A Breath of Scandal (1960)
“Once Upon a Night She Started More Than Just a Breath of Scandal”
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Sophia Loren, Maurice Chevalier, John Gavin
Synopsis: You’ll Find Yourself in a Whirlpool of Wine, Women and Wonderful Fun!
A Breath of Scandal – the very title of this 1960 movie suggests a genteel ladies flick, which is exactly what it is. It’s a throwback to those frothy romantic comedies of the1930s and ‘40s that took place in a world barely recognisable to the average viewer, and it must have seemed old-fashioned even in 1960; in fact, any moment we expect Nelson Eddy to step out from behind a tree and start warbling Live for Today. It was directed by Michael Curtiz, a classic director in his mid-70s who was nearing the end of his career, and there’s a distinct air of a man going through the motions in his direction. Things weren’t helped by the fact that Curtiz and leading lady Sophia Loren didn’t get along. She found it difficult to understand his thick Hungarian accent, so husband Carlo Ponti — who was also one of the movie’s producers — flew in Vittorio de Sica to reshoot some of the pampered Loren’s scenes when the Hungarian wasn’t around. Ponti needn’t have bothered, because the scenes de Sica directed fail to stand out, and must therefore be considered as ordinary as those helmed by Curtiz.
Loren plays Olympia, a feisty Austrian princess. Her high-spirited individuality is illustrated in the very first scene, in which we see her gaily taking pot-shots at plants and postmen from the window of the countryside mansion to which she has been exiled because of her lively temperament and propensity for dallying with the wrong sort of man. While out for a ride on her horse, Olympia is thrown from her ride when American businessman Charlie Foster (John Gavin) accidentally drives his car through a fence. Liking the look of this dark and handsome foreigner, Olympia pretends she’s suffering concussion and has him take her to a nearby lodge where she allows Foster to mistake her for a peasant (yeah, right) with the hope of maybe enjoying some illicit Euro-American relationships during the night.
However, Foster proves difficult to reel in, and when she lays on the concussion act a little too thick in order to keep him with her, he inadvertently administers a dose of medicine which knocks her out for the night after having first availed herself of a pair of his pyjamas. During the night she somehow kicks off her pyjama bottoms, and wakes up in the morning to find she’s naked from the waist down. Now, these days, any girl awakening with her last memory of the night before being to suspect her drink had been drugged will automatically assume that she’s fallen victim to some creep with a stock of rohypnol in his fridge, but these were less sexually adventurous times, and Olympia assumes she was a willing participant of the previous night’s tryst, but is unable to remember what took place because of the sleeping draught in the medicine she took. And she never does find out the truth, as far as I can tell. Anyway, Foster is nowhere to be found when she awakens, and although he has left her a note telling her he loves her, Olympia makes her getaway.
The rest of the movie involves Olympia and Foster negotiating a path fraught with obstructive royal protocol, malicious gossip-mongers and the usual collection of misunderstandings which could easily be overcome if the characters involved would just say the obvious things that would leap to any ordinary person’s lips the moment the misunderstanding came to light. Olympia’s royal status means that she is betrothed to a Prince Ruprecht (Carlo Hinterman), although she doesn’t love him, and her mother, the Princess Eugenie (Isabel Jeans) is keen to see the marriage take place as soon as possible, especially as the Countess Lina (Angela Lansbury) is actively looking for ways to derail the marriage. Of course, you don’t need me to tell you how everything turns out: A Breath of Scandal would never dare to stray from a disappointingly familiar path.
Story-wise, A Breath of Scandal is a complete dud. It was written as a stage play by Ferenc Molnar in 1928, and originally filmed the following year by Lionel Barrymore as His Glorious Night, a vehicle for John Gilbert, and writer Walter Bernstein did little to update any aspect of the story. Loren, dressed in a variety of dresses by Hoyningen Huene which accentuate her voluminous bosom and cinch in her waist to near-fetishistic levels at times, looks breath-taking, but she’s let down by Gavin, who had to be one of the least charismatic leading men to ever come out of Hollywood. A second-rate Rock Hudson — he was actually originally given a contract by Universal to keep Hudson on his toes — Gavin’s big screen career faded badly after 1960, even though he appeared in two of that year’s enduring classics: Psycho and Spartacus. It isn’t difficult to see why from his performance here. An aging but debonair Maurice Chevalier performs the part of Olympia’s father with panache, even though he could no doubt play this kind of role in his sleep, and Angela Lansbury is woefully under-used as the scheming Countess Lina. The movie looks sumptuous, and Loren looks ravishing, but it isn’t enough to overcome that turgid storyline and pedestrian treatment.
(Reviewed 14th December 2013)