Thursday, September 28, 2017

Maureen O'Hara and Delmer Daves Team Up for Spencer's Mountain and Battle of the Villa Fiorita

Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara.
In the twilight of his career, talented writer-director Delmer Daves teamed up with Maureen O’Hara for Spencer’s Mountain (1963) and The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965). These two very different films surprisingly share a common theme: the relationship between children and their parents.

The more conventional of the two is Spencer’s Mountain, a family drama set in a rural community in the mountains of Wyoming. Henry Fonda stars as Clay Spencer, the hard-working patriarch who shares a modest home with his practical wife Olivia (Maureen O’Hara), their nine children, and his old-fashioned parents.

MacArthur amid the mountains.
When not laboring at the local quarry, Clay works on the “dream house” he’s been building for years. Finances are always a worry, though, and become more so when a college scholarship falls through for Clay-boy (James MacArthur), the eldest son. Wanting their son to have the education they never did, both parents struggle to figure out how to pay for Clay-boy’s tuition.

If elements of Spencer’s Mountain sound familiar, that’s because it was based on a book written by Earl Hamner, Jr., creator of The Waltons TV series. A key difference is that Maureen O’Hara’s mother is relegated to the background, while Michael Learned figured much more prominently in the TV series. The show also restored the book’s original setting of rural Virginia.

Back when TBS showed older films (and TCM was but a dream), Spencer's Mountain was shown on the latter station two or three times a year (or so it seemed). It’s a well-intentioned movie, but tries too hard to be a heart-warming family drama. When a fired-up Clay goes to see the college dean about Clay-boy’s scholarship, you just know that the dean will be impressed enough with Clay’s gumption to bend the rules a little. It’s that kind of movie.
Rossano Brazzi and Maureen O'Hara as hopeless lovers.
Maureen O’Hara has a much juicer role in The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, in which she plays a middle-aged British woman who falls madly in love with an Italian composer (Rossano Brazzi). The only problem is that she’s married and has two teenage children (who attend boarding schools). The lovers, Moira and Lorenzo, cannot stay apart from one another, so Moira decides to leave her husband. He is shocked, but does not stand in his wife’s way.

Elizabeth Dear as Debby.
However, Moira’s daughter Debby (Elizabeth Dear) and son Michael (Martin Stephens) are displeased with the situation and trek to Italy to “fetch” their mother back. While this may sound like the premise for a comedy, it is not. (Your big clue should be that it was based on a novel by Black Narcissus author Rumer Godden). Moira’s children eventually conspire with Lorenzo’s twelve-year-old daughter (Olivia Hussey) to break up their parents.

Director Daves, who also explored middle-aged love in A Summer Place, opens the film with an inventive sequence in which we “hear” Moira and Lorenzo thinking about how they met. However, the sequence where the kids travel to Italy plays out like a boring travelogue (reminiscent of Daves’ pedestrian Rome Adventure). Fortunately, Battle regains its footing when Debby and Michael meet Lorenzo for the first time.

Olivia Hussey as Donna.
There are no villains in The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, only people with good intentions who make bad decisions. Lorenzo’s initial instincts are good—he wants to send the children home. But that plan goes awry when Michael falls ill and Debby appeals to his paternal emotions. Lorenzo only makes matters worse when he decides to bring the “new family” together by inviting his daughter—whom he barely knows—to visit. It’s easy to paint the children as the bad guys, but their motives are sincere if brutally selfish.

The child actors steal the film from the adults, though Martin Stephens—so good in The Innocents and Village of the Damned—is somewhat wasted. In contrast, Olivia Hussey, in her first film role, and Elizabeth Dear convey both childhood innocence and deviousness in equal measure.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita was Delmer Daves’ final film. Maureen O’Hara appeared sporadically in a handful of films over the next 35 years. She retired for good after appearing in the 2000 made-for-TV movie The Last Dance.

3 comments:

  1. I thought I remembered Battle of Villa Fiorita, but I had completely forgotten about the two children! ( Maybe I only watched the first half? )....Anyway, great review of both films, Rick. Spencer's Mountain is indeed predictable but I think it accomplished its "heart-warming family drama" goal. It certainly is tear-inducing.

    The selfish-children angle in Villa Fiorita reminds me of "There's Always Tomorrow" where Macmurray's children were plotting to send Stanwyck away before she broke up their family, not realizing that there was no affair going on prior to their interference!

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  2. Aha, the year of Rumer Godden continues. Her clear-eyed understanding of children/outsiders continually impresses.

    I appreciate that we get to hear Maureen sing a bit in Spencer's Mountain. It is certainly well made and, in my case, has a huge nostalgia factor going for it.

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  3. I'm a sucker for heart-warming family dramas, even if they try to hard. I'll be on the look-out for "Spencer's Mountain".

    As for "The Battle of Villa Fiorita", it looks really intriguing, as do the books by Rumor Godden. I'll see if the libraryhas any of her novels. Thanks!

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