An odd western adapted - loosely - from a Louis L'Amour novel (Heller With a Gun,) directed by Academy Award winning director George Cukor (My Fair Lady copped the Oscar in 1964,) who was better known for more sophisticated, urban fare (Cukor directed Katharine Hepburn in nine movies,) HELLER IN PINK TIGHTS doesn't fit into any easy categories. It's the story of a traveling acting troupe in the old west, headed by Tom Healy (Anthony Quinn) and featuring the lovely Angela Rossini (Sophia Loren.)
Angela Rossini is based on a San Francisco actress named Adah Bertha Theodore, a legendary beauty who was known to the world, as one San Franciscan writer had it, as "the notorious, glamorous, beautiful, and infamous `Mazeppa'." Tom Healy is loosely based on her husband. One of them, anyway. A musician named Alexander Isaac Menken. A scene from `Mazeppa,' the show-stopping scene in which pink-tights clad Angela is strapped to a horse that gallops across the theater, is recreated in the movie. Exciting stuff, even if it's pretty obvious when they cut to the stunt double. In fact, the best stuff in this movie is the behind-the-scenes look at 19th century frontier theater.
I only know what the internet tells me about Adah Menken and the plot of Louis L'Amour's novel. Adah's beauty was legendary, and Loren is a good fit on that score. The movie's plot, which forces the troupe to stay one town ahead of their creditors, is, well, a little forced. Angela/Loren charms some of the flubbered and flustered town bankers into buying her a dress now and then, but the midnight escapes continue. Steve Forrest plays Clint Mabry, a hired gun who wins a little more than Angela should have gambled in a desperate poker game. Mabry makes himself handy to the plot when the troupe finds itself fleeing yet another town, this time escaping into hostile indian territory with nary a guide to lead them out - until the fortuitous arrival of the randy Mabry. This chunk of the film has Mabry trying to collect on his winnings, Angela playing coy, and Healy growing increasingly morose and jealous. If the internet isn't lying, Adah Menken lived a better plot than L'Amour or Cukor would ever dare. The best anecdote of the real article has Adah meeting the famous tight-rope walker Blondin, who, of course, wanted to marry her. Adah agreed, on the condition that he `would let her dance on the tightrope above Niagara with him-a husband-and-wife act.' Fearing that her beauty would distract him, Blondin refused, and they went their separate ways. THAT would have made a heck of a third act.
As it is, we're left with a `lead the rubes out of danger' plot turn and the resolution of a kind of lumpy Loren-Quinn-Forrest love triangle. Although skimpy on action for a western, Loren and Quinn had good on-screen chemistry, and Forrest makes a convincing enough villain. HELLER IN PINK TIGHTS isn't a bad movie, but it is one that all principals could honesty say was not their best work.