More louche than lush, the four films rounded for the Warner Bros. Romance Classics Collection are of interest mainly for demonstrating what Douglas Sirk’s great melodramas would have looked like without the trenchant irony. Indeed, Troy Donahue shows more power in his brief but harrowing scene as Susan Kohner’s racist beau in Sirk’s Imitation of Life than as leading man in this moony quartet. The studio’s heartthrob juvenile in the early ‘60s, Donahue was all too obviously whipped up in the Warner Bros. laboratory, with plasticine features (his butterscotch-colored hair and dreamy-petulant scowl) in order but with the insides left out. While fellow male ingénues Warren Beatty and Robert Redford often suggested anxiety rattling underneath their good looks, Donahue’s handsomeness was for the most part serenely unburdened by the decade’s shifts in mores and attitudes, with only a hint of gigoloish archness going on beneath the scrubbed surface (a hint expertly explored by Francis Ford Coppola, who cast him as a dreamboat gone to seed in The Godfather, Part II).
Donahue’s blandness is ideally matched to the blandness of the films in the set. To get the worst out of the way: Palm Springs Weekend, a 1963 romp about college students who seem to be pushing 40, is frame-by-frame worthless. Directed by vintage hack Norman Taurog in between Elvis Presley movies, it scrambles to find common ground between Donahue’s pouting and Jerry Van Dyke’s mugging but succeeds only in making Where the Boys Are look like Diary of a Country Priest by comparison. Rome Adventure, released the year before, is no less vapid, though its location shooting in Italy is at least a relief after the procession of studio scrims in Palm Springs. Unfortunately, postcard views of touristic sites are all Delmer Daves’s fluffy travelogue has in its skull, which means plot and characters play second fiddle to piazzas and palazzos. Given the plot and characters here, it may not be a bad idea: Young schoolteacher Suzanne Pleshette heads off to Rome and finds herself torn between Donahue’s earnest student and Rossano Brazzi’s courtly Old World roué. Despite Angie Dickinson’s kittenish wiles and Constance Ford’s nifty portrait of a vaguely Sapphic expatriate happily away from Yankee Puritanism, it’s such a mindless (and ultimately retrograde) confection that Claude Lelouch himself would have demanded more substance.
Daves also directed Parrish and Susan Slade in 1961, and his switch from rugged, tight-lipped westerns to the feminized hysteria of these films is their most fascinating aspect. Both films team Donahue with Connie Stevens and traffic in unwed mothers, familial rivalries, and elaborate camerawork, illustrating Andrew Sarris’s assessment of the filmmaker’s “stylistic conviction in an intellectual vacuum.” Parrish casts Donahue as a callow hothead who moves to a tobacco plantation with his mother (Claudette Colbert, in her last screen role) and gets passed around from Stevens’s spirited farmhand to Diane McBain’s gorgeous hussy to Sharon Hugueny’s rebellious heiress, while Karl Malden demonstrates his shouting range from the sidelines. Stevens has a scrappy streak here, but as the title character in the even wackier Susan Slade she’s as much of a human marshmallow as Sandra Dee. Sheltered and virginal, Susan falls for a mountain-climbing daredevil who gets himself killed and leaves his pregnant sweetheart and her parents (Lloyd Nolan and Dorothy McGuire) to dodge scandal; Donahue as a moody stable owner figures in this stew, which also includes babies playing with lighters, syrupy music recycled from A Summer Place, and enough repressed sexual tension to crack the lens. It’s no surprise to learn that John Waters is a big fan of these films, even if when it came to casting an aging pretty-boy in Polyester he had the good (bad?) taste to pick Tab Hunter.
Delmer Daves's often audacious colors gain from the cleaned-up transfers, particularly in Parrish and Susan Slade. The unexceptional sound is clear.
Only trailers. Oh, for a Charles Busch commentary track.
Smooching mannequins, campy tantrums, and repressed sexuality. And just in time for Valentine's Day.