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After appearing in three American-produced films made in Europe -- Boy on a Dolphin, The Pride and the Passion, and Legend of the Lost, all released in 1957 -- Italian bombshell Sophia Loren was signed to a contract by Paramount, and brought to Hollywood amidst much publicity for her first film to be made in America, Desire Under the Elms (1958).
It was unlikely casting for a starlet known for her bountiful physical attributes rather than for her dramatic abilities. Eugene O'Neill's 1924 drama was based on the classical Oedipus tragedy, transposed to New England. Patriarch Ephraim Cabot brings his new bride Abbie to the family farm to the dismay of his three adult sons. She falls in love with one of the sons, Eben, has an affair with him, and bears his child, passing the baby off as Ephraim's in order to inherit the farm. It ends with a tragedy so shocking that the first stage productions caused a flurry of censorship, with the entire cast of a 1926 Los Angeles production being arrested and charged with obscenity.
But Loren's casting was not as offbeat as it seemed. O'Neill himself had written a treatment for a screen version for Paramount in 1933, in which he changed the character of Abbie to a Hungarian immigrant who would be Ephraim's housekeeper, not his wife, and who would be in love with Eben, but would not have an affair nor a child. Apparently, the film version was intended for Marlene Dietrich, and this was an effort to get the film past the censors. In spite of attempts by various studios over the years, however, the film had never been made. Desire Under the Elms finally went into production in May of 1957 with most of the sensational plot elements in place, and with Sophia Loren top-billed, her character changed to an immigrant named Anna.
There were reports that producer Don Hartman wanted Spencer Tracy and Marlon Brando to play the father and son opposite Loren. Clifton Webb was also considered for Ephraim. Finally, Burl Ives and Anthony Perkins were cast as Ephraim and Eben. Ives was a folk singer who had become a fine dramatic actor, and Perkins had been nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor for his performance in Friendly Persuasion (1956), his second film. Chosen to direct was Delbert Mann, a former television director who had won an Academy Award as best director for Marty (1955), the feature film version of a television drama he had also directed.
Unfortunately, there was little chemistry among the stars of Desire Under the Elms. Loren and Perkins were particularly ill matched, the intense and neurotic Perkins overwhelmed by Loren's strong presence. "I felt like Charlton Heston trying to play opposite the Burning Bush in The Ten Commandments ," Perkins told a reporter. "When there's a Burning Bush on the screen, no one's going to look at me." He also felt that Loren upstaged him. She, in turn, teased Perkins about his nervousness in her presence.Because the story of Desire Under the Elms takes place in 1850s New England over the course of a year, it would have been too expensive to shoot on location, so the decision was made to shoot it almost entirely on soundstages, to the film's detriment. According to director Mann, "It was a superb job of film design, incredibly researched and detailed. But it simply didn't have the hard reality a Vermont location would have provided. It ultimately seemed beautiful rather than harsh, theatrical rather than real." The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best black and white cinematography.
Critics agreed about the lack of chemistry, although reviews for Desire Under the Elms were mixed. "Mr. Perkins seems rather fragile and petulant to be the cuckolder of his sire," according to the New Yorker. William K. Zinsser of the New York Herald Tribune found Perkins "insipid to the point of being neuter, and this pivotal role has no vigor." Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called Loren's performance "strong....she is plausibly in the spirit of the tempestuous drama that unfolds." Kenneth MacGowan of Theater Arts magazine found the film "faithful and uncompromising.... one of the best film versions -- perhaps the best -- of the O'Neill plays." The Variety critic thought that "Despite all the plus factors, Desire Under the Elms is not satisfactory entertainment... impact has been hurt by the change from O'Neill's Greek simplicity to Hollywood gilding." The film also ran into some trouble with the censors in Chicago, where it was restricted to adults only. As Variety noted, "The commercial truth of the matter is that Desire will probably make its best return as a sexploitation item."
Producer: Don Hartman
Director: Delbert Mann
Screenplay: Irwin Shaw; Eugene O'Neill (play)
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Art Direction: Joseph MacMillan Johnson, Hal Pereira
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Film Editing: George Boemler
Cast: Sophia Loren (Anna Cabot), Anthony Perkins (Eben Cabot), Burl Ives (Ephraim Cabot), Frank Overton (Simeon Cabot), Pernell Roberts (Peter Cabot), Rebecca Wells (Lucinda Cabot), Jean Willes (Florence Cabot), Anne Seymour (Eben's mother).
by Margarita Landazuri