12 March 2010 | lor_
Glamorous Stars have to pay the rent too.
This very disappointing Italian sex comedy dashed my illusions. I had the Pollyanna notion that the thousands of interesting-sounding Italian films from the '60s and '70s unreleased (or barely released) in the U.S. were automatically hidden gems. This is a clunker that proves professionalism is not enough -there has to be a tad bit of inspiration for a film to be watchable.
Like all Italian film devotees, I lament the steep decline of that nation's industry over the past 25 years or so. Virtually no Italian film merits wide distribution anymore in America, and very few are shown here at all, comparing with the dozens of wonderful imports we used to get, numbering as many as a hundred per year back in the peak glory days of the Sixties into Seventies. Their factory system seems to have come undone, a calamity I date back to roughly 1983 when the filmmakers were forced by law (the actors' union having won a pivotal case in court) to henceforth make their films with direct sound recording, ending the era (symbolized by Fellini) of MOS, silent movies dubbed into Italian (or whatever) later, that were infinitely more creative than what has followed.
With this cast I was expecting something fun & hopefully superior to the Hollywood crap of the late '60s -fading Doris Day styled vehicles. But instead the English-track version of TELEPHONE OPERATOR, with Claudia and John Philip Law articulating their dialog in English, adequately post-synched later, is dumb, obvious and relentlessly unfunny & unsexy. We see pros going through the motions in sub-TV-sitcom situations, helmed by a director (Fondato) who was given big stars (like these or Monica Vitti) but had little comedy talent. And he had to compete with over a dozen of the greatest comedy directors of all time: Germi, Risi, Monicelli, Scola, Lattuada, Wertmuller, Comencini, etc.!
Cardinale and Spaak are unlikely roommates -trying to make a living at menial jobs, notably the title telephone operator gig (for Claudia) and apprentice hairdresser (Catherine), while stealing each other's succession of boy friends. Cardinale is the lovable one, while Spaak is styled as mean-spirited, not villainous but just nasty to our dear Claudia. The guys are handsome and enthusiastic actors but there's just no funny material here to work with (Fondato is basically a screenwriter known for writing Bud Spencer comedies, so let's blame him) and though the femmes strip to their underwear it's not sexy either. If Fondato had piloted Laura Antonelli's, Stefania Sandrelli's or Serena Grandi's careers, I suspect we never would have heard of them, so wasteful is he of his superstars' abilities.
I concede that stars had to keep working, cranking out many films in a well-greased system like Italy had during the '60s, not unlike the ongoing production mania of Bollywood in India. Producers flitted from briefly popular genre to genre: sword & sandals, supernatural horror, westerns, comedies (always a staple), violent horror thrillers, political dramas; crime/action programmers, and ultimately sex films (increasingly explicit) ended the cycle. What is disturbing about TELEPHONE OPERATOR is how it wasted two of the arguably "hottest" performers of the time. Made in 1969 it closely followed on the heels of Spaak's career peak, starring as THE LIBERTINE, a huge international success including Radley Metzger's distribution of the film in the U.S. Claudia was coming off starring in the movie that puts her in the history books, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, not to mention the fact that she had long-since established herself as a Hollywood star with many big titles ranging from CIRCUS WORLD and THE PROFESSIONALS to romantic comedies opposite Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis. It is inexplicable, other than the old Mario Puzo gimmick in THE GODFATHER involving a horse's head, why she would be forced to work for Fondato a couple of times.
Similarly slumming is John Philip Law, basically taking up space as the most dim-witted of Claudia's boyfriends here. He stooped to pick up a paycheck for TELEPHONE OPERATOR right after starring in a remarkable string of contrasting yet all successful (in their own genres) films: THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, DEATH RIDES A HORSE, HURRY SUNDOWN, DANGER: DIABOLIK, BARBARELLA and a critically acclaimed breakthrough THE SERGEANT. In a 3-year period that's an unbelievable run, yet his agent signed him up for this sludge? Go figure.
My explanation would be that stars then, as now, would routinely make some fast cash in a given market as long as it did not conflict with their main career. The analogy for today would be how many U.S. major figures like Woody Allen will go to Japan and do TV commercials, confident that they never see the light of day back home in America. TELEPHONE OPERATOR did briefly play in the U.S. in 1973 (I never had a chance to see it - it didn't get a wide release at all), but obviously did not affect the stars' careers adversely.