HELLER IN PINK TIGHTS is one of those ‘orphan’ movies in dire need of some TLC. Bemoaned by director George Cukor after the studio cut it up, its half-hearted marketing and discouraging reviews left it limping into 69th place in 1960, after $3,500,000 had been expended to bring an array of talents to bear on an offbeat tale. Despite some structural clunkiness, the rich visual palette, delightful acting, a decent dab of drama and plenty of fun make it a sorely overlooked find.
George Cukor would seem an odd trail boss for a western, but the detail-mastering director was known to surprise; he’d been intrigued by the idea of a theatrical troupe in danger since reading a 1945 treatment by D.W. Griffith that drew its inspiration from the real-life adventures of legendary 19th-century actor Joseph Jefferson. A trim 1955 Louis L’Amour book (“Heller With A Gun”) provided further ground in the adaptation by Dudley Nichols and Walter Bernstein.*
In 1880’s Wyoming, a wandering troupe of actors nobly (often furtively) try to bring some civilization to the still rowdy frontier. Our valiant itinerant renderers of the immortal classics unto the untamed prairie are Sophia Loren, Anthony Quinn, Eileen Heckart, Margaret O’Brien and Edmund Lowe. Along with managing their fragile egos and free-spirited desires, a lethal and besotted gunman (Steve Forrest) and Indian renegades have the lusty thespians close to despair, but— the show/s must go on.
Though the multiple-source scripting was slapped together, and the director was dissatisfied with his unhappy leading man, the 100 minutes moves along at a puckish trot and head-to-tail it all looks terrific. Cukor wanted an effect of Fredric Remington crossed with Toulouse-Lautrec, and the cinematography, art direction and flamboyant Edith Head costuming are all notable design pleasures. Much of the credit for the overall styling goes to George Hoyningen-Huene, a famed Russian fashion photographer Cukor used as visual consultant and color coordinator. More than eye-catching, it looks quite more authentic to the period than most films in the genre.
Loren gives a good accounting of herself, displaying a nice comic sense (as she’d done the same year with Gable in It Started In Naples) and Quinn is quite a bit more subdued than usual. Forrest takes the bait and measures up nicely in a layered job as the rough rival to Sophia’s affections. Heckart is very funny and, at 23 a decidedly grown-up O’Brien playing her vixenish daughter has you shaking your head recalling the tot from Meet Me In St. Louis. No kid here.
With Ramon Navarro (the silent heartthrobs last film), George Matthews, Edward Binns, Frank Silvera, Howard McNear and Ken Clark. Among the band of raiders having at the coach and trunks, western trivia fiends can spot—if you’re sharp—-Iron Eyes Cody, Eddie Little Sky, Rodd Redwing and Chief Yowlachie.
* Griffith’s light-bulb about Joe Jefferson’s wild escapades cribbed from his own background as well from a book entitled “Good Troupers All”, written by Gladys Malvern. Known as America’s “First Actor”, Jefferson (1829-1905) was famous for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle and for coining the immortal phrase “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Uncredited was the script that Cukor commissioned from Maxwell Anderson back in ’45. Another period piece that Cukor did a fine job with (again mangled some by its studio) is the big-scale Bhowani Junction. Much of the look from that India epic came from Hoyningen-Huyen, who also aided Cukor on A Star Is Born. The last was praised but the former, like Heller In Pink Tights, is unfairly relegated to “also” status among Cukor’s output; like this forgotten western, it deserves higher ranking. Loren got on well with the fastidious director, but didn’t enjoy working with Quinn, based on earlier experiences from The Black Orchid and Attila. Last word goes to Cukor: “Visually and in the performances Heller was very diverting, even if it wasn’t a very good story, and it annoyed me that the picture was passed over so lightly in America. Paramount had no real faith in it, they did some stupid cutting, and then it wasn’t even released properly. It’s a great pity, because among other things it seems to me a very interesting view of the West.” Like he said.