Arabella (Virna Lisi) is supposed to be rich in the Rome of 1928, but events keep catching up with her family’s wealth, key among them the tax collectors who insist on visiting her town house and handing over final demands for unpaid taxes reaching back years. She lives there with her elderly grandmother, Princess Ilaria (Margaret Rutherford), who is dismayed at the potential her treasures have for disappearing to pay off her late husband’s debts, so obviously steps must be taken to preserve them in their family’s hands, and Arabella hits upon schemes all the time. First up, she places a public convenience right outside a thriving and very posh hotel...
Virna Lisi was very famous in her native Italy by this point in her career, but seeking further fame she was persuaded to appear in international productions, hence her role here in a work made by Universal’s Italian arm where the main cast were made up of half locals, half imported English-speaking stars. Those imports must have been looking forward to a nice holiday in Rome because there didn’t seem to be any other reason for them to be taking the parts that could easily have gone to Italians, but this was par for the course for quite a number of the films made there at this time, and continues in sporadic nature to this day, though nothing like as enthusiastically.
The whole cast spoke English as it turned out, dubbed by themselves as was the case with many an Italian work, unless they were called upon to be understood by someone other than the speakers of their accustomed language, so while you could tell they were performing their own voices, the recording was a little muffled and added a slightly unreal, airless tone that was followed into the visuals. Director Mauro Bolognini was originally a set designer, so the whole affair looked overstuffed with baubles and accoutrements to create a busy but not necessarily easy on the eye set of images for the actors to play out their farces in front of; it was difficult to concentrate on fully.
Nevertheless, though the sense was the director’s heart was in these madcap stylings more than the vacationing actors, they did work up a head of steam even if very little about this would prompt laughter, maybe nothing at all in fact, which wasn’t the greatest state for a comedy to be in. Its main gimmick was not so much the allure of the undeniably beautiful Lisi, it was more placing Terry-Thomas in a selection of roles as different characters, all in various makeups, so in one sequence he’d be wearing a remarkable Alvin Stardust black quiff and tinted glasses combination, and in another he’d be in military uniform and monocle, topped off with a big moustache and ginger wig. Other than that, he was pretty much the same Terry-Thomas we always knew.
James Fox was present as well, a mysterious figure who pursues Arabella across the capital and beyond, sometimes helping her, others hindering her. The bit late on where he reveals his intentions as romantic saw the jokes dropped and with Ennio Morricone’s lush strings suggested a more amorous arrangement of the plot might have been quite nice, but that too was dropped to resolve the situation in a not very appealing fashion. Rutherford was by this point looking very elderly, and though it was unmistakably her voice there was a sense she wasn’t given much to do because she wasn’t too capable at that stage in her life, and though her husband Stringer Davis naturally made his customary appearance it failed to bring a spark to a performance that came across as very tired. If you wanted to drink in the glamour of the leading lady, who was decked out in a variety of flattering costumes and hairdos, she was shown to her best advantage, but anyone wanting belly laughs would be advised to look elsewhere.
[Simply Media's Region 2 DVD is - uh-oh - pan and scan, still watchable but a bit cheap-looking. No extras.]