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Hal Wallis first saw Tennessee Williams's play The Rose Tattoo (1955) on its opening night in Chicago in 1954. The famed producer of such Warner Bros. classics as Casablanca (1942) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) was now working independently, with a deal at Paramount. Of the play that night, he recalled later, "I knew at once that I had to buy it. It was sure to be a success. Audiences would identify with its earthiness, its sexuality, its deeply felt emotions and naturalistic dialogue. I went backstage after the show, knowing Tennessee would be there. Quiet, sober, professional, and very personable, he was familiar with my work and liked it, so that when I offered to buy the rights, he agreed on a handshake. In no time at all my agent had spoken to his agent and we were in business."
Eli Wallach and Maureen Stapleton had just played the two leads magnificently on stage - and would do so again on Broadway - but Wallis knew neither had any box office clout. "As far as I was concerned," said Wallis, "there was only one actress on earth who could play the tempestuous Italian heroine, the warm, passionate, angry and exciting, utterly feminine Serafina. That woman was Anna Magnani. I told Tennessee [this]. He became very excited, shyness and reserve dissolving into a broad smile." Wallis knew that Williams had written the play specifically for Magnani, Italy's most famous actress at the time, and that she had turned it down because she was terrified to perform in English night after night. With the movie, she could have time to improve her rudimentary English and perfect it take by take.
Williams's story The Rose Tattoo focuses on a Sicilian immigrant seamstress ("Serafina") living with her teenage daughter on the Gulf of Mexico. She is mourning the loss of her husband, whom she idolizes so dearly that she does not allow herself to act on the attraction she feels toward a man who enters her life ("Alvaro"), a truck driver like her late husband. Alvaro, wanting to impress her, gets a rose tattoo on his chest just as her husband had done. In the course of time, Serafina learns that her husband's purity was an illusion and eventually allows herself to accept Alvaro.
This was Magnani's first Hollywood movie and English-speaking role, and though Burt Lancaster came aboard to play Alvaro, it was her picture all the way. Her powerful work in Roberto Rossellini's neo-realist masterpiece Open City (1945) had impressed audiences worldwide, and Jean Renoir, who directed her in The Golden Coach (1953), called her "probably the greatest actress I have ever worked with." Magnani was not a glamorous beauty, but she radiated fierce sensuality and energy and displayed an enormous emotional range. As The New York Times wrote in its review of The Rose Tattoo, "She fits the role - or it fits her - like skin. Miss Magnani makes the change from dismal grief to booming joy a spectrum of emotional alterations and personality eccentricities."
Off camera, Magnani was just as much a force of nature. Wallis put it best, describing in his memoir how he first met with Magnani in her Rome apartment. "She was magnificent and very conscious of it. She snarled at me in Italian, smiled, frowned, seemed on the verge of tears, then broke into peals of laughter and scowled again. I understood at once her lusty, bawdy attraction and why she had charmed many men half her age."
Orchestrating the huge egos of Magnani and Lancaster proved a tough job even for Wallis. Magnani was afraid to fly, so Wallis arranged a two-week, publicized boat voyage to the U.S. for her, with Tennessee Williams joining her to work on the script and her English. Lancaster, meanwhile, was directing his first feature, The Kentuckian (1955). When he finished several days behind schedule, he asked Wallis for a month's postponement on reporting to the set of The Rose Tattoo in Key West, citing exhaustion. Wallis was furious, having already pushed back his picture to accommodate Lancaster and having gone to great lengths to get Magnani to Key West on time. In the end, Wallis agreed to a slight compromise.
During the shoot, Lancaster was the one man whom Magnani did not charm. Wallis wrote that she fell for him ("He was just her type of big, broad-shouldered he-man") but Lancaster wasn't interested. In fact, they clashed often, with Tennessee Williams often acting as peacekeeper. (Williams and Magnani had become close friends.) One day, according to Lancaster biographer Kate Buford, the star left the set and "refused to return until Magnani stopped trying to direct him."
Their acting styles were totally different, with Lancaster's flamboyance highlighting Magnani's ability to do more with less. Though reviews of his performance were mixed, Lancaster was proud of the film, telling reporters, "I don't come in til the third act, but when I do, it's like a gang buster."
During their location scout, Wallis and director Daniel Mann searched Key West for the perfect house, as described by Williams in his script. Eventually they found one which matched the description exactly, and were astonished to learn that Williams himself owned the house next door. They had by chance discovered the actual house that had inspired Williams when he was writing his play, only for some reason Williams had never suggested it to them beforehand.
Hal Kanter collaborated with Williams on the screenplay. They fought over the writing credit, but rather than take it to the Writers Guild for a protracted showdown, Kanter agreed to accept an "adapted by" credit. Later, he heard that when Williams saw a rough cut of the film, he said, "The best scene in the picture is with the Japanese tattoo artist - and it isn't mine!" (Kanter wrote it). Both writers made cameos in the film as drinkers at a crowded bar.
The Rose Tattoo was nominated for eight Oscars® and won three - for Best Actress (Magnani), Best Black and White Cinematography (James Wong Howe) and Best Art Direction. Also nominated were Alex North for his superb score, Marisa Pavan (who played Serafina's daughter), and the picture itself, which lost to Marty. After Magnani won her Oscar®, Wallis sent her the jeep and trailer he had promised if the film turned out to be a success. She wanted them in order to take her polio-stricken son with her when she went on future locations.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Daniel Mann
Screenplay: Tennessee Williams, Hal Kanter
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Film Editing: Warren Low
Art Direction: Tambi Larsen, Hal Pereira
Music: Alex North, Harry Warren
Cast: Anna Magnani (Serafina Delle Rose), Burt Lancaster (Alvaro Mangiacavallo), Marisa Pavan (Rosa Delle Rose), Ben Cooper (Jack Hunter), Virginia Grey (Estelle Hohengarten), Jo Van Fleet (Bessie).
BW-117m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold