Friday 24 July 2020

Little Rita of the West

Dir:  Ferdinando Baldi


The Italians went mad for westerns in the mid 1960s and they took many shapes and forms.  There were traditional style westerns attempting to mimic the American originals and others brazenly stamping a new, European style on the genre. There followed many, many clones, some better than others, all attempting to ride on the coat tails of the most successful.  For a short period of time everyone in the Italian film industry was looking to get in on the act. The prolific comedy duo of Franco and Ciccio were making spoof westerns as early as 1965 and there were an assortment of western treatments to all kinds of stories from Shakespeare to Greek tragedy, from whodunnits to heist capers.  It's no surprise then that the west became a vehicle for a pop star or two and, in the case of Little Rita of the West, a full blown musical. Or to be more accurate, a "musicarello".  That is to say, a romantic comedy featuring a pop star and filled with pop songs.  In the UK or America these would probably feature someone like Cliff Richard or Elvis.  In Italy they had Gianni Morandi and Rita Pavone.

Pavone was the little girl with the big voice in the 60s Italian pop scene and had massive success at home and abroad.  Off the back of this an opportunity to appear in films was unsurprising and her success on screen was also significant.  Also, unsurprising is that it was in the Musicarello sub genre that her films were created so it is perhaps as a Musicarello, as much as a spaghetti western, that we should probably judge Little Rita of the West. 

Little Rita is the fastest straight shooter in the west and spends her time battling assorted ne'er do wells to take their ill-gotten gold and pass it on to her friend Chief Silly Bull who intends freeing the world from the evil of white men's greed by destroying all the gold he can.  The said ne'er do wells are immediately familiar to any spaghetti fan from previous hit films from the genre.  There's Ringo (actually a clone of the Man with No Name) and Django (complete with coffin, machine gun and damaged hands) and both are dispatched in comic fashion by our diminutive heroine.  These confrontations are played strictly for laughs but are well choreographed replays from previous films and director Ferdinando Baldi shows his action filmmaker chops to good effect at times.  But this is a Musicarello so there has to be a love interest and that is supplied by blue eyed Mario Girotti, playing Blackie/Black Stan/Black Star (take your pick depending on which dub you watch) under his soon to become famous anglicised stage name of Terence Hill.  This was the first time Hill used this name but he kept it for his next two films, both westerns, and the success of these led him to keep it permanently.  In fact he only appeared under his original name once more and that was later the same year in another Musicarello with Pavone, Il Feldmarescialla.

In fact Hill is badly underused here, especially considering he is the romantic lead, but I guess it's reasonable to allow they didn't yet know quite what an asset they had on their hands. Up to this point he had been playing supporting roles in a variety of projects.  Most regularly in some of the German Karl May westerns but also in other genres.  In fact his previous role before this one was in another musicarello directed by Baldi, Io non protesto, io amo with Caterina Caselli. Hill's career would explode later in this same year with his first teaming with Bud Spencer in Giuseppe Colizzi's God Forgives... I Don't! and things would never be the same again.

The rest of the cast is strong with Fernando Sancho as the ubiquitous Mexican bandit, Gordon Mitchell as the somewhat absurd Indian chief, Kirk Morris and Enzo Di Natale as Ringo and Django respectively and Lucio Dalla as the comic sidekick Fritz.  Pavone's manager and future husband Teddy Reno also gets a look in as the cowardly sheriff always looking for a quiet life, one of the genuinely funniest parts and one he plays well.

A good musicarello relies on good songs though and I have to say in this area I think the quality is patchy.  There are a couple of songs which are really catchy (the theme song over the credits is one for sure) and the ballad in the middle of the film is also nice and fits well but some others didn't quite hit the mark for me.  Possibly the western setting was part of the problem as it's hard to force in a contemporary pop song in typical musicarello fashion when the backdrop is 19th century America.  As a result some of the songs seem to try to be Broadway musical style but don't quite get it right. The choreography is ok and the dancers are all fine but somehow the theme just doesn't quite fit for me.

Baldi was a fine director and worked successfully in many different genres including a couple of musicals.  Moreover his biggest box office successes were with comedies but, for me, his talents were best suited to the straight western and although Little Rita was apparently one of his favourite films to make it can hardly be considered his best whichever way you look at it.

For all that the film has certainly grown on me over the years with frequent viewings but it is neither one of the best musicarellos or the best westerns.  In a way it suffers from trying to be two things at once and succeeds only in diminishing its appeal as either.  It has its moments and is genuinely funny at times.  Pavone is also charming, looking for all the world like a real life Jessie from Toy Story 2, and was a big talent with a big voice.  But sometimes the box office tells its own story and this was her lowest performing film by far, with numbers well below those reached by the "Zanzara" films made with Lina Wertmuller.

So not a great musicarello or western but a slightly uncomfortable hybrid of both.  Yet despite all that its various strong points somehow combine to make a very watchable and diverting film which raises a smile and gets your foot tapping.  Well, it did mine anyway.  And I guess that's all you can really ask of a comedy western musical, right?

For the purposes of this review I watched two different DVD releases with different language dubs.  The English language dub on the Italian Alan Young DVD release is actually the one I prefer as the humour comes across better in English for me.  But the Italian dub with English subtitles on the Japanese Imagica disc has the benefit of subtitles for the songs which are in Italian on either dub.  As in most musicals the songs help tell the story so if you don't understand what is being sung you are losing some useful information.  A mixture of the two would be great but the Imagica disc also includes some nice interviews with Pavone, her husband Teddy Reno and Ferdinando Baldi so is probably the better release if you can get it.

Friday 3 July 2020

One Silver Dollar

Dir:  Giorgio Ferroni


1965 was the year when the western went from being a curiosity to a phenomenon in Italy.  Leone's A Fistful of Dollars had shown in the previous year that an Italian take on the genre could be very popular.  In '65 his For a Few Dollars More blew the lid off and took over 3 billion lire at the domestic box office.  This was far and away the biggest grossing domestic film in Italy that year but it was in very good company, with all five of the top grossing domestic productions that year being westerns.  It was also the year in which the Italian film industry discovered they could have big success in the genre with home grown talent because the other four of those five top grossing films starred the same local actor, Giuliano Gemma.  Gemma became a superstar in Italy that year and became synonymous with the character of Ringo used in the title of two of his best known films, A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo.  Both Ringo films did great business in 1965 but Gemma's top grossing film of that year, and the film second only to For a Few Dollars More in domestic box office revenue was neither of those.  It was One Silver Dollar.

Still unsure of the bankability of home grown talent in such a quintessentially American genre as the western, Italian producers had been routinely creating pseudonyms for key personnel in order to give the impression that their films were "the real thing".  So Gemma was billed as Montgomery Wood in his first three westerns.  It quickly became apparent that this was unnecessary however and by the end of the year he was using his own name.  For One Silver Dollar then, his second western, he appears as Montgomery Wood while fellow Italian starlet Ida Galli is Evelyn Stewart and director Giorgio Ferroni is Kelvin Jakson Paget!

In A Pistol for Ringo Gemma had played a cynical, self-seeking character whose morals are cloudy at best.  A trickster looking to feather his own nest by positioning himself between the good guys and bad guys and playing them against each other to his own advantage. The following year he would play a similar role in Arizona Colt but for the most part Gemma would be cast as a hero with clear morals trying to clear his name or win back what had been stolen from him.  These were the roles that fit his image best and it was in One Silver Dollar that this image was first set.

Demobbed from the Confederate army at the end of the civil war Gary O'Hara (Gemma) heads home to his wife in Virginia while his brother sets off west to leave persecution behind him and seek his fortune.  Gary soon follows while arranging for his wife to do the same once the farm is sold.  Sadly, the west is as full of the old North/South divisions as anywhere and the brothers find themselves unknowingly pitted against each other by the unscrupulous town boss.  Gary kills his brother and is left for dead himself but survives and soon returns to set things straight.

If you like Gemma, and I do, there's a lot to like about One Silver Dollar.  It showcases his affable charm and athleticism in a good balance of melodrama and action; allowing plenty of space for well choreographed fight scenes and some fancy gun play.  It is decidedly traditional American in style but this suits Gemma's persona well.  He was never the type to play "squinting Clint" kinds of roles.  The wronged hero was always a better fit and so this film fits him like a glove.  Some of his trademark athletic tricks were still yet to surface but there is plenty of leaping onto horses and throwing himself around to enjoy and give hints as to what was to come in later films.  Ferroni's direction is also solid and his partnership with writer and assistant director Giorgio Stegano was clearly a fruitful one.  Marco Giusti states in his Dizionario del Western All'Italiana that the pair worked very much as a team and that the film feels as much Stegani's as Ferroni's.  Either way, its was a partnership which suited Gemma well and the pair worked together or separately with Gemma on three more westerns over the next couple of years, all following a similar style.  The score by Gianni Ferrio is also excellent with the theme tune a haunting, low key affair that stays with you for a long time after the film has finished.  This proved to be the beginning of another long association as Ferrio went on to score a total of seven Gemma westerns.

The supporting cast all do a fine job without any stand out performances.  Ida Galli covers all three bases required of her in a typically undemanding role for a woman in an Italian western, she looks pretty, in love and frightened with equal reliability but is never asked to do more sadly.  Nello Pazzafini plays the heavy henchman well in what was to become a regular part for him in many other Gemma westerns and the town boss and shady sheriff are played effectively if somewhat unmemorably by Pierre Cressoy and Franco Fantasia.

Un Dollaro Bucato showed that not all Italian westerns had to follow Leone's path to be successful.  It was a decidedly traditional western in style and had an uncompromisingly moral hero at its centre.  It was family friendly yet still enjoyable for the slightly more cynical viewer and is just a plain old enjoyable western.  Moreover, it was shot entirely in Italy and clearly had a restricted budget.

It also showed that in Giuliano Gemma Italy had a real star who could out-perform almost any other overseas actor at the domestic box office on a regular basis.  It was not until the emergence of Franco Nero that anyone came close to his popularity at home and not until the tag team of Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer that it was surpassed.  You can't discuss the genre without mentioning Gemma and One Silver Dollar is still one of his best.

For this review I watched the Japanese Imagica DVD from one of their Macaroni Western box sets.  It offers the film in Italian and English with English and Japanese subtitles.  The picture and sound is uniformly good although some of the scenes set at dusk are a little dark and difficult to make out.  It also includes an interview with Gemma in Italian with Japanese subs.  As always, some English subs for these interviews would have been nice.