Thursday, November 3, 2016

How Do You Solve A Problem Like "Sylvia"?

Co-stars George Maharis and Carroll Baker enjoy an afternoon tete-a-tete in "Sylvia".

A hardy hail and hello to you, movie lovers.

Say, have you met Sylvia West (Carroll Baker)?


Well, let me introduce you.

Sylvia is the extravagantly bouffanted fiance of millionaire Frederic Summers (ex-Rat Packer and Kennedy in-law Peter Lawford). She earns her keep writing of obscure poetry and growing prize winning roses. Honest. Because Sylvia is not the sort of gal who likes to talk about herself, Fred has become convinced she's "hiding something." Hmmm, like what? A Home Shopping Club addiction? A fondness for funny black cigarettes? An obscene Smurf collection? Before things come to a matrimonial conclusion, Fred decides to hire hip and happen' P.I. Mack ("Route 66" heart-throb George Maharis) to check his honeybunch out.

"Sinatra won't take my calls. Can you help me?": Millionaire Frederic Summers (Peter Lawford) hires Mack (George Maharis) to unravel the mysterious background of his bride-to-be.

And that, movie lovers, is the basic premise of "Sylvia", a laughably pretentious, B&W oddity from 1965 where a gal sleeps her way to a better life...and reads a lot of books while doing it (no pun intended).

I first learned about "Sylvia" from my dog-eared copy of Bad Movies We Love by Edward Margulies and Stephen Rebello. I have been trying to find this flick for years, but kept coming up empty handed. Then, out of the blue, I stumbled upon it on YouTube. It's nuttier than squirrel scat, just like the authors promised. So let's begin, shall we?
After money-bags Fred hires Mack, the P.I. begins searching out Sylvia's childhood on "the poor side of town" in (gasp!) Pittsburgh. We know our heroine had it rough because A) her old neighborhood looks like something straight out of "Dead End" and B) her father is played by budget baddie Aldo Ray. The only bright spot in Sylvia's life is her friendship with kindly librarian Irma Olanski (Vivecia Lindfors), who introduces her to Jane Austen novels and the hope of a better life. However, when her hard drinkin' pa catches Sylvia trying on some lipstick, he flies into a rage and assaults her. Sylvia's pitiful mom (who is rapidly succumbing to TB) can only look on as her dazed daughter staggers out of their crummy flat, never to return.

Sylvia finds sanctuary--she thinks--in a skid row store-front church. Unfortunately, the gentleman running the place is actually a flimflam man. Soon enough, he takes Sylvia south of the border, where he runs her as hooker.

Off  Mack trots to Mexico, where, with the help of a savvy street kid, he meets up with kindly Father Gonzales (Jay Novello). He remembers Sylvia vividly; after all, she was the only member of his congregation who sported blinding blond hair and tight dresses. Anyway, Sylvia came to the good Father asking if would bury her pimp (who expired in a knife fight) in his grave yard, with the full rites of the church. The priest agrees and Sylvia pays for the whole thing. Then she promptly leaves town, having made an (ahem!) "arrangement" with traveling salesman Edmond O'Brien to return to the States.

"Don't bug me, I'm reading!": Edmond O'Brien begs Sylvia to put her book down and pay attention to him.

Landing in the Big Apple, Sylvia gets a job running a coin machine in an arcade. It's there she befriends Gracie (the scenery chewing Ann Sothern), a fellow employee, as well as a down-on-her-luck hooker and marathon drinker. The two gals end up rooming together and Gracie appreciates that the much younger (and prettier) Sylvia doesn't try to muscle in on her few remaining "gentleman callers." To tell you the truth, Sylvia isn't much interested in anything but reading. That totally bums out O'Brien, Sylvia's former car companion, who pesters her at work every chance he gets, begging for a date. Fed up with his obsessive behavior, Sylvia's boss takes it upon himself to beat O'Brien up and ban him from the arcade.

Mack manages to track the frustrated suitor down and interviews him at his suburban home. While O'Brien is telling his tale of thwarted love for Sylvia, his creepy, smart-ass son is eavesdropping behind the backyard hedge. As Mack prepares to leave, junior appears cackling like a demented crow. He announces that unless his father triples his allowance PRONTO! he'll tell mom the whole sordid story. Mack promptly kicks the kid in the hinder, knocking him to the ground, earning the gratitude of O'Brien as well as the audience.

Acting on O'Brien's information, Mack locates Gracie. She's still making change at the arcade and has upped her drinking, but she hasn't seen Sylvia in years. Nevertheless, she agrees to meet Mack for dinner in an upscale restaurant. In one of the movie's unexpectedly zany highlights, Sothern swaggers in dressed like a Spanish countess and proceeds to regale the P.I. about the next phase in Sylvia's life.

Watching Sothern slur her lines, down martinis like there's no tomorrow and wax nostalgic about her own crummy existence, you can't help thinking the actress was sure this shameless, showy, scenery-chewing would net her an Oscar nomination. You can blame this misguided behavior on Helen Hayes, who was rewarded for her hammy histrionics in "Airport" (a movie just as bad as this one, by the way) with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar she did not deserve--thus beginning a trend that continues to this day (admit it: did you really think Gloria Stuart deserved an Oscar nomination for all her mugging in "Titanic"?).

But back to our story. Turns out making change wasn't making ends meet, so Sylvia went back to work as a hooker. Her boss this time was a crabby old crone known to her girls as "Mother"--although "she was often called worse behind her back." As usual, Sylvia was more interested in reading than servicing her clients. In fact, Mother had to repeatedly tell Baker to put her book down and get into bed. However, during this stint in the world's oldest profession, Sylvia did manage to make friends with fellow doxies Jane (Joanne Dru) and Shirley (Nancy Kovack). Everybody bonded even more when their bordello was raided and they did a 30-day stretch in prison together. Naturally, Jane and Shirley are Mack's next contacts.

The Duchess of Alba on a bender? Nope, it's just Ann Sothern realizing her shameless over-acting is all for nought.

Shirley is known by her stage name "Big Shirley" because she's so tall. When Mack finds her, she's working in a burlesque house and at first she thinks he's a talent scout. When Shirl learns he's a P.I., she's disappointed, but beckons him into her dressing room anyway. Standing behind a flimsy screen, Shirl explains,"I'm neurotic. I like to get dressed in front of men." As Shirl changes into her next costume, she tells Mack that she, Sylvia and Jane all decided to give up hooking after prison--except something happened to Jane and Sylvia was involved. Mack wants to know where he can find Jane and Shirl says she married a rich stockbroker. With that last bit of info, Shirl waves Mack goodbye and heads out on stage, wearing a gigantic salt shaker on her head.

Now, if you think the events described thus far in "Sylvia" seem a bit preposterous...well, that's because they are. However, movie has more twists and turns to unveil, so settle in.

OK, so, Mack arrives at the Park Avenue penthouse of Mr. and Mrs. Phillips. Naturally, Jane isn't happy to see him, thinking he's a blackmailer or, worse, one of those reporters from "Inside Edition." Thoroughly acclimated to her new role as lady of the manor, Jane has no interest in discussing her or Sylvia's past life as hookers--in fact, she snippily informs Mack that her husband knows all about her former profession and could care less. In fact, Jane says that quite a few rich society wives were once hookers--so there!

After trading arch insults and accusing each other of being a judgmental prig, Mack and Jane agree to have lunch in a fancy restaurant to discuss Sylvia. As it happened, Sylvia and Jane were leaving prison, anxious to begin new lives, when Jane was hit by a truck. To pay for her friend's medical expenses, poor Sylvia went back to hooking again. This time her pimp was Lola Diamond, a night club chanteuse and drag queen played by Paul Gilbert. In what surely must have been shocking to 1965 sensibilities, Lola (in high heels and a sparkly gown) removes his wig and lights up a cigar before "interviewing" Sylvia for a "job".  "What did you expect? Goldie Locks?" he barks.

"You be nice to the gentlemen, Sylvia, and they'll be nice to you": Lola Diamond (Paul Gilbert, center) introduces Carroll Baker to yet another doughy, middle-aged admirer.

Although Lola insists he runs a classy operation, the "clients" he introduces Sylvia to are by far the screwiest bunch our heroine has come up against--and that's saying a lot. The worst by far is Bruce Stamford III (Lloyd Bochner, future co-star of Pia Zadora), a married, wealthy, socially prominent captain of industry who is also a porn monkey with a thing for hiring (and beating up) hookers. When Sylvia tells Bruce the book he wants her to read aloud (which is bound in plain brown paper--hint, hint) "belongs in the trash", be goes berserk. Sylvia tries to get away, but Bochner screams, "You're paid for!" and chases her around his hotel room. The unhinged jerk later tackles Sylvia and beats the tar out of her. When that's over, Bochner collapses in a heap, crying. 

When we next see her, the bruised and bloodied Sylvia is trying to call the cops. The hysterical Bochner begs her not too, telling her he has a wife and kids to think about. He admits that he has a problem (that's putting it mildly) and has tried to seek help, but he fears for his social position if word got out. Instead, Bochner offers to give Sylvia ten grand if she stays quiet. She agrees and he writes her a check on the spot.

Sylvia turns her ten grand over to Jane's stockbroker hubby, who quickly invests it with great success. Financially secure and independent for the first time in her life, Sylvia can now quit hooking for good. She then treats herself to "travel, Europe and culture." When she returns to the states, Sylvia moves to L.A., publishes a slim volume of poetry (Moon Without Shadow) and begins growing those prize-winning roses. She also changes her name from Sylvia Karoki to Sylvia Kay to Sylvia Carlyle to Sylvia West. Somehow she meets rich Frederic Summers (remember him?) and they become engaged. The particulars of the Sylvia/Fred romance are not recounted in the flick, so you'll have to figure those out for yourself. I imagine our cuddlemates must have met at a high society flower show and spent the rest evening discussing fertilizer and aphids, before regretfully parting. Then perhaps Fred called Sylvia up and asked her to join him on a trip Seven Dee's nursery and the rest just fell magically into place.

By now, you're probably wondering what Mack thinks of Sylvia. Of course, his professional ethics dictate that he must remain neutral and simply collect the facts for his employer. However, over the course of his investigation, Mack develops the hots for Sylvia, which should not surprise anyone. In fact, Mack decides to meet Sylvia in person without telling her who he is, which should also not surprise anyone.

The long awaited meeting between investigator and subject takes place at a Brentwood bookstore. Store employee Annie (an old friend of Mack's) introduces them. Mack pretends to be a real fan of Sylvia's poetry and she's flattered. The two hit it off so well, in fact, that Mack takes Sylvia out to a local hot dog stand. They even go for a spin on a merry-go-round. Sylvia then says, "Mack, I like you" and invites him to attend a fancy flower show as her guest. Mack accepts.

Love in the afternoon: Mack and Sylvia yak and snack.

It's clear to any idiot that Sylvia and Mack are FALLING IN LOVE and MEANT TO BE TOGETHER, which is going to put a big crimp in Sylvia's wedding plans. What could possibly happen next?

First, Mack 'fesses up that he's a P.I. hired by Frederic.

Upon learning this news, Sylvia throws a temper tantrum and tells Mack she never wants to see him again.

Mack then goes to see Frederic. He hands the millionaire a totally bogus report that claims Sylvia is who she says she is and that she has lived an unblemished life.

However, money-bags Frederic calls Mack's bluff. He also declares that Sylvia has already been over and confessed to everything. The wedding is off and, for good measure, Frederic called City Hall, filed a complaint and got Mack's P.I. license revoked.

"I can read you like a book": Sylvia and Mack get literary.

Whew! But wait! There's more! Believe it or not, the movie isn't finished yet!

After a reasonable interlude (about 30 seconds), Mack goes over to Sylvia's house. She's in the backyard working on her next cycle of poems. Mack announces that now they are "free to be themselves", so why don't they get married? Sylvia ponders this for a bit, but appears to agree. A happy ending? That's up to you. Personally, I give them five years...four if Sylvia cooks.

What makes "Sylvia" worthy of a bad movie designation?

It could be the acting of the principals, which ranges from self-satisfied smugness (George Maharis) to old-fashioned scenery chewing (Ann Sothern) to misplaced Method madness (Caroll Baker) to I'm-Just-Working-For-The-Check indifference (Peter Lawford). It could be the script from Sydney Boehm (based on Howard Fast's novel) that asks us to believe someone would say, "I'm full of hate and anger and resentment and it's going to take all the gold and diamonds in the world to cure me"--with a straight face. It could be nutty scenes such as Lola Diamond singing "Live and Learn"...and then chopping a plywood board in half...and then declaring "And that, you lovely things, is what Lola calls a 'bang-up finish'!" It could be the premise that anyone could earn a living writing obscure poetry and prize-winning roses. It could also be because "Sylvia" clearly rips-off the noir classic "Laura"--and not in a good way. Any one of these theories--alone or in combination--would be more than enough the categorize "Sylvia" as a bad movie.

However, what makes "Sylvia" so bad is that it takes itself so seriously. Everybody was obviously convinced that they were making an edgy, hard-hitting movie about a hard-luck gal who manages to better herself; sort of a Moll Flanders with a library card. Instead, they made a Lifetime movie so wacky the only thing missing was Tori Spelling.

What a drag: Paul Gilbert is night club singer and pimp Lola Diamond.

So, until next time movie lovers, don't take yourself too seriously, support our local libraries and help me SAVE THE MOVIES.

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