Boy on A Dolphin - 1957
Boy on A Dolphin - Released April 10, 1957. Directed by Jean Negulesco
20th Century Fox
Boy on a Dolphin
Boy on a Dolphin roamed around television for decades as a washed-out, worn color movie, a condition that failed to take advantage of all the money 20th Century Fox spent filming it on location in the beautiful Mediterranean. The question for quite a while was whether decent film elements still existed for it, because though it had been a major production effort from Fox back in 1957, and it featured one of the true international actresses of Hollywood early in her career in her first major English-speaking role, nonetheless the title has slipped into unimportance and had yet to have a decent presentation on DVD or HD, but in 2016 a Blu-Ray restored version came out:
Under the Mediterranean Sea
Boy on A Dolphin was intended to tap into the genre of scuba films that had come about in the 1950s as the equipment to capture clear images underwater had improved significantly. The genre was consistently a good draw during the 1950s, with The Frogmen in 1951, Beneath the 12 Mile Reef in 1953, then Creature from the Black Lagoon and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea in 1954 which had excellent box office. Jane Russell appeared in a trim red wetsuit for the 1955 Underwater which also did good business, and a low budget Undersea Girl (with Mara Corday in a similar red outfit) appeared in 1957.
But Boy on A Dolphin goes further by combining in archeology, something which powered the Van Heflin exotic adventure film The Golden Mask in 1953, and Robert Taylor's big-budget Valley of the Kings from 1954, both films featuring hard-fisted archeologists who pursue historical treasures despite peril and treachery (and provided some of the inspiration that went into the much later Indiana Jones movies).
Throwing those fashions of archeology and people swimming underwater together with Sophia Loren and setting Boy on A Dolphin among the Aegean islands must have seemed like a perfect formula for success, the 1950s had many American films set around the Mediterranean and Italy or Greece: Three Coins in a Fountain, Kirk Douglas' Ulysses, Roman Holiday, Qua Vadis, etc.
These films not only offered a genre action film itself, but a setting that added an exotic travelogue background, a full trip to a sunny overseas while sitting in a theatre for only the cost of a ticket at the Bijou.
A technically difficult color film shooting around the Greek islands (and in Athens) with a 6-month production schedule, Fox put up $2.8 million to make it with director Jean Negulesco headquartering the effort from Rome and shooting around the Greek island of Hydra.
Director Negulesco also did 1954's Three Coins In A Fountain, which was a hit that depended partially on the scenic wonders of Italy. He was a natural choice for this project and his work on Boy on A Dolphin began filming across the Aegean even before the main star, Alan Ladd, had been signed (an effort to get Cary Grant did not come to pass).
The cinematography is by Milton R. Krasner and it shows off the striking beauty of the Aegean sea, the people and the many colorful islands there. However beautiful the background, Alan Ladd is the star in the credits, but visually it is Sophia Loren we see the most in this film, aged 22 and probably the most Italian "Greek" anyone has ever seen.
Cary Grant was originally meant to star opposite Loren, but when he vacated the top of the cast Dolphin was already underway in Rome, so Fox signed Ladd and he shipped over by boat (and got robbed along the way when traveling the last stretch by train). Sophia Loren was already signed for the part of Phaedra, a poor Greek sponge-diver who finds the archeological object that the movie is about.
Loren has said that working with Ladd was one of the few instances while making a film in which she and her male co-star didn't become friends, and elsewhere Ladd is supposed to have complained that Negulesco obviously had a crush on Loren and was giving all the prime camera time to her. Whatever the case, there's no hostility on screen between the two leads, but at best there's only a paternalistic affection from Ladd's character toward's Loren's, and this is so low-key that at times Ladd just seems embarrassed or bored, and thus hardly the stuff, at least visually, that communicates the tumultuous love between the two leads we're supposed to be seeing in the story.
The script provides for little spontaneity, but what there is comes to us via Clifton Webb (as archeologist/thief Victor Parmalee) and Webb is the only reliable source for much-needed humor in this film. His character wants to smuggle the "Boy on a Dolphin" sculpture out of Greece, which is highly illegal in this nation ransacked many times for its archeological treasures. Webb's archeological thief goes about his scheme with a humorous tone of self-awareness, and his solo scenes might be the best things in the movie.
Phaedra (Loren), who discovered the "Boy on a Dolphin" on the sea floor while sponge-diving, originally tries to sell the object to the American Dr. James Calder (Ladd) who is in Athens helping the government to restore Greek national treasures (and so we get a magnificent set of shots around the Acropolis).
But the lure of better profits from Webb's Parmalee, and the pressure from coconspirators Laurence Naismith as an alcoholic doctor and Jorge Mistral as Rhif, Phaedra's Albanian boyfriend, all dreaming of riches on the black market art circuit puts Phaedra into the juggling act of simultaneously deceiving Ladd's Dr. Calder, who has learned enough about the sculpture that he is anxious to get it, but Phaedra has to also follow Parmalee's orders because he's become the ringleader for their conspiracy to steal the sculpture from the sea floor and spirit it out of the country.
Ladd's Calder soon sees through the fakery (with the help of Piero Giagnoni as Niko, who is Phaedra's adolescent brother) and though Calder could expose Phaedra, he instead doggedly pursues the Dolphin in his own way without directly challenging Phaedra's delicate high-wire act between the two competing groups trying to get to the sculpture first.
There's a fine music score by Hugo Friedhofer, and Mary Kaye sings the Boy on a Dolphin theme song over the credits, a gentle refashioning of a Greek folk tune (made popular later by Julie London) that is still rerecorded by modern singers from time to time. Loren also sings the Greek "Ti Ine Afto Pou To Lene Agapi" during a segment that features Greek folk dancing.
What's Wrong with Boy on A Dolphin?
With all of the money and excellent production work going into Boy on A Dolphin, it's odd how poorly so much of the dynamics of the story turned out. The hole in the middle of the tale (adapted from the 1955 novel by David Dine) is the slow, lukewarm romance between the two leads. Nothing seems to gel when they are together.
The early scene in which the sponge-diving Loren comes out of the sea soaking wet with a clinging outfit that leaves her entire torso available for inspection is imagery much more famous than the movie itself. Was this the effort of a Hollywood production to try and save itself through exploiting Loren's physical being, realizing the production was in trouble in too many other departments? Whatever the case, Loren's physique is the fundamental of how Fox marketed it in 1957.
The underwater sequences are from a studio set, but the scenic parts of the movie (the bulk of the film) was filmed primarily around the island of Hydra (which is pronounced correctly as EEdrah, but is pronounced as HAYdrah by characters in the film, which means Sophia Loren's character is "Phaedrah from Haedrah.")
Complaints about the unrealized intentions of Boy on A Dolphin
Laurence Naismith is an alcoholic English doctor on the skids who has something like a crush (or something else not explored) toward Sophia Loren's character. He's the one who realizes the worth of the underwater sculpture Loren has found (she cuts her leg on it accidentally while sponge diving) but this benign old fellow is soon pushed out of the way when more criminally minded characters appear.
Webb has the best lines in the movie, adding cynical humour to the sometimes ponderous plot motion. Though he is supposed to be a physical menace to Loren, this fails the same way Ladd's character fails when compared to Loren: Phaedrah looks like she could pick up both Webb and Ladd and knock their heads together.
In an early scene, Phaedrah pleads with Dr. Calder (Ladd) about her find and it's importance, but he doesn't really listen, certain she's just another ignorant Greek peasant. There's a wide streak of paternalism in this film, but in a way it is it's own subtle criticism of itself. On the other hand, Calder's competitor, Victor Parmalee (Clifton Webb), believes Phaedrah's story about the sculpture she found under the sea. And he manipulates her mercilessly to obtain it.
Ladd's character is written into the script as steadily falling in love with Phaedrah, but that's not how Ladd plays the character. At times it seems like Ladd can't make up his mind whether he even likes Loren at all. For example, Phaedrah and Dr Calder meet at a taverna on a date, and Calder spends his time talking off into space or simply looking for an exit, ignoring her in general.
Whatever is the problem with Ladd's acting concerning the love subplot of the movie, Dr Calder is revealed as a generous and patient character later, and instead of ratting out Phaedrah's illegal plan to help Parmalee steal the sculpture, Calder instead keeps hinting to Phaedrah what the only ethical path to follow with the priceless artifact she has found is to turn it over to the Greek authorities. He doesn't stress it as a test for his friendship and instead is betting everything on her conscience.
This would have been a much better path for the script to highlight instead of the botched romance subplot. The film might have come off much better as being about Ladd's slightly-arrogant Dr Calder learning to appreciate the modern Greeks instead of just the ancient ones, and Phaedrah coming to terms with right and wrong and especially her double-dealing boyfriend Rhiff. By the time in Boy on A Dolphin she has to finally face the truth about Rhiff's inherent brutality, he has violently taken control of the operation to seize the sculpture, knocks her around for good measure, and in a different scene, knocks her out entirely.
The battle of Phaedrah's conscience over the treasure she has found isn't developed very much, but it is integrated into the film, since we eventually have the question of whether she will listen to a 'bad angel' (Clifton Webb's Parmalee) preaching greed, or to the 'good angel' (Ladd's Dr. Calder) who preaches respect for the heritage of Greece.
But, a relatively more complex and interesting plot path about the characters coming to terms with their own deficiencies isn't taken and instead we're to be anxious over the cold romantic match up of Ladd and Loren, something that just doesn't become believable.
One more thing: it's hot in the Aegean, but Dr Calder and a Greek detective appear in trench coats (Loren is dressed more sensibly, although one gets the sense that Director Jean Negulesco would like to have had Loren wearing as little as possible). Why are the two men in trench coats in the heat? I guess because Ladd was famous for roles in other films in which he wore trench coats. The other man is a detective, and movie detectives wear trench coats. Imprisoned by the rules of genre, Boy on A Dolphin never really rises up out of the sea.
More Sophia Loren
The Indiana Jones Connection
The Spielberg/Lucas film of 1981 features a hard-hitting archeologist often bested by a scheming, thieving competitor renegade archeologist who stays one step ahead for most of that tale. The antecedent for Raiders of the Lost Ark's Dr Rene Belloq can be traced to Boy on a Dolphin's Victor Parmalee (Clifton Webb). For that matter, Indiana Jones seems to be a kind of echo of the adventuring archeologists from The Golden Mask, Valley of the Kings and Alan Ladd's determined Dr. Calder from Boy on a Dolphin.
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Original Page June 12, 2014 | Updated September 2023