The good folks who bring us Critica Retro and Wide Screen World are hosting The Jack Lemmon Blogathon on March 30th and 31st. Thank you to Le and Rich for the opportunity. Day 1 Day 2
Sabrina Fair was a Broadway hit for playwright Samuel Taylor in 1953 starring Margaret Sullavan and Joseph Cotten. In 1954 Taylor collaborated with Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman on the Oscar nominated screenplay for the film adaption, Sabrina, starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.
A scant 18 years later, Wilder took a flyer on another Taylor play, this time collaborating with I.A.L. Diamond on a film version of a less successful play mounted during the 1968 Broadway season called Avanti! aka A Touch of Spring.
Avanti! is romantic, caustic, satirical, screwball and a travelogue. The travelogue is courtesy of the location shooting on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. The screwball aspects are courtesy of the outrageous characters and sight gags. The satirical cannot be withheld from a Wilder picture and here we poke fun at American business, American politicians, class conscious sensibilities and funerals.
Juliet Mills as Pamela Piggott
The romantic is courtesy of Miss Pamela Piggott of London. She has come to a beautiful resort for the unhappy task of escorting her mother's remains back home after a fatal car accident. Soft-hearted and open to her surroundings, Pamela gets swept up in the beauty around her and the vibrations of a love affair.
Jack Lemmon as Wendell Armbruster Jr.
The caustic is courtesy of Wendell Armbruster Jr. of Baltimore. Vice President of Armbruster Industries and son of that company's founder, Wendell has come to a beautiful resort for the unhappy task of escorting his father's remains back home after a fatal car accident. On top of the loss, Wendell is feeling imposed upon and that feeling is about to double and redouble during his time in Italy.
Wendell's conception of his father's life is about to take a sudden and wild left-hand turn. Armbruster Sr. has not been making trips to this health resort for the last decade purely for its healing mud baths. Armbruster Sr. was spending each summer with his lover, Miss Piggott's mother.
Wendell: You can dig up a couple of coffins.
Carlucci: You want second-hand coffins?
Pamela is not faced with shock such as that which faces Wendell. She knew all about "Willy and Kate", as the lovebirds referred to each other. Sad as she is at the loss, Pamela finds comfort in the idea that the couple were with each other at the end and suggests they should remain that way by being buried here in Italy. After all, the red tape is so cumbersome.
Wendell is aghast. His father may have been a philanderer, but that philanderer will be buried in three days time in Baltimore with high ranking politicians in attendance and plants all over the country shut down so employees can see the funeral on closed-circuit television, in color! Except for Puerto Rico. They get black and white.
Clive Revill as Carlo Carlucci
I love the shot above where Jack Lemmon's face is hidden by the flower display. It sends me into fits of giggles as the director of the hotel, Carlo Carlucci is explaining to Wendell that the bodies (both of them) have disappeared from the morgue. The owners of the vineyard desecrated by the car accident require compensation. It is a well-known Italian saying that if there is death in the vineyard, the wine will be sour. No checks. No American money. They want German francs. You can't argue with aggrieved vintners.
Pamela tries the green pasta "for colour".
Above, Pamela throws caution to the wind and dives into a dish of pasta. A running gag in the screenplay is that Pamela (all 133 lbs of her) constantly obsesses about her weight. Even other people obsess about her weight. It is silly. Juliet Mills is gorgeous. Nonetheless, there it is. We don't always see ourselves as others see us.
Management and staff at the hotel were very fond of "Willy and Kate" and are sentimentally pleased when Wendell and Pamela, in their parents clothes, come to dinner to enjoy the food and the music. Wendell is beginning to understand this secret life his father enjoyed.
Wendell: Miss Piggot, please keep in mind that it's Sunday and this is a Catholic country!
Early the next morning, after wine and liquor she was not used to, Pamela gets Wendell to follow another tradition of their parents. A naked swim in the clear waters followed by sun bathing on the rocks. Wendell is not as comfortable as Pamela in this activity. However, he is just as photogenic.
Bruno, the hotel valet, has a camera. He has pictures of "Willy and Kate" in the all-together and now he has pictures of Wendell and Pamela to make a complete set. Bruno wants something from Wendell. Bruno wants to return to the United States from which he was deported. He wants to get away from the Sicilian maid who is expecting his child. Bruno really should know better than to cross a pregnant Sicilian woman.
Complications, misunderstandings and character growth lead to ... well, it leads to what we've been expecting since this story began. Should they? Shouldn't they? Maybe there are lessons here to be learned from the past. Maybe it simply says something about the present.
You will not believe what has just happened in this scene.
Confusion ensues when the State Department, in the form of an old chum played by Edward Andrews gets involved. Pronouncements on the Middle East, disdain for foreigners and a general bluster accompany Andrews character's bulldozing his way into the hotel and into the middle of Wendell's affairs.
At 140 mintues, Avanti! is longer than I usually like my comedies. However, Avanti! does not drag; it has instead a deliberate and leisurely pace. Funny and endearing incidents pull the audience into the situations and reactions from funny and touching characters. Laugh-out-loud moments abound in the wry dialogue and the amusing sight gags. All the while we learn to care for our leads.
Jack Lemmon's role in Avanti! is responsible for one of the six Golden Globe wins out of 20 nominations that he received in his film career. Juliet Mills and Clive Revill were nominated in the Actress and Supporting Actor (Musical or Comedy) categories. The film was also nominated for Best Screenplay and for Best Picture.
I find Avanti! one of the true comedy gems of its time, a hidden treasure in Billy Wilder's deep filmography and a joyful part of his work with his favourite actor, and ours, Jack Lemmon.