There aren't too many roles in which I find Cary Grant disagreeable, but this is one of them. Of course, since it's Cary Grant, I stayed vexed only so long before he eventually won me over with his dang charm. He plays a harried father who tries hard to care for his three unhappy children, only, he's appallingly rusty when it comes to parenting. See, he'd been neglectful of his young brood, so work-obssessed he'd allowed the ex-wife to be the primary custodian. When the ex passes away, Tom Winters chooses to take responsibility for his two boys and little girl, never mind that they'd rather stay with their grandparents. He whisks them away, anyway.
The plot synopsis to Houseboat goes like so: "A lawyer with three children lives on a houseboat with an Italian symphony conductor's daughter as his maid." No, Mr. Winters never intended for them to inhabit a creaky houseboat. It just worked out that way. Initially, he sets himself and the kids up in a cramped apartment in Washington, DC. Of course, the kids detest their new digs.
Sophia Loren plays 22-year-old Cinzia Zaccardi, feisty socialite and spoiled daughter of a celebrated symphony conductor. Cinzia can't cook or wash or sew or dust. She is, instead, posh and cultured, having attended the best schools in Switzerland. Cinzia has accompanied her father (Eduardo Ciannelli) for his orchestra's American tour. But she's fed up with being on display all the time, having to behave all the time. She's bored out of her gourd and restless. One evening, during the Washington, D.C. leg of the tour, she slips away into the night seeking to experience proper American nightlife. She creeps into a rowboat and promptly bumps into a runaway child and his harmonica.
You can't blame the kid for being smitten. He follows Cinzia to a street carnival, and she's swell enough of a dame that she dances with the little fella. And, a bit later, she even takes him home to his worried father. Who, you guessed it, is Tom Winters.
It's a long-about way of telling you how Cinzia met Mr. Winters. Note that, at this stage, Cinzia looks far from kempt, what with having reveled and cavorted most of the evening. So maybe you shouldn't condemn the man for thinking she's this poor immigrant girl, especially since she spins a yarn about being a G.I. bride, well, almost a G.I. bride, except the G.I. didn't marry her and so she had to go look for work... What with his youngest having taken a shine to her, what else can Mr. Winters, who tops his children's sh-- list, do but offer her a job as a live-in housekeeper?
And then this and that happens - much of it amusing - and they all end up living on a creaky houseboat.
So, the kids. The oldest, 13-year-old David, is a surly, aspiring kleptomaniac. The daughter is frightened of storms and, as it turns out, only wants for her father to comfort her and reassure her. The youngest, as you know, is a runaway.
1958's Houseboat was a huge success despite the crazy behind-the-scenes soap opera stuff going on. Reportedly, Cary Grant was mightily crushing on Sophia Loren, but his romantic advances were met with a resounding "meh" from Loren (who was already involved with another older gent). Further fueling the melodrama, this was supposed to be the third vehicle to co-star Grant and his then wife Betsy Drake (who also wrote the screenplay), except Grant supposedly finagled to replace her with Loren. To compound the insult, Betsy's screenplay was almost entirely retooled by screenwriters Melville Shavelson (who also directed) and Jack Rose, and Betsy got no writing credit. Moreoever, the new script received an Oscar nod for Best Original Story and Screenplay. I feel ya, Betsy.
Onscreen, Grant and Loren generate fantastic chemistry. Yes, Grant spends much of the movie being this oblivious, distracted dad, but his comic timing remains impeccable, and I just couldn't stay grouchy at him, never mind that I knew where the kids were coming from. The revelation to me was Loren's superb knack for comedy. I'd never seen her so accessible without sacrificing her va-va-voomness, her image of the earthy sex goddess. Each time I watch this movie, I fall in love with her all over again as she croons the fabulous "Almost In Your Arms," but in Italian. It's a song that got the Oscar nod, as well, for Best Original Song. But at least Betsy Drake didn't write it.