“Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell”

Paleo Retiree writes:


A brightly-colored, super-polished confection starring Gina Lollobrigida that crosses two genres of its era: the marriage-is-impossible farce and the Americans-touring-Europe-by-bus comedy. (I watched in on this disc.) My wife hated it, and we both wondered if it might not be the squarest movie we’ve ever sat all the way through. But I also got fascinated by the film and eventually felt rather touched by it. It’s a perfect artifact of our parents’ generation — the Greatest Gen/WWII crowd.

A surprise for us was how late “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” was made. It feels like it’s from 1959 or 1961 but in fact it was released in 1968, a year after “Bonnie and Clyde” and a year before “Easy Rider” and “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” It’s a useful reminder of how many square, old-fashioned movies were still being made at that point — and would go on being made. I sometimes find myself thinking that someone should do a piece about the square movies from that otherwise hip era. Enough already with Peckinpah, Altman, Coppola, etc, you know?

Anyhoo: Lollabrigida plays a glamorous, if struggling, Italian woman who, back during WWII, when her small town was occupied by American forces, slept in rapid succession with three American soldiers. After the Americans left, she had a daughter — she doesn’t know which guy was the biological father. Since then, the three Americans, who have all gone on to have marriages back in the States, have been, unbeknownst to each other and each believing he’s the girl’s father, sending monthly checks to help raise the girl; and Lollabrigida has been pretending to all and sundry that the girl was fathered by a made-up American officer she claims to have been married to. The film starts as, years later, the American battalion the guys belonged to drives into town to revisit and celebrate the town’s liberation. Will Lollabrigida be able to keep the guys in ignorance of each other? Will the guys’ wives find out what’s been going on? And how about the daughter (Janet Margolin), who’s returning to town for the celebration too?


It’s all very bright and obvious in Rock-and-Doris, sitcom ways. Doors slam; a catchy theme song gets repeated over and over; Italians scheme, seduce and quarrel with comic extravagance; tiny red convertible sports cars zoom around while the Mediterranean twinkles in the background. I enjoyed the movie — the heartwarming stuff as well as the hijinks — more than most Neil Simon-style efforts and was genuinely awed by the farce engineering. I couldn’t help thinking that any writer would benefit from working on a few screenplays with Melvin Frank. What an education in story construction you’d get!

There are lots of shrewd comic glimpses of bickering, sexually unhappy American marriages. Telly Savalas (‘way too crude and loud) is paired with Lee Grant as childless working-class louts; Peter Lawford and Marian McCargo are Pinter-esquely, upper-crustily reserved and nasty with each other; and Phil Silvers and Shelley Winters play an uncouth, loud-mouthed couple with a swarm of obnoxious tykes. (The Silvers/Winters marriage is obviously Jewish, yet in the tradition of the era their sons are all-American blondes.) And Lollabrigida (41 at the time) is entrancing. She looks impossibly warm and lush, wears her splashy, revealing costumes beautifully, flashes her gorgeous Cleopatra eyes, and shows off her dozen or so performing tricks with a lot of winning gusto.

However dopey and obvious, the movie is also sophisticated and racy — adult — in ways that may be a little foreign, maybe even shocking, to many today. There’s no nudity or profanity, but even I was startled by how non-judgey the film is: by its open acknowledgment about how frustrating marriage can be; by its easy acceptance of at what a young age people become sexual (Mrs. Campbell slept with the Americans when she was 16, and her daughter, who wants to run away with an older married man, is herself only 16); and by its unfussy recognition that adults — even those with some miles on their odometers — have legitimate sexual drives (the middle-aged guys are horny bastards, and no-longer-young Gina enjoys non-marital relations with a sexy and mature Frenchman who’s her employee). The movie may be square but it isn’t prissy, in other words. In the movie’s view, there’s nothing  creepy — let alone evil — about any of this. It’s just how life is.

On top of everything else, I was moved by the reflections the film set off in me about how that whole Greatest Gen world — a world defined by the recent-ness of WWII, by fantasies (some of them accurate) about the class, corruption and easy sensuality of Europe and Europeans, and by how inane and perplexingly stressed-out American life so often is — is now rolling to its ultimate close. FWIW, it’s the world I was born into as a kid, and it’s something that I realize I’ve taken ‘way too much for granted ever since.


  • Fabrizio del Wrongo watched a movie by the Italian master Mario Monicelli.
  • I’m now curious to watch some more Melvin Frank movies. I think I’ll start with “A Touch of Class.” When I saw it on its release in 1973 (it was a big hit for the “I like my movies old-fashioned” crowd, and it won Glenda Jackson a Best Actress Oscar), I couldn’t have had less interest in it.
  • “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” was the basis for “Mamma Mia,” which I haven’t seen.
  • I enjoyed this NY Post visit with Peter Lawford’s last wife.

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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5 Responses to “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell”

  1. JV says:

    I love these kind of light-hearted movies from that era, the cocktailing adults having fun thing. It reminds me also of my grandparents and their friends and a particular brand of bonhomie that I think resulted from making it through the Depression and WWII somehow intact. Same reason I can watch those Sinatra/Bob Hope/Dean Martin/etc. specials endlessly. Square, in a way, I guess, but unabashed, too. And that Gina Lollobrigida, damn. So sexy. I’m always reminded of that Looney Tunes in Venice cartoon with the “duck-a you head, lollobrigida” joke. Ha.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JV says:

    “and by the unfussy recognition that adults — even those with some miles on their odometers — have legitimate sexual drives too”

    Boy has that changed, any hint of middle-age sexuality is labeled “creepy” now by the barely post-pubescent media hacks that spew out the majority (sadly) of online writing about sex, and most movies are targeted at the same demographic.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. plwinkler says:

    Take a look at “Lovers and Other Strangers.” (1970)


  4. Paul Zahl says:

    Can’t tell you how pleased I am that you have written about this charming and sunny movie.
    There’s a lot of grace in it, if I may use a theological category — quite a bit of practical redemption. Lloyd would have read this post with pleasure!


  5. Fenster says:

    “However dopey and obvious, the movie is also sophisticated and racy — adult — in ways that may be a little foreign, maybe even shocking, to many today. There’s no nudity or profanity, but even I was startled by how non-judgey the film is: by its open acknowledgment about how frustrating marriage can be; by its easy acceptance of at what a young age people become sexual.”

    The hips rebelled against the squares according to the narrative, and life took a 180. In reality the late 50s/early 60s of ring-a-ding and the late 60s/early 70s of shing-a-ling have much in common.


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