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HELLER IN PINK TIGHTS (director: George Cukor; screenwriters: Walter Bernstein/Dudley Nichols/from the novel Heller With A Gun by Louis L’Amour; cinematographer: Harold Lipstein; editor: Howard Smith; music: Daniele Amfitheatrof; cast: Sophia Loren (Angela Rossini), Anthony Quinn (Tom Healy), Margaret O’Brien (Della Southby), Steve Forrest (Clint Mabry), Eileen Heckart (Mrs. Lorna Hathaway), Ramon Novarro (De Leon), Edmund Lowe (Manfred ‘Doc’ Montague), George Mathews (Sam Pierce), Edward Binns (Sheriff Ed McClain), Frank Silvera (Santis, miner), Warren Wade (Hodges, a creditor); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Marcello Girosi/Carlo Ponti; Paramount; 1960)
“It’s one of the rare Westerns that explores the barnstorming troupes in the Old West of the 19th-century.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

George Cukor (“A Star is Born/”My Fair Lady”/”The Philadelphia Story”) takes his only shot at a Western and comes out of it with mixed results. It’s a genteel spoof on the genre in the form of a showbiz Western. It’s based on the novel Heller With A Gun by Louis L’Amour and penned by Walter Bernstein and Dudley Nichols. It’s one of the rare Westerns that explores the barnstorming troupes in the Old West of the 19th-century. It was loosely based on the acting career of Adah Isaacs Menken, who played the frontier circuit in the 1860s. She performed in the opera Mazeppa on horseback. Cukor mixes in a romantic comedy melodrama about show people trying to survive in the theater with a typical shoot-’em up yarn, but the two never come together seamlessly. There’s some of the Cukor charm, enlivened by the feisty performance of the ravishing Sophia Loren, but that gives way to the long lapses into convention that brings everything down to the mundane.

In the Nebraska of 1880, two red wagons of the Healy Drama Company outrace a trailing sheriff and a creditor (Warren Wade) across the plains to the Wyoming border. The troupe arrive in Cheyenne to perform in a theater owned by the narrow-minded Mr. Pierce (George Mathews). They consist of moody actor/impresario Tom Healy (Anthony Quinn), his lovely but tempestuous magician/leading actress girlfriend Angela Rossini (Sophia Loren, adorned in a blonde wig), the 20-year-old ingénue Della Southby (Margaret O’Brien, former child star), her overbearing stage mom who won’t let her grow up, known for her “flute-playing and bird calls,” Lorna Hathaway (Eileen Heckart), and the elderly hypochondriac Shakespearean ham Manfred ‘Doc’ Montague (Edmund Lowe).

The plot has menacing gunslinger Clint Mabry (Steve Forrest) hired by crooked oily banker De Leon (Ramon Novarro, the former silent screen star’s last role) to get rid of three men who have filed a claim on mines he wants. After Mabry completes his job, De Leon chooses not to pay him and has his henchmen sneakily go after him. Maybry, in the meantime, has fallen for the fickle Angela, who seems always to get involved in a tough situation that tests the patience of Healy. The gunfighter becomes the troupe’s protector, as they once again the next day run from creditors (heading to the neighboring town of Bonanza) and are attacked by Indians in the plains. Mabry has won Angela in a poker game and aims to make sure he collects his winnings by protecting her, but this arouses the jealousy of the effete theater man.

The film was superbly photographed in lush colors (shot on location in Tucson, Arizona); it look much better than the usual B Western. Its most entertaining sequences were built around the difficulties of presenting the operettas Mazeppa and La Belle Helene to the uneducated, primitive frontier audience. But, in the end, there was too much of a routine western tale and the comedy flagged, so we could see how gaudy this enterprise really was. Sophia is asked to carry the pic but can’t because of her limited thespian ability. Quinn seemed miscast, playing the part of a man with little substance and sexual appeal, but at least he gave an understated performance rather than his usual shrill one which would have totally brought the film down.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”