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Following the success of Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Twentieth Century-Fox reassembled most of that production team for what they hoped was another big, exotic romance picture, Boy on a Dolphin (1957). It was set in the Greek Isles, shot in CinemaScope and helped launch Sophia Loren as an international sex symbol. But for her costar, Alan Ladd, the experience was not a positive one.
Originally, the film was to star Cary Grant and Loren, fresh off The Pride and the Passion (1957), where the two had sparked up a real-life romance. Boy on a Dolphin was four days into shooting in Greece when Grant cancelled. His wife, Betsy Drake, had survived the sinking of the Andrea Doria ocean liner and he went to be with her. Robert Mitchum was next up, but in the end, Alan Ladd was signed by Twentieth Century-Fox president Spyros Skouras, a considerable surprise to director Jean Negulesco, who thought Ladd was all wrong for the part; he was too diminutive in size (reported from 5'4" to 5'6") and presence to visually compliment his costar Loren. "It sounded then and sounds now pure insanity," Negulesco says in his autobiography, Things I Did and Things I Think I Did.
Ladd's smallish frame was overweight and reportedly bloated from alcohol, while his bigger-than-life costar would very likely dominate every scene. Reportedly, Ladd, who had stood on boxes for many of his films, felt the practice was beneath him at that stage in his career, so Loren spent the film standing in holes and walking in trenches so they could at least meet eye to eye.
If the chemistry between the two leads seems to be missing onscreen, it was. Offscreen they didn't have much to say to each other either. Loren has observed that Ladd is the only male costar who didn't want to be her friend. "We spent hours together for two months," she recalls in Warren G. Harris' biography, Sophia Loren. "He was always polite but never seemed to want to have any social contact. I liked Alan, but he didn't seem to like me. I couldn't understand it." Negulesco remembers their bleak introduction: "The first meeting between Sophia and Alan confirmed our worst fears...'Sophia, this is Alan Ladd,' I said. These were the only words exchanged in this encounter. They both mumbled, 'How do,' and sat there open-mouthed measuring each other. They both lost."
Similarly, Ladd and Clifton Webb were reportedly not overly fond of each other. In general, Ladd is said to have been withdrawn and indifferent through the whole of the production. Accounts vary as to the cause of his on-set tension. Perhaps he was embarrassed by Loren's stature, as well as crew whisperings that his unhealthy appearance and aloofness were related to a fondness for ouzo (an anise-flavored liqueur popular in Greece). He was clearly annoyed that Negulesco gave his costar more and better camera time. In Beverly Linet's biography, Ladd: The Life, the Legend, the Legacy of Alan Ladd, he remembers, "Negulesco fell in 'love' with her, so she got all good close-ups. All you ever saw of me in most scenes was the back of my neck. I got fed up with it."
In the film, Loren plays Phaedra, a poor Hydra sponge diver who discovers a valuable statue deep underwater, while her lazy boyfriend rests on deck. Then the task becomes how to sell the treasure so that they can leave their life of poverty behind. Phaedra travels to Athens, where she meets Dr. James Calder (Ladd), a virtuous archeologist working in Greece to restore national treasures. He doesn't want to pay her but a small finder's fee for the piece. Enter millionaire treasure hunter Victor Parmalee (Webb), who is ready to help Phaedra raise the treasure and smuggle it out of the country. He is happy to pay her for it...and for other things, but she already has a steady beau, for better or for worse. Meanwhile, Calder joins in the chase for the statue and Phaedra lies to him about its whereabouts, hoping that the archeologist will give up or run out of money. Ultimately, thanks to her little brother, Rhif (Jorge Mistral), Phaedra does the right thing by giving the statue to her homeland, allowing for a happy fadeout and the promise of a new romance with Calder.
The majority of Boy on a Dolphin was shot on Hydra, an island not equipped to house Hollywood visitors in the style to which they were accustomed. So the studio hired luxury cabin cruisers to provide temporary residences. Ladd (and wife Sue Carol) and Webb (with mother Maybelle) got the largest boats, while Loren and Negulesco stayed on land in each of the two available houses to rent.
Though the setting of the film was breathtaking, it didn't do much to improve Ladd's disposition. He was reportedly eager to get home to the States, his children and his various California properties. Overseas travel wasn't easy for Ladd, who was afraid to fly. To add to the strain, he and his wife were robbed on the Orient Express en route to Greece, losing her best jewelry and his evening clothes, which seemed to set his overseas adventure off on the wrong foot.
To add to the mix, in 1956 fighting was raging in Cyprus, the Suez Crisis was underway and there was fear that a Middle East war was impending. The State Department had begun evacuating American personnel from the area and Boy on a Dolphin was in a race to the finish line.
Loren's famous dripping sponge-diving outfit was devised by Negulesco from a photograph he had of a Japanese pearl diver. He had Loren try it out in her warm bathtub and then double-lined the dress so that they could get past censors. But when it came time to shoot in the cold Aegean Sea, the results were even more striking: "When Sophia surfaced, her lovelies were pointing at us with daring accuracy. The still man dropped his camera. The soundman raised his boom. The Greek laborers were thunderstruck," he recalled in his autobiography. The image became a best-selling poster around the world and helped launch Loren, in her first American film, as one of the sexiest actresses of the era.
Boy on a Dolphin was great exposure for Sophia's career, but was otherwise not lauded by critics. The New York Times gave its verdict on April 20, 1957. Though the Grecian scenery and Loren came off well, Ladd was said to be "merely a moody scientist who doesn't give the impression that he's really her type." The New York Herald Tribune was less impressed all around, saying of Loren, "....[S]he waggles her hips, she exposes her legs. Can she act? That's a matter of definition."
Hugo Friedhofer received an Oscar® nomination for the film's score, but that's where the kudos ended. Though the studio launched a major advertising campaign featuring Loren and her many assets, Boy on a Dolphin didn't perform at the box office as they'd hoped. For those filmgoers who were seeing her for the first time, however, Loren would never again belong just to Italy.
Producer: Samuel G. Engel
Director: Jean Negulesco
Screenplay: Ivan Moffat, Dwight Taylor; David Divine (novel)
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Art Direction: Jack Martin Smith, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Film Editing: William Mace
Cast: Alan Ladd (Dr. James Calder), Clifton Webb (Victor Parmalee), Sophia Loren (Phaedra), Alex Minotis (Government Man), Jorge Mistral (Rhif), Laurence Naismith (Dr. Hawkins), Piero Giagnoni (Niko), Gertrude Flynn (Miss Dill).
by Emily Soares