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The Bootleg Files: A Bell for Adano

BOOTLEG FILES 624: “A Bell for Adano” (1945 drama starring John Hodiak and Gene Tierney).

LAST SEEN: On cable television.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Never commercially released in the U.S. home video market.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It deserves it.

Watching Hollywood’s war films produced during World War II is often unsatisfactory, if only because much of the gung-ho patriotism that permeated those movies feels corny and propagandistic today. But one film from that era stands out for offer a somewhat harsh and often unpleasant consideration of how the U.S. Army operated in Europe: the 1945 production of “A Bell for Adano.”

“A Bell for Adano” was originally a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Hersey, who covered the European aspect of the war as a correspondent for Time and Life magazines. Hersey based his novel on the wartime experiences of Col. Frank Toscani, the U.S. military governor of the Sicilian town of Licata. A theatrical version of the book opened on Broadway in December 1944 starring Fredric March and the play ran for 10 months.

Separate from the play, 20th Century Fox paid Hersey $85,000 for the screen rights to his book, with the provision that he would gain approval from the U.S. Department of War (the forerunner of today’s Department of Defense). During the war years, the military was given censorship rights over Hollywood films depicting the ongoing conflict. Hersey failed to get the military’s approval of his original screen treatment, but the studio intervened by promising to tone down Hersey’s depiction of an army general’s hostile relationship with the Italian villagers under American occupation. (The general in question was inspired by the none-too-cuddly George S. Patton.)

While Hersey’s nasty general was all but absent from the film version, the resulting production was still highly unusual in its mostly unflattering depiction of the U.S. Army soldiers. Most of the soldiers depicted in the film were coarse, rude and loud – and while there may have been hearts of gold under their crassness, there was still a surplus of crassness and a minimal amount of heart-gold. (Actors William Bendix and Harry Morgan were, perhaps, too effective in depicting these boorish soldiers.) Even the central character, Major Victor Joppolo, stretched the boundaries of good taste (not to mention the Production Code) by unapologetically pursuing a young Italian girl despite being a married man.

“A Bell for Adano” takes place in an Italian fishing village called Adano as the victorious American troops roll through Europe. Major Joppolo discovers the village in ruins, with no one in charge and residents without food and water. Joppolo, an Italian-American, is eager to show the Adano residents that the Americans are different from Mussolini’s regime and seeks to help rebuild their way of life. But the bureaucracy from the military occupation keeps the locals in deprivation – the fishermen are forbidden to go out into the open waters and the mule carts that bring water and food to the village are banned from the roads by the U.S. general in charge of the region. Joppolo works the military system to get the fishermen back to their craft, and he countermands his superior’s orders to open the roads to the mule carts.

But a major point of contention with the villagers was the theft of their beloved 700-year-old town hall bell by Mussolini’s forces. Since the Army will not help find a replacement, Joppolo turns to friends in the Navy. The naval officers – a bunch of slightly smug blonde WASPs who seem mildly amused by the shorter Italian-American soldier – happily show that they can achieve what the Army will not provide. For a war-era Hollywood film, it is highly unusual to see the degree of visceral one-upmanship between the branches of the military, with the Army coming out looking incompetent and the Navy being seen as a bunch of self-satisfied smarty-pants.

Director Henry King, whom 20th Century Fox entrusted with their prestige productions, did a masterful job in depicting the squalor and wreckage of the war-ruined village. Parts of the film feels like a prelude to the bleakness of the neo-realist cinema that was taking shape in the ruins of the war-blighted Italian cities. He also helmed an astonishing sequence with a deeply sympathetic depiction of Italian prisoners-of-war returning home – at a time when German and Japanese combatants were viewed with hostility by Hollywood, their Italian comrades were shown with a rare degree of sympathy.

King coaxed an extraordinary performance out of John Hodiak as Joppolo. Hodiak was a minor actor at MGM who only seemed to come alive under expert direction while on loan to Fox – one year earlier, he created a sensation as a shirtless survivor adrift in the ocean in the eponymous vessel of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat.” Sadly, Hodiak fell into second lead roles back at MGM and then into forgettable B-level productions before his death at the age of 41 in 1955.

There is also an amazing sequence where Hodiak’s character rescues the village’s former corrupt fascist mayor from a hostile crowd. The mayor is played by character actor Luis Albierni, who is brilliantly effective as the unrepentant bureaucrat who refuses to plead for mercy from his angry ex-subjects.

Alas, there are major flaws that nearly derails the film. The studio insisted on casting its top leading lady, Gene Tierney, as the young love interest for Joppolo. Tierney was crowned with an unflattering blonde wig and instructed to speak in an odd voice that sounded more like a gangster’s moll than an unsophisticated Italian villager. Her performance was uncharacteristically dreadful, and the film’s emotion power evaporates when she is on screen. More problems come in the stereotypical presentation of most of the Italian men as high-strung dimwits. Character actors including Marcel Dalio, Fortunio Bonanova and Henry Armetta overact shamelessly, and in stark contrast to Richard Conte’s moving small role as a returned Italian prisoner-of-war who eloquently recounts the fate of his fellow soldiers.

Upon its release, “A Bell for Adano” was a critical and commercial hit that pleased everyone – except for Frank Toscani, who sued Hersey and his publisher, 20th Century Fox, and the producers of the Broadway version for grafting the fictitious subplot of the extramarital shenanigans onto a story based on his life. Hersey settled his part of the lawsuit by agreeing to donate his proceeds from the film to the American Red Cross, but Toscani lost his libel lawsuit against the film and Broadway entities. But the film did not tarnish his reputation – he received honors from the American, British and Italian governments for his wartime service, and in 1957 appeared on “To Tell the Truth” to recount his war years. He retired as a colonel in the Army Reserve in 1966 and passed away in 2001 at the age of 89.

“A Bell for Adano” has never been released on U.S. home video. I assume there are rights clearance issues with the Hersey novel that are holding up its release. The full film isn’t even available on YouTube, which is interesting when one considers the surplus number of bootlegged flicks on that site. (For that matter, made-for-television versions from 1955 and 1967 are also not online.) Bootleg DVDs from a Fox Movie Channel broadcast are easy to locate on several collector-to-collector websites. And despite its problems, the film deserves to be seen and appreciated by today’s audiences.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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