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Heller in Pink Tights (1960) may be director George Cukor's first and only western, but Cukor himself claimed it really wasn't a western. He called it a romantic comedy. "Heller," he said, "is about people in a new country, eastern tenderfeet if you will, learning to cope with an entirely new challenge. If that challenge happens to be the wide open spaces, the people have to be where the West is, that's all."
In any case, Heller in Pink Tights is certainly a very unconventional western-set film, from its perplexing, off-putting title to its Italian star (Sophia Loren) to its emphasis on design, costumes and color rather than gunplay or traditional western action.
The picture has its immediate genesis in a Louis L'Amour novel called Heller with a Gun. In 1958, George Cukor was looking for a new project when he discovered that Paramount owned the rights to the L'Amour story and had already commissioned a screenplay by Dudley Nichols, the Oscar®-winning writer of The Informer (1935) and other great films including the westerns Stagecoach (1939) and The Tin Star (1957). Paramount was developing Heller for contract star Alan Ladd as a straight-ahead western. Cukor read the screenplay and zeroed in on a subplot about a theatrical troupe traveling through the old west, putting on stage shows. This reminded Cukor of a passion project he had long wanted to mount. In 1945, D.W. Griffith had described to Cukor an idea for a film about a theater troupe drawn from Griffith's own roadshow days as well as from the memoir (Good Troupers All) of a pioneer-era actor named Joseph Jefferson. Cukor, an expert in American theater history, was intrigued enough with this idea back in 1945 that he had his friend, playwright Maxwell Anderson, turn it into a screenplay, entitled Troupers West. Nothing came of it at the time. But now, in 1958, Cukor saw a chance to resurrect his old ideas by blending them into this new Heller project at Paramount. Indeed, even though Anderson doesn't get writing credit, Cukor's favorite scene in the movie -- the Indian raid on the wardrobe trunk -- was one that survived from Anderson's screenplay. That scene, incidentally, had also been described by Jefferson in his memoir and thus was based in truth.
Perhaps inevitably, various uncredited writers worked to hammer all this source material into a revised screenplay. During production, the formerly blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein was hired to rewrite it yet again, and he received screen credit with Nichols. (It was Nichols' final credit -- he died from cancer before the film opened.)
Paramount had a production deal in place with Italian producer Carlo Ponti and his wife, Sophia Loren, and the film was set up as a vehicle for her, which is not as crazy as it sounds since there actually were Italian acting companies touring the west during the pioneer days. With the emphasis of the movie now on Loren's actress character rather than the gunfighter of L'Amour's novel, the title Heller with a Gun was deemed misleading. Screenwriter Bernstein suggested "Heller in Pink Tights." The word "heller" is an archaic variation on "hellion" or "hellraiser," and audiences were surely as stumped by the word in 1960 as anyone would be today.
To play opposite Loren, Cukor wanted Roger Moore, then 32 years old, but the studio wasn't willing to take a chance on the still largely unknown actor. Cukor then mentioned Gregory Peck or Kirk Douglas, but the studio considered them too expensive. Paramount desired its own contract star Anthony Quinn for the part, and Cukor acquiesced. This angered Loren and Ponti because Quinn had already co-starred with Loren twice before -- on the Italian film Attila (1954) and the U.S. production The Black Orchid (1958) -- and Loren was not fond of him. But Quinn stayed on board Heller, and Loren would have to make the best of it.
She'd have to make the best of working with Cukor, too. She later said that he directed her by acting out her scenes and making her mimic him -- his gestures, his intonations, "even his eye movements." For the record, however, no one else in the cast complained of this, and it is highly unlikely that an actor's director like Cukor would have to resort to such tactics if there wasn't some reason for it. Quinn, who called Heller "an unfortunate film," later said of Cukor: "He worked more with Sophia than with me. Maybe it was the role, or maybe she was more demanding of his attention."
For the part of a young ingnue, Cukor went with 21-year-old Margaret O'Brien. No longer a cute little child actress, O'Brien was now an attractive young woman, and this was her first feature in four years. She loved working with Cukor and said her role here "was fun because I was kind of a vixen." Indeed, one critic wrote, "Margaret O'Brien's new sexiness will probably astound onlookers."
Also appearing in Heller in Pink Tights are veteran actors Edmund Lowe and Ramon Novarro. Novarro hadn't been on the big screen for ten years, but he had recently been getting lots of press attention due to the massive remake of Ben-Hur (1959) that was about to be released. Novarro, of course, had starred in the 1925 original, his most famous role. The renewed interest in the 60-year-old actor led to a career resurgence, with Heller followed by numerous TV guest spots as well as stage and radio gigs. Of Heller, Novarro said, "John Barrymore once told me that if I ever got a chance to appear in a film directed by George Cukor, it would be an experience I'd value, and I did greatly enjoy every moment working for Mr. Cukor." Margaret O'Brien later recalled Novarro as being "very sweet and very shy and quiet. He kind of kept to himself and was not haughty."
Probably the most important creative contributor to Heller was George Hoyningen-Huene, a famous Russian fashion photographer whom Cukor hired as visual consultant and color coordinator. Huene worked in this capacity on many Cukor films starting with A Star Is Born (1954), overseeing the overall color design by coordinating the heads of the costume, set, and lighting departments to achieve a unified whole. One might justifiably presume this to be the director's job, but Cukor loved Huene's eye and revered his input and ideas. Cukor was much more interested in the design challenges of this film -- the color, the atmosphere, the visual style and detail -- than he was in the plot (much to the dismay of the studio brass). Cukor told Huene that he wanted Heller to look "like a cross between Frederic Remington's paintings of the old west and Toulouse-Lautrec's renderings of music hall performers."
"It was a film," Cukor said, "which lent itself to color treatment, and it was very much Hoyningen-Huene's work. I believe that the West really did look like that." One Huene contribution that Cukor especially loved was the striking casino sequence, in which the men wear black, Loren's dress is white, and the walls and dcor of the sets are red.
Cukor also remembered Huene venturing into the depths of the Paramount costume department and finding many "old costumes of the Crusades, the Revolution...all sorts of incorrect things falling apart, and he put them all together. It was so real on the screen, all the actors in the far west with this incredible mlange." According to Cukor's historical research, actors in the old west days really had worn a blend of such costumes.
The costumes of the Indians, too, were drawn from photos from the era. They look much dowdier than the Indians one usually sees in Hollywood movies. "Part of their costumes were discarded Civil War uniforms," Cukor said. "All these things were exact reproductions. When the troupe first arrives in the town and sees those dead Indians laid out on the boards, that was from photographs. And when the Indians attack the troupe and steal their costumes, that was based on something described by Joseph Jefferson in his autobiography. You see them finally caught and hanged, still wearing togas and Elizabethan ruffles -- a good, funny scene."
Production in early 1959 was a frenetic affair, with new script pages being delivered the mornings they were to be shot. As Walter Bernstein said, "Nobody knew what they were getting the next day. That was very tough on everybody." The reason for the big rush was that Carlo Ponti was on a tight schedule to start his next film with Loren, A Breath of Scandal, which would be the second of five Loren titles to be released in 1960.
Cukor spent five weeks overseeing the editing of Heller in Pink Tights. Paramount saw the cut and panicked, flummoxed over what to do with this odd hybrid of a movie. The studio ordered additional action scenes and re-edited the picture to try and make it more narrative-driven. All this was entirely without Cukor's involvement and much to his consternation.
Heller received mixed reviews despite the hatchet job, but the public stayed far away. The film was marketed as a western, plain and simple, when the true audience should have been art-house crowds. Any moviegoers expecting a typical action western were sorely disappointed (if the words "Pink Tights" in the title hadn't already tipped them off!).
In a 1964 interview, Cukor summed up his feelings on the uneven final product: "Visually and in the performances Heller was very diverting, even if it wasn't a very good story, and it annoyed me that the picture was passed over so lightly in America. Paramount had no real faith in it, they did some stupid cutting, and then it wasn't even released properly. It's a great pity, because among other things it seems to me a very interesting view of the West."
Producer: Carlo Ponti, Marcello Girosi
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Walter Bernstein, Dudley Nichols, based on the novel Heller with a Gun by Louis L'Amour
Cinematography: Harold Lipstein
Art Direction: Gene Allen, Hal Pereira
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Film Editing: Howard A. Smith
Costume Design: Edith Head
Cast: Sophia Loren (Angela Rossini), Anthony Quinn (Thomas 'Tom' Healy), Margaret O'Brien (Della Southby), Steve Forrest (Clint Mabry), Ramon Novarro (De Leon), Edmund Lowe (Manfred 'Doc' Montague), George Mathews (Sam Pierce), Frank Silvera (Santis).
by Jeremy Arnold
Allan R. Ellenberger, Margaret O'Brien: A Career Chronicle and Biography
Warren G. Harris, Sophia Loren: A Biography
Gavin Lambert, On Cukor
Enrico Lancia, Sophia Loren
Emanuel Levy, George Cukor: Master of Elegance
Robert Emmet Long, George Cukor: Interviews
Patrick McGilligan, George Cukor: A Double Life
Andre Soares, Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro