“A slap in the face is so much easier than understanding.”
Cary Grant and Sophia Loren had appeared together in 1957’s The Pride and the Passion, a film that was handsomely mounted but generally suffered from miscasting. Despite its shortcomings, the film was a success. Off-screen, Cary Grant had apparently fallen in love with his co-star despite being married to Betsy Drake and he persisted in trying to convince Loren to marry him. Eager for another opportunity to appear in a film with Loren, Grant was agreeable to a starring role in Paramount’s Houseboat, a film that the studio had tabbed as a vehicle for Loren, whom they had just signed to a four picture deal. Shooting presumably was not easy for Grant, for partway through it, Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti were married by proxy in Mexico. That forced Grant to then go through the film’s marriage scene with Loren’s character knowing that real life would not be mirroring what would be on the screen. The film combined some location shooting in Washington, D.C. with interior work carried out on the Paramount lot. The completed film was a success, both critically and at the box office, and Paramount has now released it on DVD.
Tom Winters is a Washington lawyer who decides to assume custody of his three children when their mother and his ex-wife dies. The children are not happy to be with their father and one of them, eight-year old Robert, manages to run away during a concert. Eventually Robert is reunited with the rest of the family through the assistance of Cinzia Zaccardi, the attractive daughter of an Italian orchestra conductor who is on a tour in the United States. Realizing that he needs help with the children, Tom hires Cinzia to be a nanny for them. Tom also realizes that his apartment in Washington is too small and he arranges to move to a larger house in the country. Unfortunately, this plan goes awry and the family finds itself living temporarily in a dilapidated houseboat. Thrown together, the family and Cinzia struggle to make the arrangement a success. In so doing, some difficult family dynamics have to be addressed, not the least of which is a growing romance between Tom and Cinzia.
Houseboat is a pretty frothy concoction, but overall, if one is in the right mood, it can be enjoyed as an amiable time-passer, It has all the earmarks of a television sitcom translated to the big screen. In other words, if you like the various characters, you’ll probably be content to put up with them, even though the plot is pretty thin to support a nearly two-hour running time. Making up for the latter is a very polished-looking production and a strong supporting cast, even if the parts they have to play stretch our patience somewhat.
Much depends upon Cary Grant. After all, he’d played this sort of role dozens of times before and if he had allowed boredom to show, the film would have sunk without a trace. Fortunately, he does a thoroughly professional job with the material, delivering a performance as Tom that is winning and a little more complex than the sort of “Father Knows Best” portrayal that he could handle in his sleep. His relationships with the children are nicely drawn, and the effort that he must make to get through to his eldest son David is sensitively handled in the scene between the two of them that takes place on the boat while David is fishing. One imagines that the film relationship between Tom and Cinzia must have been difficult for Grant and Sophia Loren given the real-life attraction and Loren’s wedding to Ponti during shooting, yet there is no evidence of it on the screen. There is no awkwardness on either’s part and the genuine growing affection that the plot demands is very believably communicated.
Martha Hyer has little more to do than wear nice clothes and look beautiful as Grant’s other love interest in the film, while Harry Guardino is wasted in a role that reminds one of the slightly crazy next-door neighbor in a sitcom. It is nice to see familiar faces such as Murray Hamilton, Eduardo Cianelli, and John Litel in secondary roles.
Paramount helps the film a lot with a superior 1.85:1 anamorphic image transfer. The results, which obviously come from very good source material, are clean and crisp, free of edge effects, and generally very film-like in their overall impression. The only quibble is some inconsistency in skin tones, which are noticeably too red on a few occasions.
The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (in both English and French) and is in pretty good shape. Age-related hiss is virtually non-existent and the dance numbers and songs that Sophia Loren sings are free of the tinny sound that sometimes characterizes such older tracks. English subtitles are also provided.
The supplements consist of a modest gallery of 28 photo and poster images, and theatrical and teaser trailers.
If you’re a Cary Grant and/or Sophia Loren fan, I imagine you’ll enjoy Houseboat. If you’re not, your mood at the time will be key as to whether you’ll find this film appealing. There’s no denying it’s a handsomely mounted production and the two principal actors deliver fine efforts, but gloss can only hide so much when the plot is rather thin and some good actors are wasted in supporting roles. Though there’s little supplementary content to back it up, Paramount certainly tries to add to the gloss with a fine DVD image presentation. Regardless, I can’t really recommend more than a rental on this one.