“The World’s Most Beautiful Animal!”

avabc

Ava Gardner in a publicity shot for THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954)
Airing on TCM June 1st.

Ava Gardner makes one of my favorite film entrances of all time in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954), which airs on TCM June 1st. If you want to kick off the new month with a bang I highly recommend making time for this verbose Technicolor-noir that critiques Hollywood excess and the powerful studio system that frequently exploited its stars. Mankiewicz’s film is a heady brew of CITIZEN KANE (1941), LAURA (1944), SUNSET BLVD. (1950) and the director’s own ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) shot with abundant style by master cinematographer Jack Cardiff. It dramatically depicts the rise and fall of Maria Vargas aka “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal” (Ava Gardner), a seductive Latin dancer and renowned beauty who is discovered in a Madrid nightclub and carted off to Hollywood where stardom awaits. Her fascinating story is told in flashbacks by the men who knew her and begins in a rain soaked cemetery where our chief narrator, veteran director and recovering alcoholic Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), is attending Maria’s funeral.

bcposterSurrounded by monuments to the dead Bogart’s character tells us, “Life, every now and then, behaves as if it had seen too many bad movies when everything fits too well; the beginning, the middle and the end. From fade in to fade out. And where I faded in the Contessa was not a Contessa. She was not even a movie star named Maria D’Amato. Where I faded in her name was Maria Vargas and she danced in a nightclub in Madrid, Spain.

Harry’s words lead viewers into a lively club where Maria is dancing barefoot for a large crowd of men and women. If you don’t blink you can catch a blurry glimpse of her elegant hands as she unleashes an intoxicating rhythm with her palmas (handclaps) before the camera begins scanning the extraordinary assortment of faces in the audience. Men of all ages look on in awe clearly captivated by Maria’s hot-blooded dance and extraordinary beauty while the women’s reactions are much more complex and diverse. Some women in the room are clearly jealous and upset by the men’s obsession with this exotic dancer while other ladies feign boredom or eventually lose themselves in her passionate performance. The stimulating show that we never get to witness with our own eyes finally ends with Maria vanishing behind a beaded curtain.

Into this scene walks the world weary Harry Dawes with a couple of Hollywood bigwigs (Warren Stevens & Edmond O’Brien) and one of their boozy blond girlfriends dripping with diamonds (Mari Aldon). They demand to meet the barefoot dancer but the nightclub proprietor explains that she never mingles with the guests. Naturally this doesn’t go over well with men who are used to getting what they want whenever they want it and Bogart’s character eventually decides to go backstage in a halfhearted attempt to convince Maria to join them.

bc01

bc02

bc03

It’s worth pointing out that over 14 minutes have passed since the film’s opening credits and we still haven’t been introduced to the elusive ‘Barefoot Contessa.’ Only Harry Dawes’ deadpan narration, a gaudy gravestone and the eager eyes of the men and women who watched her dance have given us any indication of the woman we’re eventually going to meet. When Bogart’s character finally enters her dressing room her bare feet greet us first while Maria hides behind a curtain hoping the pushy Hollywood players will get bored with her childlike game of hide-and-seek. Dowes finally tells Maria that her feet are visible and with a sudden and forceful motion she pushes back the curtain to reveal a wild mane of black hair and a face so ferociously beautiful that it makes you gasp for air. Thousands of beautiful women have found work in Hollywood but very few of them can take your breath away as effortlessly as Ava Gardner.

tumblr_ljvzymUera1qdj1g0o1_500

Of course not everyone agrees with me. THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA has received plenty of negative criticism over the years from folks who aren’t impressed with “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal” and find Mankiewicz’s film too talky, melodramatic, slow-moving and derivative. I can’t follow that logic at all and share a common admiration of the film with director Francois Truffaut who wrote “…either one rejects it or accepts it whole. I myself accept it and value it for its freshness, intelligence and beauty.” Truffaut also thought Ava Gardner was “Hollywood’s most exquisitely beautiful actress” and I can’t argue with that conclusion either. Gardner was an untamable force of nature on screen and off. Absolutely gorgeous, as well as brassy, vivacious and vibrant. Unfortunately she wasn’t offered many parts that allowed her to really show off her acting chops, which has led to some shortsighted assessments of her talent but she’s one of my favorite performers and I never get tired of watching her. And you can see Ava Gardner at her soul-searing best in THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA.

*Note: The animated gif was borrowed from The Mirror Room blog

9 Responses “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal!”
Posted By robbushblog : May 29, 2014 8:16 pm

Wow. That is one hell of an entrance. Gorgeous.

Posted By AL : May 29, 2014 9:03 pm

This is a haunting film. Jack Cardiff! For timeless, classic true beauty it’s always been a toss-up between Ava and Rita, for me. As written, THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA script is loosely based on Rita Hayworth’s life. Naturally Mankiewicz tried to convince Rita to play Maria Vargas, but she declined. No matter. As perfect as she would have been, Ava was magnificent.

Posted By AL : May 29, 2014 9:07 pm

The list of roles Rita was sought for, but didn’t do (mainly because of Harry Cohn) is astonishing…

Posted By Doug : May 30, 2014 11:05 am

Though kind of an odd film, I liked Ava in “Pandora And The Flying Dutchman”.
I haven’t yet seen “The Barefoot Contessa” but it sounds like a movie I would enjoy.
According to IMDB, Gardner had a ‘walk-by, uncredited’ scene in
Shadow Of The Thin Man which I watched the other night-I’ll watch it again to see if I can spot her.

Posted By AL : May 31, 2014 12:23 am

Doug–I’m with you on PANDORA–a strange film that works OK for me –mainly because of Jack Cardiff’s breathtaking photography of the breathtaking Ava Gardner…

Posted By doug : May 31, 2014 4:43 am

Once I knew to look for her in “Shadow Of The Thin Man” Ava was easy to spot.
When Nora and Nick arrive at the racetrack, while sitting in their car talking to Lt. Abrams Ava passes behind Abrams (Sam Levene).

Posted By Marty : June 2, 2014 4:12 pm

I believe that the two most beautiful women in pictures at one time were Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner…and both were exceptional actresses.

She is wonderful in Mogambo, in The Hucksters and of course, The Barefoot Contessa. In the pictures she did with Gable, you can tell he really enjoys playing opposite her.
In “barefoot” many scenes she shares with Bogart are quite touching, especially with Bogart eschewing the old Warners characterizations and assuming an elder statesman posture.

I would have really rather heard her sing for herself in Showboat, as the That’s Entertainment anthology 3 suggests.

There is a picture of Ava and Frank Sinatra walking on the beach on the honeymoon that is priceless.

Yes, I heard she was combative and a heavy drinker later, with the toll taken in her looks and concentration.

But I’m very glad she was a star and made pictures we can watch today and marvel how beautiful she truly was.

Posted By AL : June 2, 2014 9:48 pm

Marty–one of my favorite Elizabeth Taylor quotes (from the 50′s): “People keep referring to me as ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Woman’–I’m not. It’s Ava Gardner.”

Posted By swac44 : June 10, 2014 12:04 pm

This was the first film I ever saw Ava Gardner in, hard to believe it was 30 years ago, but it was easy to get hooked right from the get-go. For some reason I remember the film as being in black & white, but either my eyes were deceiving me or I watched it on a b&w TV set (the same thing happened with Invaders from Mars, imagine my surprise when I revisited it on laserdisc). It’s about time I gave this Contessa a second look.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.