Houseboat is a warm, gentle film. There are three little children in it but the young actors all do a good job. I mean, what would a film about a family full of children be without a few of them?
In this one Cary Grant is a father who has been far from central to his family. It begins with his father in-law drawing up legal papers for him to hand over custody of the children. After a separation his wife had died while divorce proceedings were in train. The father doesn’t treat him with much respect and the kids don’t like him much either. He decides that enough is enough and he’ll take care of his own children himself… so he whisks them off to his small Washington apartment in his army-style open-topped jeep. His lifestyle is certainly not adapted to being a parent and when he attempts to connect with them, he seems only able to relate to adults.
Not long before Grant decides to make a move to better accommodate the kids, in walks Sophia Loren, who the young ones adore and request as their maid. Loren is no maid, however, and is herself a socialite on walkabout after falling out with her dedicated but overbearing father. Add this splintered, mismatched family to an equally ramshackle houseboat and what you get is… Houseboat.
In spite of his abruptness with her, Grant effortlessly charms Loren, who is often treated as unworthy by the other adults in the film. She even seems to feel this herself. I found this a bit strange seeing as she is extraordinarily beautiful, more likely to cause multiple traffic accidents and have people walking into things and off piers in astonishment. Loren shines brightest in her close-ups, with weapons-grade eyelashes that would provoke whole nations to surrender when she bats them. Over-analysis of anything completely misses the point in a film as light-hearted as this one, however. What’s important is that the main characters have their hearts in the right place and are essentially decent to each other when it really matters.
I picked this one out as part of my quest to watch quite a lot of Cary Grant films. He is charming as ever, of course, but to be honest it’s a struggle to talk about anyone other than Loren this time around. I really am reminded of the only time I met someone who could bat her eyelids and send send a man to his doom, even with full knowledge that it’s nothing more than a manipulation. Luckily for Grant and family Loren’s character is a decent and genuine lady. Perhaps a more gritty, modern version featuring a more ruthless, self-centred cast of characters might suit determined cynics unable to stomach the wholesomeness of this film! It’s far from a cast-iron classic, but enjoyable, nonetheless. As far as classics are concerned the best I’ve seen from Grant so far are three of those he starred in alongside Katharine Hepburn (Holiday, Bringing up Baby and His Girl Friday). In those both stars work so well together and Hepburn is practically peerless as an actress. More on them later, perhaps. I’m sure their appeal is pretty universal and they stand up to repeat viewing… I’m just not fond of watching something I’ve already seen when I can see something new instead.
Houseboat does have its moments, however. I quite liked one scene where Loren chats with the little girl and convinces her to take refuge from a storm in her father’s bed rather than her own. Perhaps this is an early sign of the affection Loren is developing for Grant; it certainly shows her to be a caring, understanding and wise young lady.
As a footnote to this whatever-it-is, I found the destinies of the three child actors to be an interesting read. They were all quite active in the 50s but life wasn’t so kind to them afterwards. Mimi Gibson’s mother lived off her child acting and she found her money had been spent by the time she came of age. She has since been involved with co-star Paul Petersen’s support group for child stars, A Minor Consideration. Petersen himself, who I thought did a fine job in Houseboat as David, went to college and tried his hand at many things after failing to make it as an adult star. The youngest of the three, Charles Herbert, seems to have fared less well in life but has reportedly been sober since 2005. (Source: IMDb biographies)