Killer Greek scenery in CinemaScope graces Jean Negulesco’s relaxed thriller about art theft in the Aegean. But viewers are more likely to remember Sophia Loren’s sexy wet diving costume that insured that her American debut didn’t go unnoticed.
Boy on a Dolphin
KL Studio Classics
1957 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 111 min. / Street Date October 25, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Alan Ladd, Clifton Webb, Sophia Loren, Alexis Minotis, Jorge Mistral, Laurence Naismith, Piero Giagnoni, Gertrude Flynn, Marni Nixon (voice), Scilla Gabel (Loren underwater).
Cinematography Milton R. Krasner
Film Editor William Mace
Original Music Hugo Friedhofer
Written by Ivan Moffat, Dwight Taylor from the novel by David Divine
Produced by Samuel G. Engel
Directed by Jean Negulesco
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Back when working on extras for The Guns of Navarone we saw documentation showing that Columbia Pictures had to jump through a lot of hoops with the Greek Royal Family to get cooperation from the military and access to all those beautiful Greek locations. Fox’s summer 1957 attraction Boy on a Dolphin also shows signs of concessions to Greek sovereignty and pride. Tapping the fabulous Greek scenery, the lightweight treasure hunt travelogue follows in the tradition of earlier CinemaScope and stereophonic sound attractions, Sort of a Raiders of the Lost Ark in low gear, the film is noted as the first American production starring Sophia Loren. The dazzling Roman beauty began in bit parts in costume pictures and graduated to earthy comedies before finally making the jump to Hollywood with this movie, Stanley Kramer’s The Pride and the Passion and Henry Hathaway’s Legend of the Lost.
Earlier ‘see Europe on the big color screen’ epics sometimes resembled fancy travelogues, offering postcard views of scenery and local culture. Three Coins in the Fountain interrupted the flow of its romantic story with leisurely montages, and opened with a six-minute Frank Sinatra music video backed by images of a fancy gardens. Producer Sam Engel didn’t short-change the customers for Boy on a Dolphin. Ivan Moffat and Dwight Taylor’s screenplay integrates the Greek locations into the story. Nobody stands in front of rear projection screens or plays their half of a scene from the Fox back lot in Los Angeles. With its beautiful beaches and sunny seaside towns, the movie feels like a vacation.
Impoverished Phaedra (Sophia Loren) and her younger brother Niko (Piero Giagnoni) tend a windmill on the isle of Hydra and help Phaedra’s Albanian boyfriend Rhif (Jorge Mistral) dive for sponges. On the sea bottom she discovers an ancient statue of a boy riding a dolphin, and with the advice of local doctor Hawkins (Laurence Naismith) goes to Athens to find a rich American to sell it to. Phaedra contacts honest art expert Dr. James Calder (Alan Ladd), who formerly worked for the Army to return treasures stolen during the war. Calder takes a break from his restoration of the Acropolis to help Phaedra, but international art smuggler Victor Parmalee (Clifton Webb), a millionaire with a yacht and unlimited funds, intercepts her and uses promises of riches to get Phaedra and her partners to work for him instead. Phaedra misleads Calder on a wild statue hunt, while Parmalee and Rhif make arrangements to move and hide the statue.
Although too long at almost two hours, Boy on a Dolphin is an attractive, relaxing adventure story. Sophia Loren lives up to her promise as the Italian Marilyn Monroe, Alan Ladd is an agreeable low-key hero, and Clifton Webb reverts to his earlier, more villainous roles as an effete connoisseur of fine art. When Ladd’s Dr. Calder mentions the specific Greek law forbidding the removal of national art treasures, Webb’s Parmalee says that the law was written as a response to his own crooked activities. Parmalee never engages strong-arm tactics. His worst threat is the offhand remark that Calder might find the bottom of the ocean colder than the cold soup at Parmalee’s fancy table. Even when patronizing Phaedra and her penniless friends, Parmalee has style. His gleaming yacht is a dream of dreams… there were a lot fewer multi-millionaires back in those days.
This paragraph probably comes under the heading ‘talking about the obvious.’ Sophia Loren’s introductory scene Boy on a Dolphin will never cease being excerpted in clip shows and montages. To get attention in ’50s Hollywood required something spectacular, and fresh import Loren was up against the sexy likes of Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot, who was actually appearing partly nude in her pictures. Marilyn Monroe kept her clothes on but behaved as if they were off, while her imitators Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren specialized in sexy publicity appearances, wearing dresses that would never get past the Production Code office. There is of course the famous news photo of Sophia Loren at some banquet, giving Mansfield’s plunging neckline a doubtful look. But Loren must have been determined not to let her debut American picture go unnoticed. Her Phaedra is established as sincere, reasonably honest and a devout Christian, so it’s just as a ‘nature girl’ that she’s introduced swimming underwater in billowing pants and a clinging top. But when she comes up on deck viewers received a shock: at a time when American movies couldn’t play peek-a-boo games, the costume shows practically everything, in detail suitable for a relief map. The stills from the scene are only slightly less provocative — it’s Loren’s first, indelible image as a sex object. Unlike some of her peers, Ms. Loren led with her personality, intelligence and sense of humor. She was always in control of her image, not the other way around.
The writer and filmmakers behind the similar but more violent treasure hunt movie The Deep surely knew Boy on a Dolphin very well – it seems clear that Jacqueline Bisset purposely duplicated Sophia Loren’s sensational ‘wet’ scene.
Loren’s ‘natural’ beach girl Phaedra wins our support at all times. She’s only slightly intimidated by the swank Athens restaurants, and must struggle to wear shoes with heels for the first time. We really like to see her receive nice clothes, the jewelry etc. She performs in two rather forced dance scenes. Loren is better doing a Greek number here then she is pretending at flamenco in The Pride and the Passion. She still comes off as wholly Italian, a spirited Romana having a good time.
Alan Ladd was brought in to replace Cary Grant. The star is placid and passive, yet still an effective romantic hero. It’s said that Ladd hated the picture and his co-star, which seems odd, but there had to be some good reason; working in these beautiful places and being waited on hand and foot couldn’t have been that bad. In many shots with Loren, Ladd does appear to be standing on a box; his knees are closer to her hips than seems logical. We never see them standing on the same level. It’s too bad that cultural conventions saw taller women with shorter men as a turn-off. I would think that the arrangement would make Ladd seem even more virile.
Clifton Webb is his usual elitist, disdainful self. Annoying at first, Clifton Webb’s Parmalee becomes almost charming when gently patronizing his unsophisticated partners on Hydra. He’s as laid back as a villain can get. At his most sinister, Parmalee is almost relaxing. When Parmalee makes the tangential remark about the bottom of the sea being as cold as the soup we almost expect Calder to say, ‘Come again? Can you make that death threat a little more understandable?’
It’s refreshing to see a thriller of this kind not resort to open mayhem — it’s an Indiana Jones competition between gentlemen. But the plot does tend to sag in the middle. Phaedra is supposed to be pulling the wool over Calder’s eyes but he’s smart enough to figure out where the treasure is on his own. And we of course have no doubt that Phaedra will choose Calder as the better man. The show could easily lose twenty minutes without flinching. And it’s not the music and travelogue material that wants to go — the pace just needs a little picking up. Three years later Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri would make a much bigger splash with Never on Sunday, its own collection of sentimental fantasies about Greece, far more adult and less travelogue-ish.
The fact that Boy on a Dolphin sneaked past the Production Code without cuts is a happy case of Hollywood hypocrisy. The Greeks were tough negotiators. In exchange for cooperation they clearly mandated a few things in the storyline. Alan Ladd’s Calder tells us more than once that removing art treasures from the country is strictly forbidden. A wily Greek cop (Alexis Minotis, of Land of the Pharaohs) shadows the proceedings at all times, letting us know that Parmalee’s smuggling efforts probably won’t succeed. Calder mentions the fact that Greece has been raided of its art heritage for over 300 years; it reminds us of Melina Mercouri’s campaigns to get the Elgin Marbles, stolen long ago by British occupiers, returned from London. Cooperation apparently had other strings attached as well. In the dance scene, a line of smiling citizens watches Phaedra go through her steps. My instincts tell me that the ‘extras’ are family members of Greek contacts, shoehorned into the scene to keep the locals happy.
Also note that the film’s tainted characters are all foreigners — Clifton Webb’s Parmalee, the greedy English doctor. The thuggish Rhif is supposed to be Albanian — a crook from a Communist country. The finale strikes a blow for Greek pride and heritage — after everybody else’s plans fail, the tiny fisher-boy Niko saves the day.
Other notes on the show: The underwater scenes look as though they were filmed in an aquarium, through glass. Sophia Loren is seen in some underwater close-ups, that don’t look like they were filmed dry-for-wet. But her swimming double for most shots is Scilla Gabel, who would soon take a chance on an acting career of her own. The money Parmalee uses to pay off Rhif is some of the most fake U.S. currency I’ve ever seen, and we get a really close look at it. And finally, there’s something almost sad about the stunning beauty of the film’s landscapes, seascapes and views of the Parthenon. Sixty years have passed, and they can’t possibly still be as untouched and beautiful as we see them here.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Boy on a Dolphin is a terrific scan and encoding of a film that once looked pretty shabby on TV, especially when ruined with pan-scanning. The avoidance of opticals and rear projection helps provide a clean and bright look. Milton Krasner’s cinematography is excellent — the notoriously flawed CinemaScope lenses show little or no distortion. Perhaps the film was given access to a ‘good’ set of lenses. Director Jean Negulesco (Johnny Belinda) doesn’t use many close-ups, but I didn’t see any instances of the CinemaScope mumps. If you want pretty pictures and a ’50s style sex education, this picture fits the bill.
Julie London receives no credit for her singing under the main titles, which seems unusual. Did she not have a good agent? Or is it true that the voice we hear is really that of a ‘Mary Kay,’ as reported in some references? If we’re to believe the IMDB, the main song by Takis Morakis is also heard in 2015’s The Lobster, sung by Tonis Maroudas, the guitarist who sings it on camera in this movie. Whenever the divers approach the title relic on the ocean floor, Hugo Friedhofer’s effective music is accompanied by the wordless siren singing of vocal specialist Marni Nixon.
The original show is said to have been mixed and distributed in 4-track magnetic stereo, but I think the track on Kino’s disc is mono. The disc comes with an original trailer and several trailers for other Sophia Loren pictures.
Boy on a Dolphin Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Sophia Loren trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 20, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson