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The Black Orchid

The Black Orchid(1959)

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teaser The Black Orchid (1959)

According to Warren G. Harris in his biography, Sophia Loren, The Black Orchid (1958), "had a curious history. Joseph Stefano, a young entertainer and composer from South Philadelphia, wrote the script just to prove that he could do better than most of the junk he saw on television. Stefano's semi-autobiographical story of an Italian immigrant who is forced to support herself and her young son when her gangster husband is killed, was submitted to various TV producers, but had no luck until it landed at Paramount's New York story department, which noticed similarities to Marty [1955], an Oscar®-winning film that had originated as a teleplay. Paramount wanted to turn The Black Orchid directly into a movie with Anna Magnani, but she had other commitments and it got passed on to [producer Carlo] Ponti for consideration." Ponti saw this as a vehicle for his wife, Sophia Loren.

Because Anthony Quinn was under contract to Paramount, Ponti was forced to hire him for the role of Frank Valente, the widower that becomes romantically involved with Loren's character. By her own admission, Loren acknowledged that she and Quinn did not have great screen chemistry together and had not been successful in the 1954 Italian film Attila the Hun (Loren later said it contained her most unpleasant moment on film a scene where Quinn kissed her while eating a lamb chop). Ponti had marginally more control in his choice of director. Martin Ritt, also under contract to Paramount, got the job after Ponti screened films by several of Paramount's directors and felt that Ritt's style in films such as Edge of the City (1957) was close to the Italian neo-realists. Ritt could also shoot a film quickly and under budget, another plus in Ponti's eyes.

Ritt proved his resourcefulness by shooting the funeral and wedding scenes on the same day at St. Paul's Catholic Church in Westwood (a suburb of Los Angeles). It was a fast shoot, with production on The Black Orchid starting on February 3rd and ending in late March 1958. Most of the film was shot on the Paramount back lot's New York set, with the juvenile work farm scenes shot at an actual work farm near Los Angeles.

Ritt proved to be the director to subdue Quinn and Loren's tendencies to over-act. As Harris wrote, "Ritt fought to keep them under control to save their scenes together form deteriorating into unintentional comedy. In their only moment of passionate lovemaking, Ritt demanded seven takes before he was satisfied, reducing the sizzle a few degrees each time. "Finally, we were playing the scene so small it didn't seem to us to be like acting anymore," Quinn remembered, "But when we saw it in the rushes, it was as powerful as hell."

The Black Orchid opened in Washington D.C. on February 1, 1959. American reviewers liked the film but hated the script and what they considered racist portrayals of Italian-Americans. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times found fault with Loren's performance, writing in his February 13, 1959 review, "by far the more difficult to accept as a reasonable characterization, on the basis of how she appears, is the widow, played by Sophia Loren. Supposed to be the relict of a slain gangster, she blames herself for his fatal career and is nurturing her heavy guilt complexes with anxiety over a wayward son. This is a plausible person - or would be, if she were cut along the lines of some of the highly emotional women played by Anna Magnani. But put forth by cool and crisp Miss Loren in a stolid and dignified way, she is a psychological aberration and a curious fancy for the likes of Mr. Quinn. With her plainly slant-eyed hauteur and her Simonetta chic, she is not what you'd call a quite convincing representative of the immigrant school."

Ironically, the Venice Film Festival awarded Loren their Best Actress award for The Black Orchid. Her journey to Italy was potentially dangerous. Loren and Ponti had been married in Mexico in September 1957, a time when Ponti's divorce from his first wife had not been recognized by Italian officials and he was considered a bigamist. The charge would have landed them in jail if they'd set foot in Italy. Ponti believed that Loren alone would not be in any danger. As she later remembered, "Should we go or shouldn't we? In the end, we decided it would be too much like slapping our country in the face if we were to turn up there together."

Loren was greeted with a grand reception (arranged and paid for by Paramount), accepted the award graciously, and immediately boarded a plane back to Nice, France, where Ponti was waiting. "Receiving the award meant nothing to me until I could share it with Carlo. He was the one who had created me", she said. The Black Orchid may not have been what Ponti and Loren originally envisioned but their marriage was much more successful. They remained together until Ponti's death at the age of 94 on January 10, 2007.

Producers: Marcello Girosi, Carlo Ponti
Director: Martin Ritt
Screenplay: Joseph Stefano
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Art Direction: Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira
Music: Alessandro Cicognini
Film Editing: Howard Smith
Cast: Sophia Loren (Rose Bianco), Anthony Quinn (Frank Valente), Peter Mark Richman (Noble), Virginia Vincent (Alma Gallo), Frank Puglia (Henry Gallo), Jimmy Baird (Ralph Bianco), Naomi Stevens (Guilia Gallo), Whit Bissell (Mr. Harmon), Robert Carricart (Priest)

by Lorraine LoBianco

Sophia Loren by Warren G. Harris
Sophia Loren, Living and Loving: Her Own Story by A.E. Hotchner
Screen: 'Black Orchid'; Quinn Is Starred in New Film at Plaza The New York Times, February 13, 1959

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