THE BOOTLEG FILES: ORSON WELLES’ PORTRAIT OF GINA (AKA VIVA ITALIA)

BOOTLEG FILES 302: “Portrait of Gina” (1958 unsold TV pilot directed by and starring Orson Welles).

LAST SEEN: An unauthorized presentation can be found on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film has been blocked from commercial release due to legal issues.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Don’t hold your breath.

In the past five years that this series of columns has appeared, more focus has been given to Orson Welles than to any other filmmaker. If you’ve grown tired of the Big O, I hate to disappoint you – but we’re on the hunt for another bootlegged beauty from the father of Rosebud.

The film in question doesn’t have an official name – most U.S. film scholars referred to it as “Portrait of Gina” while their British counterparts insisted on calling it “Viva Italia.” We’ll take the U.S. side on this debate. The film was shot in 1957 and 1958 but was never publicly seen after its completion. In fact, it was considered to be a lost film for nearly three decades. But even after it was rediscovered, it is still among Welles’ most elusive productions.

In 1957, Welles entered a contract with ABC-TV to create a weekly series. Network president Leonard H. Goldenson would later recall that ABC was in dire need of original programming and was testing a number of “strange ideas.” Goldenson stated that ABC paid Welles $200,000 to create a pilot episode. However, Goldenson added that Welles was “vague” about what he would produce – but, then again, the network did not think of pushing him for details.

Welles decided to create a curious hybrid series that would mix travelogue-style journeys with interviews featuring his celebrity friends. The pilot episode was shot in Italy and would focus on Gina Lollobrigida, the reigning Italian sex symbol.

Actually, the resulting pilot focused more on Welles himself. He served as the on-screen host and narrator – Lollobrigida didn’t show up until the final one-third of the half-hour episode. For the most part, the pilot has Welles talking to the camera, walking around Italy, dominating interviews with actor Rosanno Brazzi and actor-filmmaker Vittorio De Sica, and chatting with his wife, Italian countess Paola Mori. And if that wasn’t enough, the program used the zither theme music of “The Third Man” as its own score!

By this point in his life, Welles was clearly losing his private battle of the bulge – and careful efforts were made to disguise his expanding girth. Welles coordinated the camera to shoot him from the chest up, and clever camera blocking and lighting helped hide his wide proportions. In the few shots where he was required to be seen in full body, Welles opted to wear a very wide brimmed hat and a flowing trenchcoat – as if the oversized clothing would diminish his excess weight.

In offering an overview of Italy, “Portrait of Gina” suffers from the now-dated travelogue approach of presenting foreign cultures as cute and quaint. Welles and his wife comment on the Italian stereotype of overly exuberant conversation, complete with wild hand gestures. Welles insists that the Italians don’t need to pay to see a theatrical show because daily conversation in the piazza is a show unto itself.

But Welles’ view of Italy is meant to focus on its cinematic output. He speaks highly of the country’s pin-up girls – though, inexplicably, the decidedly non-cheesecake Anna Magnani is included in a photo montage. Welles never uses film clips of Italian cinema, relying on very quick glimpses of publicity stills.

As for a portrait of Lollobrigida, Welles visits the star’s hometown – but he remarks that the locals are “jealous” of her success. He also chats with Anna Gruber, a minor Italian actress who states that she and Gina were pen pals during their childhood. None of this gives very much insight into Lollobrigida’s personality or career, but it is vaguely amusing in a gossipy sort of way.

When Welles finally sits down with Lollobrigida at her palatial home, the interview is very wobbly. Some of Welles’ questions are deeply personal – asking about her problems with the Italian tax system and negative publicity in the local media. For her part, Lollobrigida struggles with several answers, openly acknowledging that “My English is awful” at one point and answering her questions in Italian, which Welles translates into English.

However, it must be said that Lollobrigida never looked more beautiful than in this pilot.

Welles delivered the pilot as a 16mm film to ABC in 1958. The network heads viewed the footage and hated it – Goldenson would later claim it was “very poorly done” and “little more than a home movie.” The network did not pursue the proposed series and shipped the film back to Welles, who abandoned any idea of selling the proposed series elsewhere. Regarding “Portrait of Gina,” Welles would later remark, “I don’t think it was very good.”

“Portrait of Gina” vanished in the late 1950s. Welles was living at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, but when he moved out he left the film behind. The hotel stored the footage in its lost and found facility, and it remained there until it was rediscovered in the early 1980s. The film had its first public screening at the 1986 Venice Film Festival. However, when Lollobrigida finally saw the film at the festival (Welles, apparently, never showed her the footage), she was extremely unhappy with the production and began legal proceedings to prevent its distribution.

“Portrait of Gina” has turned up on German, French, and Swiss television, and it has been screened in non-theatrical U.S. retrospectives of Welles’ films. However, there has been no official DVD release of this title due to Lollobrigida’s legal actions.

But that hasn’t stopped an enterprising Welles fan from posting a video of the German TV broadcast (complete with German subtitles) on YouTube. Thus, for the first time (albeit without proper authorization), the world can see “Portrait of Gina.” And despite its flaws, the film deserves to be seen – after all, second-tier Orson Welles is more fascinating than first-tier anyone else.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on September 25, 2009 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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