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The Little Hut
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,The Little Hut

The Little Hut

There was no sexier Hollywood siren than Ava Gardner. Of course she had the looks, but so did many movie queens. What she had more of than anybody else with the possible exception of Louise Brooks was an unforced sexual self-confidence that came from knowing she was sexy and feeling totally comfortable in her skin. Graceful as a panther, with never a wasted or excessive move, she was allure personified. Never needing blatancy or brazenness, she was irresistible -- partly because she was so laid back. The sexiest Hollywood movie moment of the 1950s is to be found in the thriller Seven Days in May (1964). In it, Gardner is posed reclining on a sofa, fully dressed, a leg hanging over an armrest, slowly dangling a high-heeled shoe from her big toe. Tick-tock, tick-tock. A sex bomb set to go off -- but only if and when she decides to. What she didn't know about sexiness wasn't worth knowing. It all but wrecks The Little Hut (1957).

That's because this otherwise perfectly serviceable desert island comedy is based on the premise that within the tiny perimeters of a coral reef her husband, played by Stewart Granger, ignores her. Too busy to have time for Ava Gardner? Talk about mad dogs and Englishmen! Talk about a credibility-shattering premise! David Niven, playing the guy's best friend (and his wife's former lover), the other English island inhabitant, is a lot less mad. As ever, he's a suave old dog, and the seismic charms of the wife are hardly lost on him. His nervous smile isn't so much a caught-in-the act smile as a caught-in-the-thought smile. He naturally romances her while her husband unnaturally is oblivious to her. It's an awful lot to ask of an extension of the premise that if you dine on filet mignon every night you get bored with filet mignon. Still, Ava Gardner! It's a tribute to Granger's generally underrated acting skills that he could stomp through his role, never a hair out of place on his graying temples, with a straight face, as if his mind was on Bhowani Junction (1956), the romance set in India, but filmed in Pakistan, he filmed with Gardner.

Actually, he was later to write, his mind was on his pregnant wife back in Hollywood, Jean Simmons. Gardner's mind was on the Italian star, Walter Chiari, who had a lesser role in the film, and with whom she was romantically involved off-camera. In biographies, Gardner, Niven and Granger (real name Jimmy Stewart!) all disparaged The Little Hut, possibly feeling a need to distance themselves from the fact that it was an ignominious flop. Granger and Gardner became pals during Bhowani Junction. Neither wanted to do this film, but neither wanted to face a suspension from MGM. Additionally, Granger fussed over the possibility of being upstaged by Niven's mustache, which he claimed Niven played like a scene-stealing fiddle. It's a tribute to their professionalism that they convey to the degree they do the idea that they're having fun, when in fact each wanted to be somewhere else. At least they weren't on an atoll in the Coral Sea, where the story is set. Filming mostly took place in London and a soundstage at Cinecitta, where it was cooler inside, thanks to air-conditioning, than on Rome's streets outside.

The patent artifice – painted backdrops, manufactured jungle settings – actually are quite in keeping with the inner world of the story, which stems from a French stage farce by Andre Roussin, and is pure artifice. For the '50s, the talk of wife-swapping is outrageous, even provocative. After the Parisian stage original was Anglicized for London's West end by Nancy Mitford, MGM hired F. Hugh Herbert to write the screenplay – the same F. Hugh Herbert who wrote The Moon Is Blue (1953), a milestone of the censorship wars in the US because it contained the then-shocking word "virgin." The film gets away with its exaggeratedly polite badinage about wife-swapping partly because nothing actually happens, because while all sorts of sexy scenarios are floated, there's never the slightest hint of crudity, vulgarity or salaciousness. Manners are impeccable. In fact, the source of the comedy is the tension between what's being discussed and the way it's being discussed. Beneath its teasing conversational tendrils of wildness, anarchy and lust in the dust, it unequivocally reinforces the social system. And, not so incidentally, the English class system.

In short, The Little Hut's not as unrewarding as its doomsday reviews and retrospective putdowns by its three stars make it out to be. A big reason is Gardner, thanks to the easy warmth and control with which she always stays in charge, despite the men going through the motions of chest-pounding. Here, once she exchanges the Dior suits and pillbox hats of smart London for gowns that come through a shipwreck miraculously unsoiled, possibly because she alternates them with a grass skirt, her smiling composure, naughty eyes and purring unflappability remain undentable. As the men go through the motions of sexual rivalry while trying to remain good friends (shades of Noel Coward's Design for Living!), Gardner's total control is never seriously challenged, as a character within the story or a personality above and beyond it.

The film boosts artifice into an almost surreal realm that adds to the fun – a blatantly back-projected stormy sea, and the stuff we don't see in the tiny lifeboat that somehow makes it to shore intact. Such as the Union Jack flapping above a tree house built by the irritatingly competent and versatile Granger character – he's exasperatingly accomplished at everything but noticing his wife. Our smiles widen as we note that he has somehow salvaged a phonograph – whoops, gramophone! – and an unbroken 78 rpm record playing "Everything I Have Is Yours" at provocative junctures. Also various costume changes, so the men can dress for black-tie dinners in bare feet. Even Mark Robson's proficient, discreet direction at one point yields to the tongue-in-cheek spirit in a sly parody of the Burt Lancaster-Deborah Kerr rolling-in-the-surf scene in From Here to Eternity (1953), as Gardner and Niven frolic in a similarly splashy clinch. What keeps The Little Hut going is its delirious deadpan embrace of absurdity that keeps escaping from around the edges of its will to decorum. And, above all, Gardner.

Producers: F. Hugh Herbert, Mark Robson
Director: Mark Robson
Screenplay: F. Hugh Herbert; Andre Roussin (play); Nancy Mitford (adaptation); Carles Soldevila (play and story uncredited)
Cinematography: F.A. Young
Art Direction: Elliot Scott
Music: Robert Farnon
Film Editing: Ernest Walter
Cast: Ava Gardner (Lady Susan Ashlow), Stewart Granger (Sir Philip Ashlow), David Niven (Henry Brittingham-Brett), Walter Chiari (Mario), Finlay Currie (Rev. Bertram Brittingham-Brett), Jean Cadell (Mrs. Hermione Brittingham-Brett), Jack Lambert (Capt. MacWalt), Henry Oscar (Mr. Trollope), Viola Lyel (Miss Edwards).
C-90m. Letterboxed.

by Jay Carr

Sources:
Ava: My Story, by Ava Gardner
Stewart Granger: Sparks Fly Upward, by Stewart Granger
The Moon's a Balloon: An Autobiography, by David Niven
Niven's Hollywood, by Tom Hutchinson
The Other Side of the Moon, by Sheridan Morley
TheEncyclopedia of Film, by Ephraim Katz
IMDb
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