singer with the Four Preps formed a folk music and comedy act and appeared in concert with Henry Mancini and Johnny Mathis. They were also regulars on The Tim Conway Show. Somerville and Belland wrote “The Troublemaker,” which was the title track of two Willie Nelson albums. Somerville and Belland also sang with a later iteration of the Four Preps.
In 1972, Somerville formed a group called WW Fancy; in the 1980s he sang with the original members of The Diamonds and also returned to The Four Preps.
He made a children’s album, The Cosmic Adventures of Diamond Dave, that comprised many of his original songs.
He also appeared in a stage show, On The 1957 Rock & Roll Greyhound Bus, that was based on a tour in which The Diamonds traveled with Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Paul Anka, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and others.
Dave Somerville died in 2015 at the age of 81. He hadn’t sired Tom Hanks, but he had made his own mark on American entertainment.
January 14, 2016
Among the ads that are “trending” on Facebook lately, on my account at least, is one that is shilling a little pendant with the inscription “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” with a suggestion that this would be a good gift for one’s grandchildren. I don’t believe I’ll try it on my grandchildren, but the ad reminded me that we used to sing that song when I was in elementary school, and I used to wonder why.
I was puzzled about that because the song is about an adult theme and is rather morbid.
The chorus is a set-up; the first three lines sound cheerful enough, but the last line implies that something is going on that we are not aware of:
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. / You make me happy when skies are grey. / You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
So far, so good, but then the hammer drops:
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
“Whoa,” I used to think when we sang that song. “Where did that come from? What did the songwriter know that we don’t know?”
The combination of the plaintive melody and the sudden implication that catastrophe looms ahead seemed out of place in my Howdy Doody, Lincoln Logs world.
The verses were even more disturbing.
In the first one, we found ourselves singing in our flutey little voices about someone fantasizing about sleeping with a lover.
The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping / I dreamt I held you in my arms.
But any stimulation our young psyches derived from this image was quickly dispelled:
When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken / so I hung my head and cried.
Clearly, we were not dealing with “April Showers” or “Yankee Doodle.” We knew that before we got to the second verse, it’s dark threat:
I will always love you and make you happy / if you will only say the same. / But if you leave me to love another / you will regret it all one day.
It sounds like the last scene of I Pagliacci. The only thing missing is the knife.
The denouement comes in the third verse, and it isn’t pretty:
You told me once dear, you really loved me / and no one else dear, could come between. / But now you’ve left me and love another. / You have shattered all my dreams.
“You Are My Sunshine” was recorded on February 5, 1940 by Jimmy Davis and Charles Mitchell. It is, in fact, the most recent state song of Louisiana, so designated in 1977 by a legislature that apparently hadn’t read the lyrics. I say “the most recent state song” because Louisiana adopted two “official state songs” before this one, and it has at least three other “official songs” for specific purposes. The action in 1977 was based largely on the fact that Jimmy Davis had served as governor of Louisiana from 1960 to 1964.
But before the Davis-Mitchell recording, two other versions of the song were cut in 1939—one by the Pine Ridge Boys (Marvin Taylor and Doug Spivey) on August 22 and one by The Rice Brothers Gang on September 13.
When Davis ran for governor in 1944, he often appeared during his campaign riding on a horse named Sunshine and singing this song.
Although Davis or Davis and Mitchell together are usually given credit for writing the song, it appears that Davis actually bought the rights to it from Paul Rice (of the Rice Brothers). Davis took credit for the tune, but never claimed to have written it.
Although it was an odd choice for us kids, “You Are My Sunshine” played an important in the evolution of American popular music. The Jimmy Davis version was popular enough that it made the country sound attractive to people who normally would have ignored it. In 1940, the song was covered four times, including by cowboy singer Gene Autry, but also by Bing Crosby and Lawrence Welk, so that the crossover occurred almost immediately. Among those who have covered it since then are Nat “King ” Cole, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and Mtume.
December 20, 2015
Nepotism may be problematic in terms of morality, but it sometimes works out for the best. We watched an example the other night: The 1951 film Cause for Alarm.
This movie didn’t do well at the box office, and it has been so neglected that it is in the public domain. But it’s a thriller that still holds up after more than sixty years, and its merit is due in large part to its simplicity.
Cause for Alarm stars Loretta Young as Ellen Jones, Barry Sullivan as George Jones, and Bruce Cowling as Dr. Ranney Graham. The score is by Andre Previn.
In this story, which Young narrates, Ellen meets George, an army pilot, during World War II. They are introduced by Dr. Graham, who is fond of Ellen but seemingly too busy for a relationship. George comes across as annoyingly self-assured and narcissistic, but Ellen falls for him and, after the war, they marry.
Fast forward their lives, and George has suffered a serious heart attack and is bed-ridden at home. He has become paranoid and imagines that Ellen and Dr. Graham are plotting to kill him by administering overdoses of his medications. He makes this accusation in a letter to the district attorney—addressing it to the DA only by name, not by title—and asks Ellen to mail it, telling her that it’s related to his insurance business. When Ellen has handed the letter to the postman, George accuses her directly and threatens to kill her with a pistol, telling her that he will argue that he did it in self defense. At this moment, George suffers a fatal heart attack, and the rest of the film concerns Ellen’s frantic effort to conceal George’s death long enough to recover the letter to the DA.
Most of the action in this film takes place in the Joneses’ home or outdoors in the neighborhood nearby. A significant portion of the setting for the story is George’s bedroom. In this mundane domestic atmosphere, the tension generated by Ellen’s growing anxiety is magnified. Although the situation is implausible, and the acting is of the arch variety that was typical of that time, the story is compelling as Ellen descends toward hysteria.
The producer of this film was Tim Lewis, who at the time was the second of Loretta Young’s three husbands. Lewis had considered Judy Garland for the role of Ellen, but decided to cast his wife instead. The film required an actress who could project simplicity, even naiveté, because what makes the story work is that it is such woman who, through no fault of her own, finds herself in this dangerous position. No doubt Garland, who was only 31 when this film was made, would have done Ellen justice, but I doubt that in this instance she could have outdone Loretta Young.
The director, Tay Garnett, shot this film in fourteen days by throughly prepping the cast and the crew in advance. An interesting sidelight is that the postman is played by Irving Bacon, who appeared in well over five hundred films and television shows between 1915 and 1965, including twenty-eight films based on the comic strip Blondie in which he played a postman.
August 31, 2015
Johnny Mercer was going for a rhyme. Little did he know that that lyric, which he wrote around 1952, would presage an environmental phenomenon to occur six decades in the future: the vanishing firefly.
We became aware of this on a recent night when we were sitting on our backyard deck after dark, admiring the moon—a natural wonder that has suffered relatively little, so far, from human activity. There is a swath of lawn maybe thirty feet wide between the deck and a thick patch of woods; when we first moved here about 14 years ago, fireflies would flit around in that space on summer nights. As I sat there the other night, I remarked that I hadn’t seen a single firefly this summer. A little research on the iPhone turned up the fact that the firefly population all over the world has been sharply diminished. Those with knowledge of the subject speculate that the factors in this melancholy situation are overdevelopment, which destroys the firefly’s habitat and natural prey; artificial light, which interferes with the mating rituals of fireflies—that’s what those little flashes are all about; and pesticides.
There are some places in the world in which fireflies are so numerous—or have been until now—that they constitute a tourist attraction. I also read about one river in Asia on which they are considered an aid to navigation as their thousands of winking lights along the shore outline the course of the water on dark nights. And, of course, fireflies have been among the charms in the lives of uncounted children.
The firefly was an inspiration to the prominent German composer Paul Lincke, who included a song called “Das Glühwürmchen”—”The Glow Worm”—in his 1902 operetta “Lysistrata.” A lyricist named Lilla Cayley Robinson translated that song into English, and it was used in the 1907 Broadway musical “The Girl Behind the Counter.” But its permanent place in the popular songbook wasn’t sealed until Mercer got a hold of it and put his own spin on it for the Mills Brothers, who recorded it in 1952 as “Glow, Little Glow Worm.” It was the number-one song in the country for three weeks that year, and it was on the charts for twenty-one weeks.
Whoever thought that song might be all we’d have left.
You can see and hear the Mills Brothers sing this song on the “Nat King Cole Show” by clicking The Mills Brothers sing “Glow Worm” .
August 29, 2015
In the episode of the television series Taxi in which Jim Ignatowski is hired as a driver for the Sunshine Cab Company, the first scene takes place in Mario’s, the cabbie hangout. The core group of drivers on the show are there to celebrate the fact that one of them, Tony Banta, has finally won a prize fight. Their excitement isn’t dampened at all by the fact that Tony won by default when his opponent fell while climbing through the ropes and knocked himself out. After all, Tony argued, he had to make it through the same ropes. In that scene, one gets a fleeting glimpse of a framed print among the clutter behind the restaurant bar. It is a reproduction of Dempsey and Firpo, the 1924 painting by George Bellows. The painting portrays the incident a year before when 80,000 people were admitted to the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan—the baseball park had a capacity of 55,000— to watch Jack Dempsey defend his world heavyweight boxing title against the popular Argentinian Luis Firpo.
The fight lasted only into the second round, and both men took their licks. In the first round, Dempsey knocked Firpo down seven times; that was made possible by the rules that prevailed at the time, permitting a boxer to stand over a floored opponent and knock him down again as soon as he got up, and also by the fact that three knockdowns in one round were not yet considered a technical knockout. A rule adopted later required a boxer to go to a neutral corner when his opponent was knocked down.
Later in the first round, Firpo landed a right on Dempsey’s chin and knocked him through the ropes and into the ringside seats. What happened next generated one of those exquisite controversies that arise in sports. The sports writers sitting at ringside helped Dempsey back into the ring. Analysis of the film of the fight indicates that the referee had counted only to four when Dempsey was back on the canvas, but observers who were checking their watches claimed that as many as fourteen seconds had elapsed when Dempsey was ready to continue.
Because of the count, and because Dempsey didn’t get back into the ring under his own steam, the argument arose and has persisted that Firpo should have been awarded a knockout and crowned heavyweight champion of the world. If Dempsey had been out of the ring for twenty seconds, the rule in place at the time would have resulted in a TKO. As it turned out, Dempsey knocked out Firpo in fifty-seven seconds of the second round, and Firpo never did win the title. Dempsey who was a wild and wooly character, often involved in controversy, earned enormous amounts of money as a fighter. He later operated a popular restaurant in Manhattan. Firpo became an automobile dealer and a large-scale rancher. He and Dempsey later jointly managed an Argentinian boxer named Abel Cestac who became the heavyweight champion of South America.
I don’t follow boxing any more, but when I was younger I had a conflicted relationship with the sport. I enjoyed its history, its characters, and its ritual, and I admired boxers such as Archie Moore, Carmen Basilio, Rocky Marciano, Ray Robinson, and Floyd Patterson. On the other hand, I thought, and still do, that boxing is fundamentally barbaric.
Boxing was a subject that interested George Bellows, who did a number of works that portrayed amateur fights. He may be best known for his scenes of New York City life. He promoted American intervention in World War I and the war, including atrocities attributed to German troops, provided him with some riveting subject matter. When he was criticized for painting images of a war he did not witness, he asked rhetorically if Leonardo had attended The Last Supper.
August 22, 2015
We were at the American Museum of Natural History in New York recently, and I asked a uniformed employee of the museum how to get to the Imax theater.
He said something like the following: “So you go through that door to your left, turn left again and walk all the way through the gift shop and through the exit at the other end, and you’ll come right to the theater.”
He started that sentence with “so.”
It wasn’t “so” as a conjunction introducing a dependent clause: “So that we’re not late for the theater, we’re catching the 9:30 train.”
It wasn’t “so” implying prior knowledge of the subject about to be introduced: “So, how was your trip to Peoria?”
And it wasn’t “so” used as an adverb: “So many people declined the invitation that we had to cancel the party.
In this usage, “so” may be best identified as an interjection that conveys no meaning of its own. I have seen the usage defined as a “linguistic pause.”
In that sense, it is similar to the words “say” and “why,” which one hears in the films noir of the 1940s: “Say, for two cents I’d knock your block off!”
I first noticed this usage of “so” while listening to an interview on NPR perhaps seven or eight years ago, but I find that it has been around much longer than that and is the topic of conversation on a lot of web sites devoted to language.
Some folks are quite passionate in their demands that the usage be stopped.
A writer on one business-oriented web site argued that using “so” in that way while engaged in commerce insults your listener, undermines your credibility, and signals that you are not altogether comfortable with what you’re about to say. (I thought there was something suspicious about that museum guide, and we did get lost on the way to the Imax.)
One person responding to that writer pointed out something that hadn’t occurred to me—that comedians for generations have used that construction: “So a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walked into a bar ….”
For me, whose life is all about the English language, this is an interesting example of how our manner of speech evolves over time. Often, change occurs without us noticing it. When did movie tough guys stop using “say”? But in this case it’s a specimen that we can observe and that probably is harming no one except linguistic fussbudgets, and that probably will fade away just as innocently as it came.
Incidentally, the bartender looked up and said, “So what is this—some kind of a joke?”
August 1, 2015
There is a double meaning to the title of this book, which was published in 2010. This is the memoir of Bill Marx, oldest of the four children of Harpo Marx, so the book is, in a sense, Harpo’s son speaking. The title also is an allusion to Harpo Speaks, the 1961 autobiography of the silent comedian, written “with Rowland Barber.”
Harpo Speaks may be the best of the many books about this family, due in part to the detailed memories of Harpo Marx and the writing skills of Rowland Barber, who also wrote The Night they Raided Minsky’s and co-wrote Somebody Up There Likes Me with boxer Rocky Graziano. Son of Harpo Speaks is not in the same class. It’s not that Bill Marx didn’t have a story to tell, or even that he didn’t tell it. It’s that he told it without focus or precision. The grammatical and spelling errors, while trivial as individual faux pas, are distracting in the aggregate. The absence of a professional co-author and a rigorous editor is evident on every page.
Nevertheless, I’m grateful that Bill Marx wrote this book, because it preserves facts and insights about his parents and the rest of the Marx family that might otherwise have been lost. That’s important to me, because I have been a student of the Marx clan since I was about 13 years old and someone gave me a copy of The Marx Brothers by Kyle Crichton, which was published in 1950. I use the word “student” rather than “fan” because I have always been less interested in the Marx Brothers as entertainers than in the Marx family as a phenomenon of the American experience in the twentieth century. I have read most of the other books about them and I have interviewed Miriam Marx, the eldest child of Groucho Marx; Maxine Marx, the daughter of Chico Marx; and Gregg Marx, the grandson of Gummo Marx.
Bill Marx was the first of four children adopted by Harpo and Susan Fleming Marx, and he made his career as a Julliard-trained pianist, composer, and arranger. His account of his relationship with his adoptive parents confirms what one reads in every account of their lives, namely that they were genuinely nice people. Bill Marx unabashedly admired both of them, and he revels in the fact that for many years he served as Harpo’s props manager: “I had to see that the coat he wore was properly prepared for all of his sight gags; the carrot goes into the upper right inside pocket, the telescope must be in the lower left inside pocket, the scissors for immediate availability in the small middle right inside pocket, the rubber chicken accessible in the large left inside pocket, and on and on.”
Once Bill Marx got his sea legs as a musician, he collaborated with his father on several projects, including two albums of Harpo’s performances on the complicated instrument he mastered without a lesson and without the ability to read music. He also wrote arrangements for Harpo’s live performances and TV guest spots.
Bill Marx also devotes considerable space in this meandering book to his personal emotional and psychic history, including his struggle to find and understand his own identity, and the personalities that influenced him, including such icons as Buddy Rich and Margaret Hamilton. He also includes a fascinating account of how he learned the names and sad histories of his birth parents through a chance acquaintance he made at Dino’s, a club in Los Angeles where he was playing piano.
I’m glad to have read this book; my only regret is that I wasn’t the editor.
(Bill Marx presides over an informative and entertaining web site, The Official Arthur Harpo Marx Family Online Collection.)
July 24, 2015
Sammy Cahn and Julie Stein wrote six songs for the 1947 movie It Happened in Brooklyn,including “The Song’s Gotta Come from the Heart,” which was performed as a duet by Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante. Durante later recorded the song on the RCA Red Seal label with the dramatic soprano Helen Traubel as his partner.
It doesn’t have to be classic or rock / Just as long as it comes from the heart / Just put more heart into you voice / And you’ll become the people’s choice
I thought of that song the other day when my son, Christian, pointed out that Meryl Streep is to star in a movie about Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). Chris wasn’t aware of this, but in 2007 I reviewed a play, Souvenir, by Stephen Temperley, in which Liz McCartney played Mrs. Jenkins and Jim Walton played her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. There are at least three other plays about her.
Before I saw Souvenir, I had never heard of Mrs. Jenkins, who was born to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre and became an accomplished pianist while still child, even playing at the White House during the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes. When her father refused to finance a European musical education, she eloped and moved to Philadelphia where she taught piano until she injured her arm and, her marriage having ended, was reduced to poverty until her mother came to her assistance.
Around 1900 she and her mother moved to New York City together, and there Mrs. Jenkins entered into another marriage that would last until she died. When her father died in 1908, she inherited enough money to become a prominent Manhattan socialite and to undertake voice lessons. She became even wealthier when her mother died in 1912.
Mrs. Jenkins was under the impression that she was a talented soprano, but the fact was that she couldn’t sing at all. She had no command of tone, pitch, rhythm, or diction. But she continued to study voice, and she gave periodic invitation-only recitals attended by friends who would not have told her the truth. She dressed in elaborate costumes that she had designed herself and engaged in such melodramatic gestures as throwing flower petals to the audience. Because these recitals were private, there were usually no professional critics present. Mrs. Jenkins, who was widely ridiculed, would at times detect laughter during her performance, but she attributed that to the agents of rivals who wanted to discredit her.
When she was 76 years old, Florence Foster Jenkins finally gave a public concert at Carnegie Hall, and tickets sold out weeks in advance. Because it was a public event, critics attended, and they were merciless in their accounts of the performance. Mrs. Jenkins was badly shaken by what was written and said about her; she died of a heart attack two days later, appropriately while shopping for sheet music at G. Schirmer’s music store.
One of the consequences of Mrs. Jenkins’ first marriage was that she contracted syphilis from her husband, a disease for which there was no effective treatment before the discovery of penicillin. The disease itself and the treatments, which commonly employed mercury and arsenic, gradually ravaged her brain and her auditory and central nervous systems.
Temperley’s play, which does not broach the subject of venereal disease, is, on balance, gentle with Mrs. Jenkins. I suspect a movie treatment will more deeply explore the woman’s background. Still, I find myself hoping that the filmmaker will find something sympathetic, if not admirable, about a woman who so doggedly pursued her ambition and didn’t have to die with the regret that comes with never having tried.
Mrs. Jenkins herself summed up what I’m feeling: “People can say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”
July 19, 2015
We recently watched The Great Dictator, Charles Chaplin’s slap at Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, a movie that evoked the question of whether that subject matter could be treated appropriately in a humorous setting. Although the film was well received, Chaplin himself later said that if he had been aware in 1939 of the full scope of fascist atrocities in Europe, he would not have made it. The question of depicting Nazi atrocities in a comic milieu without minimizing the crimes themselves also arose with respect to Life is Beautiful (La vita é bella), the 1997 quadruple Oscar winner in which a Jewish book-shop owner and his young son are caught up in the Holocaust in Italy and sent to a death camp, and the father sacrifices his life in order to shield his boy.
The unlikely mix of comedy and Nazi brutality also was the basis for The Secret of Santa Vittoria, a 1969 film based on Robert Crichton’s novel by the same name. The film, which was directed by Stanley Kramer, starred Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani, Virna Lisi, Hardy Kruger, and Sergio Franchi.
This story takes place in the summer of 1943. The government of Benito Mussolini has collapsed and the German army is in the process of occupying most of Italy. The people of Santa Vittoria learn that their town is soon to fall under German rule and one result will be that the Germans will confiscate more than a million bottles of wine that have been produced by the local co-operative. In the power vacuum that ensues because the local fascist government has been discredited and some officials arrested, the town fool, Italo Bombolini (Quinn), is declared mayor by acclamation. Under the guidance of a more sober character named Tufa, played by the tenor, Sergio Franchi, Bombolini devises a scheme to hide all but 300,000 bottles of the wine in tunnels that date from the age of the Roman Empire.
When a small contingent of German army personnel, under the command of Capt. Sepp Von Prum (Kruger), take charge of the town, a cat-and-mouse game begins in which Bombolini patronizes the Germans but insists that the wine in the storage cavern is all there is. Kruger is under pressure from the SS to find the wine the Germans are sure is hidden nearby, but he eventually convinces the SS commander that the townspeople are telling the truth. In his heart of hearts, however, Kruger knows better, and as he and his men are about to vacate the town, there is a tense episode in which, in the presence of the whole village, he puts a handgun to Bombolini’s head and threatens to fire if someone doesn’t tell him what he wants to know. He is met with grim silence and, because he really doesn’t have the steel will expected of Hitler’s cohorts, leaves without further incident.
Magnani plays Bombolini’s wife, Rosa, the stereotypical Italian firebrand who badgers her husband about his indolence and drunkenness. Virna Lisi appears as a peripheral character, Caterina Malatesta, who is a love interest of Tufa and the object of Kruger’s rather courtly advances.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria was nominated for Academy Awards for film editing and best musical score (Ernest Gold); it won the Golden Globe Award as best motion picture comedy and was nominated for best director, best actor in a comedy (Quinn), best actress in a comedy (Magnani), best original score and best original song (“Stay,” which was written by Gold and Norman Gimbel).
This movie wasn’t nearly as popular as Crichton’s novel, and it was a loser at the box office. It is in many ways superficial, implausible, and obvious. And yet, for the price of an Amazon rental fee, it is worth watching for its entertainment value, including the arch but earthy performances by Quinn and Magnani and the charm of blue-eyed Hardy Kruger. The movie, entirely an American production, was shot in Anticoli Corrado in the province of Rome, with hundreds of local residents acting as extras.