This box set is a surprise -- on its face, one of the stranger collections that Bear Family Records has ever generated, and that's saying something considering some of their thematic compilations. It's also filled with fun, sophisticated, and beguilingly playful pop music sounds. Sophia Loren has lit up movie screens since the early '50s as the most enduring (and respected) European movie sex symbol of the post-World War II era -- her prime movie career bridged the span of time from Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, and Jayne Mansfield to Raquel Welch and up to Farrah Fawcett-Majors, but unlike any of them, Loren earned an Oscar as Best Actress (for Two Women) in the bargain. She's rather less well-known as a recording artist, apart from her work with Peter Sellers (which is usually lumped in with Sellers' output), and this is sort of a pity -- her singing is almost as pretty as her looks. From the opening track on this set, the novelty tune "Goodness Gracious Me" (done with Sellers in association with their pairing in The Millionairess), Loren exudes a personality that comes across through the speakers and out to the listener as surely as her dramatic skills do off the screen in her best movies. Even doing a song such a "Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo" she comes off as a legitimate, if very slightly limited singer -- she does much better on the 1964-vintage "The Secrets of Rome," composed by John Barry no less, capturing the piece's moodiness, and on 1963's breezy, swinging "Donne-Moi Ma Chance" she shows real power and control on a record that this reviewer would have bought in a second.
The two CDs jump across Loren's entire history, from that relatively sophisticated piece of pop music to "Bing! Bang! Bong!," an upbeat 1958 novelty tune that exudes an alluring and peculiarly elegant playfulness on Loren's part. Apparently, Loren's producers had hopes of making her into another Julie London, and she might well have connected with "Almost in Your Arms" or "I Want a Guy," either of which could have been her "Cry Me a River" in terms of a signature tune -- the secret was, of course, as with London, to get her picture onto the cover of her LPs -- and apparently there were no LPs on Loren. The range of the pop music sounds here, recorded across decades and encompassing even her work on Man of La Mancha, is almost too wide, from the sensual and breathless "Mambo Bacan" in 1954 (the earliest piece of music here, done when Loren was 20) to "The Impossible Dream" in 1972. She does well as a solo singer and in duets with Paolo Bacilieri; in fact, her voice becomes a very charismatic attribute on records such as "Carina" and "Tu Vuo Fa L'Americano" -- one gets the sense that, if Loren had been able to lay off making movies long enough and devote herself to music, the results could have been impressive and lingering. (In a sense, hers was the reverse of Elvis Presley's situation, where, if Presley the natural singer had been able to throw himself into a year or two of acting lessons and some safely anonymous stage performances to hone his skills, he just might have rivaled James Dean, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, et al.; by contrast, she was a natural actress who could sing.) The second disc covers Loren's career from 1964 onward, including the radiant "Anyone" and the Petula Clark-like "There Is a Star." The Man of La Mancha material is more of than appendix to the rest of the collection than an extension of it, despite the obvious quality of the songs -- it's good for completeness and shows the actress in a different musical role, but it lacks the lighthearted appeal of the rest of the collection.
The accompanying DVD contains the trailers to 38 of Loren's movies, mostly in German, starting with Clemente Fracassi's 1952 Aida (in which the actress' singing was dubbed by Renata Tebaldi). Opening on a very simple menu, the disc plays back in groups of trailers rather than strictly linear fashion, though each trailer in the group has a chapter marker. The other films represented on the disc include Two Nights With Cleopatra, The Pride and the Passion, Boy on a Dolphin (letterboxed, and which turns out, at least in the German trailer, to have used Bernard Herrmann's title music from Beneath the 12-Mile Reef as its score), Legend of the Lost (letterboxed), The Key (letterboxed), That Kind of Woman, It Started in Naples, Fall of the Roman Empire (letterboxed), El Cid (letterboxed), Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (letterboxed), Operation Crossbow (letterboxed), Lady L (letterboxed, with director Peter Ustinov introducing the movie in German), Judith (letterboxed), Sunflower, The Countess from Hong Kong, The Priest's Wife, Mortadella, and Man of La Mancha, going right up to Prêt-à-Porter (aka Ready to Wear). The quality varies radically, the 1950s material being in especially poor shape with scratches, grain, and washed-out color -- though considering the rarity of showings of those movies (when was the last time The Pride and the Passion was shown on American television?), it's understandable that their theatrical trailers (in German, no less) will be a little worn out. It is fascinating to watch the different ways that producers, directors, and editors dealt with the issue of presenting Loren in the most enticing way -- her increasing ability as an actress apparently made for almost too many choices in the movies from the late '50s onward.
Augmenting all of this material is a 308-page hardcover book, printed on fine heavy paper, devoted to the artwork, lobby cards, and related visual publicity material -- from all over the world -- on every movie in which Loren ever had a credited role, and also the picture sleeves, publicity stills, sheet music cover images, and other visuals associated with her recording career. Alas, there is no session information or any of the other musical or technical information that Bear Family usually incorporates into its booklets -- most of the '50s session information is likely lost, in any case -- but with its extraordinary array of press materials the book is still easily the equivalent of a $70 item by itself; movie buffs as well as fans of the actress could easily spend days going through it on a first pass, and the sheer range of titles and art will surprise all but the most devoted fans and the most serious scholars. One word of caution for potential purchasers -- Bear Family hasn't skimped on any of the packaging, but the book weighs so much that it should be put on a shelf outside of the box itself, because the latter will split around an edge or two from regular removal and replacement of the book and reshelving. Oh, and Bear Family has lived up to its usual high standards for sound quality, the remasterings all coming out as state-of-the-art with no apologies -- they've also dug up a few interesting outtakes and a funny promotional audio clip issued in Germany in association with the late-'50s movie Houseboat.