BOOTLEG FILES 319: “Decameron Nights” (1953 costume drama starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan).
LAST SEEN: A bootleg copy is available as a video-on-demand Amazon.com title.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: There was a glut of VHS videos from public domain labels.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Someone believed the film was in the public domain.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Eventually, though a good restoration is in order.
I first became aware of “Decameron Nights” when I was a kid growing up in the pre-cable television, pre-Internet era of the 1970s. In glancing over the TV Guide listings, I would notice that the local NBC affiliate always broadcasted this film at 2:30 in the morning. It always seemed peculiar that this film was exiled to the wee hours of the night – how come it never turned up during the daytime?
Today, “Decameron Nights” is barely remembered. That’s a shame, since it is a handsome and entertaining production that dared to accomplish the unthinkable – adapting the bawdy 14th century romantic tales from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” into a feature film that would pass the censorship requirements of Production Code-era Hollywood. Needless to say, the medieval smut of the source material was bowdlerized for the camera. But the resulting production more than compensated with visual style and genuinely witty performances.
“Decameron Nights” is centered in a villa outside of Florence. The poet Boccaccio (played by French actor Louis Jourdan, wearing a Moe Howard haircut) seeks shelter from a military conflict that is taking place in the city. The villa is home to one of his romantic pursuits, the widow Countess Fiametta (Joan Fontaine), who is in residence with five other women. She allows Boccaccio to shack up in this hen house if he entertains the ladies with some of his famous stories.
The film then breaks into three short stories plucked from the 100 tales in “The Decameron.” The first, “Paganino the Pirate,” finds a young wife trapped in a marriage to a dull old man who will only become romantic if his astrological charts confirm the stars are in proper alignment. When she is captured at sea by a virile pirate, she prefers being the property of her captor rather than being returned to her spouse.
The second story is “Wager on Virtune,” in which a rich but older merchant enters a bet with a young scalawag that his wife is faithful. The scalawag uses a clever trick to win his bet, and the merchant (believing his wife is unfaithful) arranges to have her killed. She manages to escape that fate and – through circumstances that are too complex to explain – somehow winds up as a male adviser to a sultan in Morocco. In the end, husband and wife are reunited and the rogue becomes the slave to the merchant.
The third story, based on “The Doctor’s Daughter,” involves a female physician (a very modern updating on the Boccaccio source) who saves the life of an ailing Italian king. As a royal reward, she picks a husband – naturally, the best looking guy in the monarch’s command. Her husband, however, is disinterested and abandons her immediately after the wedding ceremony. She tracks him down to Spain, where he is trying to seduce the teenage daughter of a tavern owner. But when he slips into the dark bedroom belonging to the younger girl for a pre-arranged rendezvous, guess who is really lying beneath the sheets?
“Decameron Nights” was an independent U.S. project that took advantage of the lower costs of post-World War II European-based production. Spanish locations filled in for the Italian and Moroccan settings, while the Elstree Studios in London were used for the interior sequences.
In an usual twist, Fontaine and Jourdan also play the leads in each of the three stories, while veteran character actress Binnie Barnes turns up in each tale and in the framework setting at the countess’ villa. Barnes was married to producer M.J. Frankovich and she functioned as an unofficial associate producer and property manager on the shoot. She would later confide the unusual aspect of the casting: the film was shot on a low budget that did not enable the hiring of a large cast. Barnes also claimed that she played eight roles in the film, although she is only credited with four parts – most likely, she also turned up as an extra in scenes that required a large gathering of bystanders.
It should be stated that for a low-budget production, “Decameron Nights” is beautifully conceived and photographed in Technicolor. The richly embroidered period costumes and intelligent use of locations created a visually delightful endeavor.
For contemporary viewers, “Decameron Nights” is notable as being among the first major films starring Joan Collins. This was her fifth film and she was only 19 during the production. Although given fourth billing (above the better-known Barnes), she has relatively little to do – her parts as one of the women at the countess’ villa and as the teenage girl in the third segment could have been played by any other young performer. At this stage of her career, she lacked the personality and star presence to justify her star status.
However, Fontaine and Jourdan carry the film with aplomb. Fontaine rarely had a chance to play comedy, and “Decameron Nights” gave her a variety of roles where she was allowed to generate laughs. Her prime moment came in the second of the tales, where her excess of sincerity drives her would-be assassins to severe remorse – she takes passive-aggressive behavior a hilarious depth. Jourdan, who starred with Fontaine in the 1948 romantic classic “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” also enjoyed a comic-tinged part that played up his Gallic good looks with liberal doses of dashing roguery.
As for the bawdiness of the tales – well, they’re incredibly mild by today’s standards. And perhaps they were incredibly mild in 1953. Grumpy old Bosley Crowther, reviewing the film for the New York Times, dismissed it as a “tame and generally witless trifling with the materials of naughtiness, lacking completely the vitality and the trenchant comments of the originals.”
Nonetheless, the prospect of a film version of the daring Boccaccio stories made “Decameron Nights” a minor box office hit. Over the years, it became forgotten – except for the aforementioned 2:30am TV broadcasts and, later, by video labels specializing in public domain films. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, “Decameron Nights” was a staple of the bargain bin offerings in video retail channels. The quality of these videos ranged from poor to awful, and there was even a black-and-white video release of this Technicolor production.
However, it appears that claiming “Decameron Nights” as a public domain title was a mistake – it is nowhere to be seen on DVD, so clearly the question of rights has been raised and addressed. However, Amazon.com has a crummy bootleg dupe available as a video-on-demand title.
If “Decameron Nights” turns up on commercial DVD, it will need a vigorous restoration and a generous reconsideration of its virtues. As a piece of old-time diversion, the film is more than deserving of a second look.
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