There’s no doubt that Ava Gardner was one of the — if not the — most beautiful actress of Hollywood’s classic period. She nearly drove Frank Sinatra to suicide. Howard Hughes begged her to marry him. Actors fell over themselves to please this former “farm girl” from North Carolina.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to ruminate on a verrry odd screen couple, the stunning Ava and the earthy Magnani.
By her late Thirties, Gardner while still gorgeous but felt she had to de-emphasize the glamorous aspects of her stunning presence in favor of screen portrayals calling for “Gypsy” sensuality with little or no makeup. Even wearing underwear was considered déclassé.
It was during this period in 1960 when she costarred with British actor Dirk Bogarde and Joseph Cotton in a not-great but oddly enjoyable historical drama set during the Spanish Civil War. The picture is The Angel Wore Red, written and directed by Nunnally Johnson.
It was one of those strange international hybrids — shot in Rome and in Sicily — largely the result of big studio local box office proceeds being “frozen” by European governments. Since the money couldn’t be repatriated to the U.S., it wound up being spent on locally-made productions (many dubious) that would then be distributed back home by the financing studio, in this case MGM.
Ava’s role was that of a “cabaret singer” although it’s clear when you see The Angel Wore Red that “prostitute” is the more accurate characterization. She harbors for a night in her bedroom a handsome former priest (Bogarde) on the run from various Civil War factions. As Johnson put it, its was a tale of “horny priest and virgin-type prostie.”
Bogarde told a British newspaper in 1961 that the movie provided a magnificent part for Ava. It would have done for her what “Two Women” did for Sophia Loren. She really put her heart into it. (Two Women won Loren a best actress Oscar in 1962.)
Cotton, who portrays a veteran, one-eyed war correspondent who sports a beret and eye patch, is in the movie a dead ringer for Hollywood director Raoul Walsh. In his autobiography, Cotton said of Ava that she was born to be an actress; I never saw her make a false move or miss a word.
That opinion, it turns out, wasn’t universally shared. According to Gardner biographer Lee Server, a glimpse of the first (“Angel”) footage shot and word came down: this would not do. The higher ups claimed the footage showed her with bags under her eyes and her ass spread all across the screen.
This film starred Ava Gardner not Anna Magnani, they squawked.
(Gardner) was ordered into makeup and a girdle, prontissimo. Said Bogarde: “The life went out of Ava after that.”
Nonetheless, The Angel Wore Red is worth seeking out. The black-and-white cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno is excellent, as is the art direction overall. Then there are some amusing quirks. Director Vittorio DeSica, who plays a top-level military officer, doesn’t speak his own lines; he is dubbed by an actor sounding like a high-pitched Claude Rains.
And, Italian comedian-actor Aldo Fabrizi, whose anti-Fascist priest is so memorably executed in Robert Rossellini’s 1945 classic, Rome, Open City, plays an almost identical role in Angel, and winds up being shot by yet another firing squad.
A quirky and enjoyable movie.