Sunday, 24 February 2013

The White Sheik [Lo sceicco bianco] (Italy, 1952); Dir. Federico Fellini

Had it been made later in his career one surmises that Fellini's The White Sheik might have more closely resembled the picture it partially inspired: Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo (1984). Both films share a common theme of an unassuming woman being fleetingly transported into a fantasy world of romance and adventure before an inevitable withdrawal back to reality.

As it is this is a fairly restrained directorial debut from the Maestro, albeit with plenty of hints of what was to come. The story centres around newlywed couple Wanda (Brunella Bovo) and Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste), who have arrived at a hotel in Rome for their honeymoon. Whilst the punctilious, petit-bourgois Ivan enthuses about their packed itinerary and meeting with his relatives, Wanda is more concerned with the opportunity to meet try and the star of her favourite Arabian Nights-inspired fumetti* - the eponymous 'White Sheik' - and promptly absconds in pursuit of her idol.

No sooner has Wanda arrived at the serial's production office and explained her desire to meet the Sheik (she's even drawn a picture of him) than she's whisked off to take part in filming his next adventure. Meanwhile a frantic Ivan attempts to discover what's become of his wife whilst trying to conceal the facts from his relatives, who are are anxious to meet her. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Ivan's uncle has arranged for them to meet the Pope and have their marriage blessed the following day.

Taken to a beach where scenes for the photo-story are being shot, Wanda is introduced to the whirling, carnivalesque world of a production, where fantasy and reality grow increasingly blurred; it's unmistakably Fellini territory, if not yet with the polish of Otto e Mezzo. But her enchantment with the Sheik becomes all the more baffling when we finally meet him. Portrayed by Alberto Sordi , who would go on to become Italy's most popular comedy actor, he's not so much a second rate Rudy Valentino as bargain basement; his podgy features being a far cry from most people's idea of a romantic hero. And yet the Sheik appears beguiled by Wanda and - as she falls deeper into the illusion's seduction - the pair set off to sea together in a tiny sail boat, much to the dismay of the crew.

Disillusion arrives abruptly when they return to shore and Wanda is 'introduced' to the Sheik's battleaxe of a wife; it transpires he's more serial philanderer than serial hero and his other half is less than enamored with the young hussy who's caught his eye. As the production wraps and the crew head off a distraught Wanda is left to make her own way home.

In Allen's film - set against a backdrop of Depression-era America - the effect is tragicomic; Mia Farrow's character Cecilia, broken and disappointed, retreats back into the illusion of the cinema to avoid an uncertain future. By contrast Fellini's contemporary film was made during the dawning of the Italian economic miracle; Ivan's relatives are keen to show him all the sights of the renaissant capital and optimism is a striking contrast to that of the Neorealist movement which was already drawing towards a close. Superficially at least the conclusion is an optimistic one, with the reunited Wanda, Ivan and his relatives heading to the Vatican for their meeting with the Pope.

Yet haven't Ivan's frantic attempts to keep up appearances and make the engagement only papered over the cracks? Like Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross at the end of The Graduate there's a caustic irony in their closing glances that suggests the future of the relationship is less than rosy.

*'Fumetti', is the Italian term for comics; it literally means "little puffs of smoke" after the speech balloons commonly used.  Whilst traditional illustrated comics found a readership amongst children, the late forties saw the emergence of magazines featuring which used sequences of still photographs instead. These 'photoromanzi', which typically told epic love stories and were roughly analogous with soap operas, were hugely popular with Italian women right through to the eighties.

Mr Deeds Goes to Town (US, 1936, Dir. Frank Capra)

Most people with a passing awareness of film history will have at least heard of Frank Capra, but perhaps not all will appreciate just what an exalted status the director had in 1930's Hollywood. Before the likes of Welles, Hitchcock or Sturges had truly emerged, and long before film writers began scrutinising the output of Howard Hawks and John Ford, Capra enjoyed a standing unseen since the heyday of DW Griffith.

This was due in no small part to the enormous success of his seminal screwball comedy It Happened One Night, the top grossing film of 1934 and the first to ever pick up all five major Oscars. It swelled Capra's pockets and his ego, allowing him unprecedented leverage with his studio Columbia (hereafter his name would appear above the title), but with the expectation he could deliver more of the same.

For their follow-up Capra and his regular collaborator Robert Riskin eventually settled on a serialised story called Opera Hat, by the prolific author Clarence Budington Kelland. Given that Budington, who would later dabble in politics, was an ardent conservative and critic of Roosevelt's New Deal it's ironic that Riskin's script would espouse an economic policy that draws obvious parallels with that of FDR. But by all accounts the writer only took the bare bones of the original premise: that of a simple country man (Gary Cooper) who suddenly finds himself the reluctant inheritor of his late uncle's $20m fortune.

Naturally not everyone is best pleased that this yokel has his hands on unfathomable riches, particularly when it becomes apparent to his legal advisors that he may not be the malleable puppet they'd hoped for and begins making rather radical plans to redistribute his wealth amongst the poor. He also draws the attention of a savvy reporter (Jean Arthur) who makes a play for his affections in ruthless pursuit of an exclusive only to fall under the spell of his bashful whimsy.

It seems that Cooper was Capra's first and only choice for the eponymous Longfellow Deeds and it's hard to imagine any leading man, even James Stewart, who could have embodied the hero's gauche, straight-talking decency to such captivating effect. Cooper's unique quality was an ability to turn his limitations as an actor into an asset; his physical stature and chiselled looks may be imposing but his brittleness translates into fragility. To see his moral convictions shattered by a manipulative, cynical world is a painful experience.

Events culminate in a court hearing in which Deeds, whose sanity has been called into question by his former lawyers and another claimant to his uncle's estate, must prove he's compos mentis and regain his faith in humanity. It's a rousing if contrived finale.

In his commentary track for the dvd reissue of the film Frank Capra Jr suggests his father felt compelled to raise questions about his own success, and the egregious excess of Hollywood in general, in a period when regular working Americans were undergoing great hardship. One could observe there were probably more constructive ways of addressing this than making it the subtext of a film. What's more even if we were to take it as a rallying cry for social reform it leaves unanswered questions; we never see the final result of Deeds' radical ideas and by the conclusion he might be perceived as dangerously akin to a demagogue.

Capra would return to these themes in the other films in this triptych, Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and perhaps most provocatively Meet John Doe (1941). In the latter film, in which Cooper again becomes the unwitting champion of the common man, the director comes close to intimating that beneath the crowd-pleasing sentiments he may have felt greater ambivalence towards the masses than is generally held.