On stage, this near-operetta, charmingly adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s witty sex farce SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT/’55, was an enchantment. The book by Hugh Wheeler juggled five romances to Stephen Sondheim’s three-quarter time score and the brittle character comedy was lightened when seen thru Boris Aronson’s airy painted-glass panels. Yet, the film version, with Harold Prince moving from stage to screen as director, is a leaden atrocity. It’s true that half the music is gone, and lyrics refitted, but how did the sparkle curdle into pointless cleverness, the counterpoint turn joyless and the plot shrivel into a Farce For Dummies manual? Prince shoots just about everything from the ‘wrong’ angle, so when nothing cuts together properly, he tosses in rhythm killing close-ups and hopes for the best. The cast doesn’t look bad on paper, but only Diana Rigg, as an unhappy Countess, makes something out of her role. Sadder still, the film spelled finis to Liz Taylor’s career as leading lady. A mere 45 at the time, she’s still got the figure for the role, but her face no longer takes light. With blobby cheeks & swollen eyes, she gets zero help from Arthur Ibettson whose work is less cinematography, than sabotage. Someone must have noticed, because they finally pony up for a suitable dress & make-up that give La Liz a fighting chance in the last act. But it’s too little, too late, and capped with one last insult, a poorly lit portrait shot from Ibettson in day-for-night mode for E.T. to go out on.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Bergman’s SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT is the obvious choice, though you might want to try one of those delicious early Paramount musicals starring Jeanette MacDonald in her pre-Nelson Eddy days when she was decidedly naughty and sexy as hell. Or maybe THE SMILING LIEUTENANT/’31; with Miriam Hopkins, Chevalier & Colbert, it's especially nice.