Friday, June 03, 2011

Movies For Bookworms: Sylvia (1965)

I caught this movie on Youtube earlier this week after Sheila from The Sheila Variations did a post commemorating Carroll Baker's birthday.  She didn't mention Sylvia, but I remembered seeing a still from it in my David Shipman movie book and I recalled that Florence King had favorably commented on it in one of her books of essays. Although the plot is a little gritty and the dialogue is a little coarse, these things seem like a veneer over a rather genteel movie from an earlier decade.  Much like the character of Sylvia herself. 

Sylvia begins with millionaire Frederick Summers (Peter Lawford) summoning private detective Alan "Mack" Macklin (George Maharis) to his estate.  Summers has found the woman he wants to marry, but she hasn't passed any of his background checks.  He can't find out who she really is, so that's where Macklin comes in.  Armed only with a name --  Sylvia West --  and a book of poems written by her, Macklin manages to uncover Sylvia's past as travels around the United States and Mexico, meeting and talking to people she's encountered.  Sure enough, Sylvia is not your typical sweet little lady poet.  She's a former prostitute with a pretty seedy background.  Everyone who meets with Macklin remembers Sylvia with some degree of affection and they all want to know if things have worked out all right for her.  The more Macklin finds out, instead of being repelled, he finds himself being drawn to Sylvia.

So why is this a movie for bookworms?  Although Sylvia has encountered more than her share of hard knocks and is willing to do what it takes to earn a buck, she's also a bookworm.  One of the first people Macklin tracks down is the librarian in Sylvia's hometown who became her mentor and friend. (The first book she recommends to Sylvia is Pride and Prejudice.) 

After a few years of mistreatment and hard living, she leaves Mexico with a traveling salesman who is her transportation to New York City in exchange for her favors.  When he figures it's time to collect, she shrugs him off, vastly preferring the book she's reading. Carroll Baker perfectly captures the intensity of Sylvia's absorption and her irritation at being prodded out of her book world.  The salesman got to see her nasty side, but not the variety of nasty he was hoping for.

 Later, when she's working in a bordello in New York, she settles down with a book between johns, much to the derision of the other prostitutes.  When the madam informs Sylvia that her "date" has arrived, it usually takes a couple of tries to break her concentration, but she finishes the sentence she's reading, carefully marks her place with a bookmark, closes the book with more tenderness than the john is ever going to see and calmly goes to do what must be done. 

 Although she's clearly in with bunches of non-readers, they always ask what she's reading, and she tells them.  Late in the movie, there's a pivotal scene in a bookstore and a generous helping of talk about authors and books.  Of course the title character's name and the mystery surrounding her brings to mind Shakespeare's lines: "Who is Sylvia?  What is she, that all our swains commend her?"  I'm pretty sure that's not a coincidence.

Although the bookworm stuff delighted me to no end, I was also captivated by Carroll Baker's performance.  She plays Sylvia at various stages in her life and each stage is nicely nuanced. George Maharis is both hot and cool.  He has the cutest grin.  Ann Sothern steals the show with her portrayal of Sylvia's roommate,  Gracie Argona, who works in an arcade and dabbles in casual prostitution and there's a small but enjoyably trashy performance by Paul Gilbert as Lola "The Barracuda" Diamond, a transvestite chaunteuse who karate-chops wooden boards as a finale to his/her world-weary torch songs. 

The look of the movie is also very nice; it was filmed in gorgeous black-and-white.  All the sets and locations look good.  My only quibbles are Joanne Dru's slightly wooden performance as Sylvia's friend Jane  and the insipid theme song whined out at the beginning of the movie by Paul Anka.  Luckily, the song can be largely ignored because of the cool jigsaw puzzle opening credits.

Sylvia is based on the 1960 novel of the same name by E.V. Cunningham  AKA Howard Fast.  As you may have guessed, I'm eager to get my hands on it.  Usually movies dial back the literary talk, so I'm guessing the book has even more about Sylvia the reader.

1 comment:

Carrie#K said...

I miss movies like that. Howard Fast? I haven't read him in eons. Even the populous bubblegum used to be more intellectual.