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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Ambassador's Daughter (1956) - Not as Bad as All That

What is the proper etiquette when something stares out at you like a sore thumb, but it would be considered impolite to mention it because it would hurt the other person's feelings?  You get that dilemma a lot when reviewing movies, because being honest and telling the truth can hurt peoples' feelings and sensitivities.  Readers tend to transfer criticism from its intended target onto themselves when they like a movie and you criticize someone in it for being obviously mis-cast.  "Oh, how rude" and all that.

Well, "The Ambassador's Daughter" is a perfect example of this (and there are plenty of others in my other reviews).   The elephant in the room here is Olivia de Havilland.  Lovely woman, great actress, and way too old for the part she plays here. I mean, it isn't even a close call.  It's like having a teenager play a baby, that's how poorly this plays out.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to watch this movie and not notice that - though most would be "too polite" to actually say it.  Bottom line, it ruins the entire film, though it does have some interesting aspects.

"The Ambassador's Daughter" fits in perfectly with all the other 1950s films about cheeky Americans finding love in wild Europe ("Roman Holiday," "Indiscretion of an American Wife," "An American in Paris," and so on and so forth).  It is a fairly claustrophobic comedy of manners from the mid-1950s. It concerns Americans abroad doing the usual shenanigans they would only do there because they are bored and have nothing useful to do. Well, one would think that a Senator, an Ambassador, and the others would actually have work to do, but apparently not.

And there's your first clue that this is a chick flick. Olivia de Havilland, playing title character Joan Fisk, clearly is looking for love (she and Myrna Loy are shown flirting outrageously with waiters and so forth), so she and her Greek chorus of eminent functionaries concoct a scheme wherein she will test the courting manners of American servicemen. Everything is ever so proper in that mid-1950s way, with a timid serviceman Danny Sullivan (was this part intended for Gene Kelly?), played by John Forsythe, selected as the prey. Naturally, there are misunderstandings and hurt feelings and reconciliations and all that. Fisk doesn't reveal who she really is, a high society lady, so she can be sure his feelings for her are pure. Oh, my. Of course, Danny has to be kind of dim to think she is some kind of ordinary model (her pretended occupation) when she prances around town in high couture and appears loaded with cash, but that's a given in this kind of film, the nice but somewhat dim guy being ensnared by the in-control woman. Why she doesn't just tell him who she is kind of eludes me, I guess the assumption is that the average American soldier is a gold-digger.

But mom, I really like her ..  I mean, you.


Along the way, we are treated to a) a ballet and b) a fashion show, and not just as background - actual screen time is spent on these things. And then there are the Christian Dior fashions the ladies are wearing, and men who dress to the hilt even on their days off and sit around in drawing rooms drinking tea.

Olivia admiring the lovely drapes
 
Everything is just-so. Forsythe's character loses his wallet and accuses Joan of stealing it, but naturally it is immediately found and she gets the upper hand. One isn't sure if she is merely acting to further the scheme when with Sullivan and kind of flirting (and kind of looking like she is stifling a yawn), or if in fact she really feels something for the passive Sullivan. This isn't clarified when she's away from him, either, when she struggles to look even slightly sad when declaring that Danny really is boorish after a misunderstanding. But then suddenly, at the end of the film (after knowing him for about 24 hours!) she suddenly acts as if he is the love of her life. As for Forsythe, he takes the term "mellow" to new heights here, but does manage to look somewhat morose when he thinks she's lying to him. But then, he suddenly gets excited and proposes, then immediately takes it back. Not a very energetic performance. In fact, not much of a performance at all.  He isn't right for his part, either.  But since de Havilland is the same way, basically just drifting through her scenes, he does at least blend in with the sumptuous backgrounds, along with the fine wines, the fancy tablecloths, and the high fashion.

"Ma'am, are there any cute girls around here?"
 
This is like a Jane Austin drawing-room romance set in 1950s Paris. But that is putting it in top-notch company that this production definitely does not deserve. Everybody seems to be forced into everything that happens, until the end, when suddenly there is this burst of passion that heretofore has been completely unnoticeable. It is all very mystifying what the screenwriter was thinking, and for that matter the director. Oh wait, they're the same guy! Some productions really do need checks and balances, and this is one of them.

I can forgive the strange casting. De Havilland does look charming all dolled up, even with her years, and it is conceivable that she could attract a younger man. Do you want a low-voltage 1950s chick flick with top names and not much going on? Here it is.

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