Thursday, October 01, 2009

The '20s in the '50s

File this in the "Posts about a not-so-great movie from a not-so-great era" category: I've written before about Sheree North, who in some ways was the most interesting of the Marilyn Monroe substitutes developed (no pun intended) by Fox and other studios in the '50s. Not only because she wound up as an excellent, respected character actress, but because she was primarily a dancer, something that isn't normally associated with Monroe types. (In many ways she was more of a logical successor to Betty Grable than to Monroe -- she co-starred with Grable in How To Be Very, Very Popular after Monroe pulled out of the film.) But the market for musicals collapsed at almost the precise moment of her arrival at Fox, so she was out of luck. Her singing was dubbed -- even though she could sing a little bit, and did on stage -- but she certainly was good at dancing energetically.

I bring this up because I found a clip of one of the few musicals North made at Fox in her brief Monroe-substitute period; this was The Best Things In Life Are Free, a biopic of the songwriting team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson. (I'd say that studios were running out of composers to make movies about, except that this team wrote some of the biggest hits of the '20s, and were a more plausible choice for a movie than many of the songwriters who had already gotten the biopic treatment.) This isn't the best number from the film -- that would be "Birth of the Blues" with North and Jacques D'Amboise -- but it gives North a chance to do the kind of wild limbs-flailing dance that brought her to Fox's attention in the first place (her jitterbug in Hazel Flagg, which she repeated on the screen with Jerry Lewis in Living It Up). Pan and scan, unfortunately.

While the movie is pleasant enough, it's probably more interesting to speculate on why it was made, since Fox was doing almost no musicals at the time except big-budget Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptations. (The producer of the movie was Henry Ephron, who had just produced and written -- with his partner and wife, Phoebe Ephron -- Carousel. The director was Michael Curtiz, already incurably bland only a few years after leaving Warners.) It looks like a "contract burn-off" picture of the type that MGM was making in droves at the same time: Dan Dailey was probably owed another film on his contract, and Gordon MacRae might have been owed another film after stepping in to replace Frank Sinatra in Carousel. So the cast basically consists of three musical performers with almost no musicals to star in -- Dailey, North and MacRae -- plus Ernest Borgnine. A strange lineup, but fun as long as you don't expect a great movie. In a way it's like a big clunky mid-'50s version of the little period-piece musicals that Fox used to crank out in the '40s almost without a second thought.


Ricardo Cantoral said...

OT Jamie but today I saw Robert Osborne's famous Private Screening's interview with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. Russell carried most of the interview while Mitchum occasionally added some interesting anecdotes. Osborne said he was shocked how quiet Mitchum was during the whole thing and how he generally didn't think much of any of his preformances. When the cameras were off however it was a very different story, Mitch was very chatty. I guess he just didn't like formal interviews.

Xavier said...

"The director was Michael Curtiz, already incurably bland only a few years after leaving Warners."

This is one of the greatest mysteries in film history, to me at least: how did Curtiz, always a formalist ever since his Hungarian period, lose all of his touch after leaving WB? Old age? Bad scripts? Loss of interest? All of that?

Anonymous said...

Could be how Curtiz was treated at the end by Warner Bros. The studio blamed him for the box office failure of their last few co-productions. He then went on to make "King Creole", the best Elvis movie, and die.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Getting to the topic at hand. Curtiz never struck me as an auteur so for him to eventually slide into a state of blandess in his old age wouldn't surpriseme.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

I just watched The Unsuspected and must say, Micheal Curtiz did a hell of a job with Claude Rains at his most sinister.