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Maurice Chevalier was for so long the embodiment of the Frenchman with sex on his mind-albeit expressed in winking innuendo rather than full-blooded sensuality-that even when he played a priest late in life, as he does in the 1962 international co-production, Jessica, his main preoccupation is not so much the saving of souls as the revitalization of a healthy sex life among the Sicilian villagers in his charge.
As Father Antonio, Chevalier works overtime, and frequently converses with his Maker, to solve the dilemma posed by the new midwife in the village, the eponymous American played by Angie Dickinson. Convinced the gorgeous and sexy new arrival is out to seduce all of their husbands, the townswomen go on a Lysistrata-like sex strike, denying favors to their men in the belief that no sex = no babies = no more midwife. As the cheerful pastor, Chevalier is called on to provide nearly the same sort of sunny demeanor, cute narration, and occasional lilting tune as he brought to Gigi (1958), the film that remade his American movie career a few decades after he left Paramount and rode out the war and postwar years in his native France. The good father's solution to the problem is to direct the young midwife's attentions to a handsome but diffident marquis, played by the Italian actor Gabriele Ferzetti, star of Antonioni's L'avventura (1960) and the family patriarch in the recent I Am Love (2009) with Tilda Swinton.
The story is based on the 1957 novel by Flora Sandstrom, The Midwife of Pont Clery, set in a Norman (French, not Italian) town in the early 20th century rather than the film's contemporary setting.
Reviewers of the time noted the oddity of the village women's jealousy since they were played by the highly attractive likes of Marina Berti (a comely Roman in Quo Vadis, 1951), Croatian beauty Sylva Koscina (familiar to viewers from early Steve Reeves Hercules pictures and, later, Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits, 1965), and making her last film appearance, Rossana Rory, previously seen in Antonioni's L'eclisse/Eclipse (1962) and the Rock Hudson sex romp Come September (1961). For balance, the village dowager was played by American Agnes Moorehead.
Even the most skeptical critics, however, had to acknowledge that Angie Dickinson at this time was at the height of her allure. Although she was a capable and accomplished actress, the role called on her to do little more than wiggle her way through the entertaining but slight plot and add to the stunningly beautiful Sicilian locations captured in Panavision and Technicolor by award-winning cinematographer Piero Portalupi, whose previous forays into Hollywood cinema had been David O. Selznick's remake of A Farewell to Arms (1957) and the Michael Curtiz-directed Francis of Assisi (1961), both shot in Italy.
Jessica came near the end of the long directing career of former painter and stage designer Jean Negulesco and was far more akin to his decorative work on the lush Italian-set romance Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) than his Oscar®-nominated direction of the drama Johnny Belinda (1948). Chevalier's songs are credited to three creators, one of whom was Negulesco's wife Dusty, a dark and dazzling model-starlet of the 1940s and popular pin-up of the war years (under the name Dusty Anderson) who quit motion pictures a few years after marrying Negulesco and became a well-known painter. One of the other two composers was Marguerite Monnot, who had written many of Edith Piaf's signature songs, including "Je ne regrette rien," and the hit musical Irma la Douce on which Billy Wilder based his 1963 film. The third credit went to one of Italy's most acclaimed film scorers, Mario Nascimbene, who wrote the score for this film as well as such major productions as The Vikings (1958) and Room at the Top (1959).
The directing credit is shared by Italian actor-director-writer Oreste Palella, but other than perhaps communicating with Italian-speaking cast, crew, and location personnel, it's not clear what his contribution was to the overall production.
Chevalier isn't the only notable Frenchman in the cast; he's joined by popular character actor (and occasional writer-director-composer) Noel-Noel and Marcel Dalio, whose 50-year career included important roles in Jean Renoir's La grande illusion (1937) and La rgle du jeu/The Rules of the Game (1939) as well as Hollywood appearances in Casablanca (1942), The Song of Bernadette (1943), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). In addition to the aforementioned French, Croatians, Americans, and Italians (how did they get in?!), the cast also included an Algerian (Kerima)-all of them, in the best tradition of the big international co-productions of the 1960s, working hard to convince the audience they were native Sicilians.
Directors: Jean Negulesco, Oreste Palella
Producer: Jean Negulesco
Screenplay: Edith R. Sommer, Ennio De Concini, based on the noel The Midwife of Pont Clery by Flora Sandstrom
Cinematography: Piero Portalupi
Editing: Marie-Sophie Dubus, Renzo Lucidi
Art Direction: Giulio Bongini
Original Music: Mario Nascimbene
Cast: Maurice Chevalier (Father Antonio), Angie Dickinson (Jessica), Noel-Noel (Old Crupi), Gabriele Ferzetti (Edmondo Raumo), Sylva Koscina (Nunzia Tuffi), Agnes Moorehead (Maria Lombardo).
by Rob Nixon