Wistaria and Sunshine

A.W. wrote in the New York Times of 12th January, 1955:

“IF there is some slight suspicion that Hollywood and/or Cecil B. De Mille have a corner on movie spectacles then such doubts should be dispelled by “Theodora, Slave Empress,” which crashed into the Globe yesterday. Panoplied in the accoutrements of sixth-century Byzantium and the brilliant and sometimes startling hues of Pathé color, this Italo-French display of the romance and tribulations of the courtesan who became Justinian’s queen is as full of sound and fury as the Circus Maximus. But the principals of this lavish import are simply two-dimensional figures reacting in stilted fashion to standard dramatic devices.Theodora emerges as a beautiful Italian brunette, nobly endowed by nature but wanting in acting ability. And Justinian is a tall, handsome Frenchman given to regal posing.However, the four scenarists, among whom is director Riccardo Freda, are not short-changing a viewer on eye appeal. For the vistas of Byzantium’s teeming market places, palaces, hippodrome, caged and snarling lions, chariot races and hand-to-hand combats are likely to keep an observer on the alert.

Not so the plot nor the English dialogue with which this fictionalization has been dubbed. Delving into legends and historical sources the scenarists have evolved the tale of the obscure charmer who caught the eye of the Emperor Justinian when this august ruler was making the rounds of his city’s thronged market places in mufti. It was, as the saying goes, lust at first sight, a lust that turned to love.But the hatred engendered by the schism between patrician and plebein also fired the gentry to scheme foul schemes against the beauteous and designing upstart. However, despite machinations of John of Cappodocia, Justinian’s right-hand man, our heroine, a lass who is rabid for justice to her plebein cohorts as well as the throne, wins out against all odds.

Since the producers assembled an Italo-French cast, which often seems to number in the thousands, it was deemed advisable to dub their dialogue into English. This was not precisely a stroke of genius. For the stately phrases supposedly emerging from the principals’ lips often have a dull, archaic ring. “You are moved by ambition,” Justinian declaims, “and I am moved by passion.” Neither lover seemed to be moving anyone at this point despite the allegedly torrid circumstances. As Theodora, Gianna Maria Canale, a comparative newcomer seen here previously in Metro-Goldwyn8-Mayer’s “Go For Broke,” is a striking beauty whose charms are not left to the imagination. What Signorina Canale lacks in histrionic ability is overshadowed by the physical requirements of the role. George Marchal makes a serious, if not impassioned, Justinian and Henri Guisol, as the dastardly John, and Renato Baldini, the plebeian charioteer-admirer of Theodora, who gives his life for the Queen, are competent but obvious and muscular in their delineations. If the customers doze through these surface characterizations, it appears unlikely they will nod at the lush splendors of Byzantium. The talk may be dull but the action is lively in “Theodora, Slave Empress.”

Clifford Terry wrote in a review of Enchanted April in the Chicago Tribune of 7.8.92:

“A dreary, rainy day in London town. The early 1920s. Two women who barely know each other become partners in minor domestic rebellion by becoming impulsively drawn to a rental advertisement in the Times that offers a springtime stay at a small, medieval castle in Italy – perfect for those who are seeking ”wisteria and sunshine.”

Both ladies, it turns out, have marriages, but not particularly happy ones. Lottie Wilkins (played by British stand-up comedian Josie Lawrence) is married to a handsome, dull, exceedingly practical and stingy solicitor (Alfred Molina). Rose Arbuthnot (Miranda Richardson) has settled in with a social climber and apparent womanizer (Jim Broadbent) who, under a pseudonym, writes lascivious novels with titles like ”Theodora: The Slave Princess.”…”

From: The Enchanted April (1922), by Elizabeth Von Arnim:

“…For Mrs. Arbuthnot, who had no money of her own, was obliged to live on the proceeds of Frederick’s activities, and her very nest-egg was the fruit, posthumously ripened, of ancient sin. The way Frederick made his living was one of the standing distresses of her life. He wrote immensely popular memoirs, regularly, every year, of the mistresses of kings. There were in history numerous kings who had had mistresses, and there were still more numerous mistresses who had had kings; so that he had been able to publish a book of memoirs during each year of his married life, and even so there were great further piles of these ladies waiting to be dealt with. Mrs. Arbuthnot was helpless. Whether she liked it or not, she was obliged to live on the proceeds. He gave her a dreadful sofa once, after the success of his Du Barri memoir, with swollen cushions and soft, receptive lap, and it seemed to her a miserable thing that there, in her very home, should flaunt this re-incarnation of a dead old French sinner…”


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