The opening credits of Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair make a proud claim: “A large part of this picture was photographed in Berlin.” Similar pronouncements also precede David Lean’s Summertime (“Photographed Entirely in Venice”) and Jose Quintero’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (“Photographed in Rome,” naturally.) Post-WWII Hollywood made sales pitches out of European productions more than once—and a handful of those films will play the Harvard Film Archive in the coming weeks. “Innocence Abroad,” the institution’s latest repertory program, collects ten American films from the postwar period, all of which concern an American character residing or vacationing in a European locale. Transition is the central theme, both for the nations (which find themselves rebuilding under potentially-conspicuous international guidance) and for the characters (who typically find themselves enveloped by a feverous sexual passion while overseas.) Not even the screen is immune from the theme: in this program, the very shape of cinema is in flux.
Before any films are projected onto the screen, though, yet another transition becomes apparent. The collection of these movies (all released between ‘48 and ‘61) reveals a female-focused pop-cinema that’s all but evaporated in the ensuing decades. These are the genres that Hollywood studios have marginalized and left out in the new millennium: the musical comedy (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes screens Jan 24, Daddy Long Legs screens Feb 21, Funny Face screens Feb 22), the romantic comedy (Roman Holiday screens Jan 24, Boy on a Dolphin screens Feb 14, A Foreign Affair screens Feb 28), and the melodrama (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone screens Feb 1, Summertime screens Feb 5, and Three Coins in the Fountain screens March 6). The latter group represents what we might call “women’s picture”—a term referring to dramas that turn on the social and psychological anxieties forced onto the female sex—but all ten were surely made with an audience of women in mind. Can you find me a modern multiplex currently exhibiting even four films about which you could say the same?
I digress. As the opening credits continue on, we see the top-billed actresses, queenly each, who helped this women’s cinema bloom. (We’ve failed to crown heirs to each.) Audrey Hepburn, as Euro-cultured characters who find themselves chased and manipulated by mischievous American men, in Roman Holiday and Funny Face. Marlene Dietrich, as a ‘former nazi’ flirting her way out of an American court’s condemnation, in A Foreign Affair. Katherine Hepburn, shacking up with a suave Venetian man—somewhat ashamedly at first, not so much later on—in Summertime. Vivien Leigh, as a widowed American actress who indulges in the pleasures of a duplicitous male solicitor, in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Marilyn Monroe, epitomizing her decade-defining screen presence as the smartest gold-digger in the room, in the Howard Hawks-directed masterpiece Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Parse through these one-sentence plot-descriptions, along with those for the rest of the films, and you’ll find that the “innocent” moniker proves to be a misnomer. The Archive’s program is filled with narratives about international relationships, most of which are defined and fostered by a sense of fucked-up pragmatism. One individual covets the money, or the social status, or even the physical appearance of their partner. Therein lies the program’s historical weight, presuming you accept the implication that these partnerships are also politics. And most often, it’s the Americans abroad who are least innocent. Chronologically speaking, the earliest films in the program are Foreign Affair and Roman Holiday, two romantic comedies tied down by the weight of conflicting ideologies. In each, an American male gains intimate access to a high-class European woman, only to sneak her secrets right out the back door.
Gregory Peck does the sneaking in Holiday, as an American journalist searching for an high-price assignment via Hepburn’s runaway Princess. If you’re looking for the symbols and metaphors, they arrive early: Princess Anne is out doing the international rounds to “promote European trade relations,” yet one of the first comic set pieces concerns a major wardrobe malfunction occurring unseen beneath her regal dress. And John Lund plays the scoundrel in Affair, as a military captain in postwar Germany who finds himself shacking up—first for himself, then for his country—with Dietrich’s convicted nightclub crooner. Both pictures are black-and-white, and filmed in the “full-frame” (meaning 4:3) aspect ratio. And the shape of the screen is integral to their being: both films situate themselves into a specifically monochrome tradition, whether it’s via allusions to newsreels (we see Hepburn’s Princess in one, establishing her monarchical bona fides) or allusions to The Blue Angel (Dietrich’s tradition in the pre-war German cinema is called upon by Wilder, now recoded into a tragic historical context.) Even upon release, these must have played as classicist films, each punctured by a postwar bite.
Not every image is so fraught. More often they’re just fun. Visual representations of a fantasized, Disney-fied Europe recur through the program at a frequency far greater than that of any specific political subtext. Even in Holiday and Affair, they’re there: the overtures sequences comprised of cityscape compositions, the stopovers in smoky outdoor cafes, the open-air adobes, the montages of monuments. And if you’re going to fetishize, why not do it in gloriously-rendered Technicolor? That hallucinogenic printing process animates “Innocence Abroad,” recurring from film-to-film. The merciless social satire Funny Face is one of many to feature such a palette, and director Stanley Donen uses it as an excuse to leave the natural world: an office for a magazine publisher looks like a hanger from 2001 (if blobs of phosphorescent paint had been dropped onto the set,) and musical numbers (like “Think Pink”) often morph out of dialogue and into pure abstraction (women dive gracefully against a thematically-appropriate nothingness.) The film, of course, features its own monuments-montage: photographer Fred Astaire rushing a half-beatnik Audrey Hepburn from one Parisian sight to the next, snapping color-gelled images of her at each. They’re experiencing the landmarks the same way that these movies often present them: as icons seen, only briefly, from a foreigner’s distant eye. If you’ll indulge a shift into a more modern parlance, the movies stop at these sights just long enough for us to take a selfie.
While we’re on the subject of pictures: “Innocence Abroad” features a sidebar, “in CinemaScope.” That was a filming format that let directors shoot in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 or wider—creating the rectangular imagery that has become an industry standard to this day. “Innocence Abroad” shows off ’Scope with three works by the journeyman director Jean Negulesco, one of the format’s early proponents. The films are Three Coins in the Fountain, Daddy Long Legs, and Boy on a Dolphin: a drama, a musical, and a comedy, respectively. Across each genre, Negulesco brings his considerable talent; few have succeeded in arranging characters around this oblong frame so gracefully. In Boy, we literally get to watch Sophia Loren—playing a Greek diver selling off an underwater statue—sweeping herself in wide circles around the multinational men she’s carefully playing. For Negulesco, with CinemaScope, even dialogue could become a dance.
The variable, on a film-to-film basis, is which gender dances better. The Archive’s program notes highlight a number of these pictures as political allegories, and on the surface that manifests itself in romance: Each film in the program, almost invariably, considers a savvy American (man or woman) who attempts to use their wills and their wits (and their aptitude for disguises) to manipulate themselves into the relationship they desire most. (Interpret that, within the context of a U.S.-directed reconstruction of the European front, as you will.) The inevitable result is mutually displeasing mismatches. A striking quote, on the tragic side of the program, comes from Roman Spring, a Tennessee Williams adaptation. From a European madame, toward a male solicitor—played by a scorching Warren Beatty, we should note, with an accent that ranks on the Dick Van Dyke scale—who’s been charmed by his latest American mark: “Great ladies do not happen in a nation less than 200 years old.” That’s how these films talk politics—by talking about sex.
And there’s few illusions of such greatness among these Americans. The cinema of the time was depicting them as the clever and canny type instead; they outwit their international counterparts not with riches but with smarts. For this reason and a few others, consider Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as the centerpiece of the series: it may be the most authentically American vision of Europe within the program, for it leaves behind any pretensions of commenting on international politics, and merely uses the sister continent as a faceless symbol of romantic opportunity and exotic otherness. When Monroe’s Lorelei punches her ticket, she announces she’s traveling to “Europe, Paris.”
Hawks’ film concerns two best friends-slash-professional showgirls—alongside Monroe’s diamonds-obsessed Lorelei is Jane Russell’s sex-crazed brunette, Dorothy—who take a trip to Paris to escape their domestic romantic entanglements. What follows is an almost-apocalyptic vision of tit-for-tat coupling in the postwar period—at one point, women are actually visualized as furniture—accentuated by a wit that’s nearly Wilde-esque. One musical number, wherein Russell sings “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” amid numerous half-naked male bodybuilders, ends with her emerging from a pool soaking wet; another subplot sees the two women forced to literally empty a man’s pockets in order to protect their own interests. “We lived on the wrong side of the tracks,” they sing, in a number that plays out before the opening credits—and they aren’t going back.
They’re not going to Paris for the culture, either. Blondes barely even features any European characters—Lorelei simply uses their implied existence, and their threatening sexual prowess, as a tool to forge more gold from her American beau. Bouncing on beds through otherwise innocuous dialogue scenes, she openly acknowledges that romance is little more than a trade: her attractiveness for his money. No wonder that proved such fertile ground for discussing international stewardship. But that’s just the subtext, and the surface of Blondes, like many of the program’s other films, is glittering (the Technicolor used to emphasize the shine on the film’s innumerable diamonds,) materialist (“we want to go shopping,” the pair announce as they reach their destination,) and awestruck (there’s yet another idealized outdoor cafe sequence, of course.) In “Innocence Abroad”, the colors and shape of the movie screen are morphed and bent to the industry’s will—to benefit postcard-style shots of Venice, Athens, Paris, Rome, and sometimes even studio backlots. There’s a refrain in Funny Face’s most famous musical number that sums it all up best: “we’re strictly tourist.”
INNOCENCE ABROAD. HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE. 24 QUINCY ST., CAMBRIDGE. FILMS SCREEN THROUGH 3.6. ALL FEATURES PROJECTED VIA 35MM PRINTS. SEE HCL.HARVARD.EDU/HFA FOR SHOWTIMES.