The Reluctant Libertine

Hollywood’s penchant for remakes is not a new development but a strategy that has served some of our most acclaimed directors in often surprising and unique reworkings of the original source material. Take, for instance, Billy Wilder’s 1964 sex comedy, Kiss Me, Stupid. It was actually adapted from Anna Bonacci’s 1944 play, L’ora della fantasia [The Dazzling Hour], which, in turn, became the 19th century costume farce Wife for a Night (1952, aka Moglie per una notte), directed by Mario Camerini, a popular Italian film director who is best known for a number of 1930s hit comedies starring Vittorio de Sica and a 1954 version of the Greek myth Ulysses with Kirk Douglas. 

Wife for a Night is one of Camerini’s more successful later efforts and generated considerable publicity during its original release because it cast Gina Lollobrigida against type as an unglamorous and seemingly dowdy housewife. This was quite a departure from her more typical roles as a saucy and often provocative sex symbol though in the course of the film she gets the beauty treatment as part of a deception designed to help her husband’s career. Yet Wife for a Night and Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid are miles apart in style and approach and would make a fascinating double feature for the sake of comparison.

A Spanish lobbycard from the 1952 Italian sex comedy, WIFE FOR A NIGHT.

Wife for a Night is a lightweight but often witty and effervescent chamber comedy in the grand tradition of the Commedia dell’Arte with a plot that juggles the big emotional themes of love, jealousy and adultery. The story opens with the lecherous Count D’Origo (Gino Cervi), who while traveling on official government business, decides to spend the night at a local village where he is pursuing Geraldine (Nadia Gray), a stunningly beautiful courtesan he wants to add to his list of conquests. The town mayor, Agusto (Paolo Stoppa), decides to take advantage of the situation in order to help his nephew, Enrico (Armando Francioli), a struggling composer of operas, and convinces Enrico to enact a charade that could earn him the Count’s sponsorship, leading to a public performance of his new work.

Armando Francioli plays an ambitious music composer and Nadia Gray is a key participant in a plot to attract an influential patron of the arts in WIFE FOR A NIGHT (1952).

As part of the ruse, Enrico’s wife Ottavia (Gina Lollobrigida), agrees to switch places with Geraldine so that the Count will think the latter is Enrico’s wife and be more favorable toward helping the composer’s career if he can secretly seduce his wife. As expected, the plan goes awry; Ottavia, hidden away at Geraldine’s house, is forced to entertain two of the courtesan’s gentleman callers. With the assistance of Geraldine’s assistant, Ottavia transforms herself from a plain Jane with a matronly hairdo into a ravishing beauty. However, the unexpected arrival of the amorous Count complicates the situation further as he dismisses Ottavia’s two admirers and begins to court her in earnest. Will she remain faithful to her husband or will she sacrifice her honor for his career?

Count D’Origo (Gino Cervi) and Geraldine (Nadia Gray) appear to be getting along just fine in the 1952 sex farce, WIFE FOR A NIGHT, directed by Mario Camerini.

In contrast to Wife for a Night with its cast of elegantly dressed aristocrats cavorting against the background of Parma high society, Billy Wilder’s 1964 remake is at the other end of the spectrum. Set in an economically depressed backwater desert town – Climax, Nevada – the opera composer has become a frustrated songwriter (Ray Walston) who sees his big break when a famous Las Vegas singer (Dean Martin as “Dino,” a parody of his own persona) is stranded in his town. Felicia Farr plays the songwriter’s ignored and lonely wife and Kim Novak, in one of her most underrated performances, is Polly the Pistol, a local prostitute.

Unlike Camerini’s film, Kiss Me, Stupid is much more cynical, crude and leering in its exploration of the morality – or lack of it – on display. Unlike Wife for a Night, none of the characters in Kiss Me, Stupid emerge with their honor intact yet they all seem to get what they want in the end. The result is a very sour and acerbic look at fidelity, marriage and relationships which earned it a Condemned rating by the Legion of Decency at the time of its release.

Gina Lollobrigida was on the cusp of stardom when she gave one of her best performances in the 1952 Italian comedy, WIFE FOR A NIGHT.

Wife for a Night takes a much more upbeat and playful approach to its subject and one of its charms is watching Gina Lollobrigida’s character emerge from her homely cocoon and turn into a beautiful butterfly. It’s a sly, subtle comic performance with a hint of danger in it – she threatens to poison herself at a climactic moment and means it. The icing on the cake, however, is the excellent ensemble cast, all of them expert farceurs displaying the sort of precise comic timing a tale of mistaken identity demands. Gino Cervi, a veteran of more than 100 films (most of them Italian), is endlessly amusing as the blustery, skirt-chasing Count, Armando Francioli makes a dashing but appropriately temperamental musical genius and the luminous Nadia Gray almost steals the movie from Ms. Lollobrigida with her portrayal of the worldly wise yet still romantic Geraldine who understands the importance of allusion and deception. Most moviegoers will remember Gray from her sensational strip scene in the jet scene party sequence that concludes Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960).

Enrico (Armando Francioli, left) is blamed by his friend Agusto (Paolo Stoppa) for complicating their elaborate charade involving Enrico’s wife in the 1952 comedy WIFE FOR A NIGHT.

Although Wife for a Night was not a huge box office hit in Europe or abroad, it did garner mostly positive reviews from the critics with Gina Lollobrigida receiving the major praise. The New York Times called it “a frank but lightweight little sex bauble, smoothly handled and consistently amusing…The humor comes from the ensuing confusion and crossed suspicions and, finally, from Lollobrigida’s awkward attempt to play a libertine.”

A scene from the Italian sex farce WIFE FOR A NIGHT (1952) starring Gino Servi (seated, center right), which is based on the play The Dazzling Hour by Anna Bonacci.

The New York Herald Tribune reviewer, voicing a similar sentiment, wrote “Miss Lollobrigida in the voluminous gowns of a century ago is, curiously enough, a rather refreshing departure from what her couturiers have accustomed us to of late, and her performance has more conviction, perhaps because of it.”

Gina Lollobrigida (right) in one of her first international film triumphs, Rene Clair’s BEAUTIES OF THE NIGHT (1952).

Gina Lollobrigida was already on the rise as Italy’s new sex siren in the early fifties but Wife for a Night helped establish her as a gifted actress and Rene Clair’s Beauties of the Night (Les belles de nuit), released the same year, launched her career on an international level. She would go on to make her English language debut in John Huston’s Beat the Devil in 1953 but it wasn’t until the late fifties/early sixties that she would reach the peak of her popularity in such films as Solomon and Sheba (1959), Never So Few (1959) and Come September (1961).

Wife for a Night was initially released on DVD in 2004 by Ivy Video which also included it in a 3-disc box set as Italian Babes of Yore (The other two titles were Too Bad She’s Bad (1954) starring Sophia Loren and Girl with a Suitcase (1961) featuring Claudia Cardinale.).  

*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

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