Monday, July 22, 2013

I'M OUT WITH THE BELLE OF NEW YORK



                                Lately the internet tom toms have been beating out an especially welcome message. Nathaniel (of the Film Experience) and StinkyLulu, the web’s two patron saints of actress appreciation, are getting together to revive (at least for awhile) one of the blogosphere’s pluperfect creations–StinkyLulu’s own brainchild, the Supporting Actress Smackdown. The Smackdown  departed – in true “live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse” style in 2009 – and has been missed.  As a matter of fact, StinkyLulu’s the one who kindly brought the kiss of life to my own blog. Back in 2006 I didn’t have a clue how to start one – didn’t even know I wanted to start one – and  Stinky stepped in with encouragement and a great deal of behind the scenes work. Now, seven years later,  I ‘d say – technology-wise – I’ve advanced from knowing nothing to knowing next-to-nothing.  But Canadian Ken’s still breathing, so I thought I’d do a little pre-Smackdown celebrating. I had fun participating in a lot of the Smackdowns and look forward to seeing what form they take when they reappear (on the Film Experience blog) late in August.  1952’s been announced  as the next target.  So, in anticipation of the event, I feel like talking about  one of my favourite films from that year.
                Nestled among the early 50’s pinnacles of the MGM musical, “The Belle of New York” generally gets overlooked. But, for me, it’s right up there with the best of them. The script is the lightest of gingerbread but serves as a perfect connector for some of the loveliest, most accomplished dance numbers Metro ever concocted. The director here is Charles Walters. A former dancer and choreographer, he worked his way up the chain at MGM. And when given a chance to direct, came up with the one-two punch of “Good News” and  “Easter Parade”, box-office gold in their day and fondly remembered still.  A purportedly affable man, Walters made  pictures that were usually hard to dislike. Later successes included  “Lili” and “High Society” but I think, for sheer cheerful panache, he peaked with a pair of less famous titles  - “Dangerous When Wet”, a musical that glistened as endearingly as its star, Esther Williams -  and this picture. Charm is what “The Belle of New York” aims for - and as purveyors of charm, you couldn’t do better than Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen. She’s – at very least – a sort of kinder, gentler Mitzi Gaynor. And he’s – well, he’s Fred Astaire. Their solos are sublime. But together – and there’s more dancing than plot here – they’re beyond even that. Has there ever been a lighter bit of dancing thistledown than Vera-Ellen? Where others might leap, she floats. And she can do anything, any style. Just look and you‘ll see perfectionist Astaire beaming in happy astonishment at her abilities. Certainly, as Fred Astaire dance partners, Rogers, Hayworth and Bremer are all beyond criticism. Yet the teaming with Vera-Ellen is maybe the most magical. They’d worked together before in the ultra-engaging “Three Little Words”. But this film is on every level – including its utilization of their shining gifts – way, way better. In one marvelous sequence they dance their way through the four seasons. The pair even  incorporate ice-skating into part of it and – no surprise – they skim around with winter wonderland perfection.  None of the songs (by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer) were hits, but they’re all pleasant. And the more I hear them, the more I like them. The colors and the costumes (turn-of-the-century Americana) are a dream. And the script’s fantasy conceit about rising from the ground when you’re in love (a deal-breaker for some hard-headed viewers, I’m afraid) couldn’t have been applied to two more buoyantly gifted figures than Astaire and Vera-Ellen. If I had to pick the most romantic movie musical of the 50’s, it would be a toss-up between this and “An American in Paris”. Kelly and Caron are marvellous and generate more heat, but as genuinely (and equally) endearing entities, Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen are irresistibly matched here. Even between dances.
                “The Belle of New York” also happens to contain one of my all-time favourite supporting turns in an MGM musical. Ignore Marjorie Main’s bellering, Clinton Sundberg’s posturing and Keenan Wynn’s contractually obligated presence. The three do their respective things briefly and without inflicting any serious damage.  No, the supporting performer who delights me from beginning to end in this picture is comedienne Alice Pearce. She was a little woman, with a voice that often emerged as a sort of squawk. Chin-challenged, she had the kind of looks that ear-marked her for the Plain Jane parts – but, within that template, Alice Pearce had a knack for striking some really lovely notes.  Her personality could fold itself down to near-invisiblity or explode into Martha Raye bigness.  She could seem nosy and pushy and gullible. Then, suddenly sensitive and loveable – and make you believe the transition. Pearce made her name on the stage in the 40’s – and had some nice onscreen moments in MGM’s 1949 hit “On the Town”. In later years, she’d attain her greatest celebrity as Gladys Kravitz on the TV sitcom “Bewitched”.   Eternally – and hilariously - unable to prove that her next door neighbour was a serial spellcaster. That got her an Emmy.
                In “The Belle of New York”, she’s Elsie Wilkins, the heroine’s best friend. And both belong to a Salvation Army type group (The Daughters of Right).The credits have barely wrapped up (with Vera-Ellen/Angela  being serenaded by a street full of admirers) when Pearce and Marjorie Main sweep into view  in a horse-drawn carriage. Main’s  semi- contained in an explosion of tomato-red fabric, with Pearce beside her in modest missionary black. But holding a prop- an immense drum. And even before she opens her mouth, she gets to deliver one big bang on that thing, inadvertently serving notice that Main had better look to her laurels. The two hurry into the Daughter of Right office ( Vera-Ellen’s been left in charge, while they were away). Main barges in, of course because barging’s what she does  (it’s in her DNA), leaving Pearce to squeeze through the doorway with her king-size drum.  In other words, she’s small but she brings a lot with her. The first words out of her mouth - a profoundly chipper “Hello, Angela” - and it’s immediately clear she’s one of life’s cheerleaders. A heroine’s sidekick, but with none of the sourness you get when you hire, say, Nancy Walker.
“Did you see our congressman?”, asks Angela.
“Oh, yes’ chimes Elsie, “And he was so handsome!”
Elsie’s an incurable romantic. Nature’s tried hard to set her facial features permanently on grumpy  - but the good nature just keeps spilling out. Pearce has a gift for communicating this particular duality - and to a far greater degree than others known to toss their hats into that ring (yes, you, Mary Wickes).
                Boss lady Main’s  in having a cow mode (when isn’t she?), worried that Angela’s too attractive to make  a proper “Daughter of Right”. Men are showing up at the meetings just to give her the glad eye.  But, Elsie underscores/undercuts Main’s threatening pronouncements with (accidental?) whacks on that drum, each of them coming off as subversive one-note rimshots.
“Angela ,maybe you’re just not equipped for this work”, moans Main.
Comes a side comment from Elsie“If you ask me, it’s her equipment that’s causing  all this ...”
Main’s scandalized “Miss Wilkins!” only makes the unfinished quip – and accompanying semi-stifled drum flourish - more priceless. Main’s got most of the dialogue – delivered in patented battering-ram style - but it’s Pearce who mops up the laughs. She immediately registers as a wisecracker of a particularly endearing (and hard-to-play) sort. Not some sophisticated, all-knowing Helen Broderick; rather, she conveys the frank directness of an innocent. Constantly proving that, yes, it’s a tight-rope walk, but you can be acerbic and good-hearted . It’s something Thelma Ritter can do. And so – in a quite different way - can Alice Pearce.
                In Pearce’s hands, Elsie’s  a romantic, not quite resigned to being on the sidelines, but, still delighted to vicariously enjoy Angela’s love life. An honest-to-goodness pal.  And totally up for playing Cupid (maybe partly to reaffirm that there really is such a thing as romance). Not jealous. Just admiring. And thrilled to have a front-row seat at the romance of a fairytale princess like Angela.
I love the wedding rehearsal scene where Elsie stands in for the bride. It’s one of those moments where the director lets the spotlight shine gently but firmly on Pearce. As she walks down the aisle, Elsie becomes more and more overwhelmed by the moment. It’s hard not to love her as she melts from cheerful  hubbub mode into hushed wonder. And when that Irish cop (the groom’s stand-in) plants a kiss on her cheek, she’s caught in a kind of sweet  “somebody pinch me’ daze.
When the Astaire/Vera romance hits a roadbump, Elsie shows her best-friend mettle. The two girls are marching along with their band, Angela all forlorn - as Elsie rattles off whatever comes into her head to cheer up her chum. “You know, I don’t think there’s anything prettier than a drum and a tambourine”.
But she doesn’t just offer moral support. She’s got the determination and drive that Angela’s temporarily lost. And  a full supply of plots and plans to help the romance get back on track.
It’s Ethel and Lucy time as Elsie cooks up a scheme to make Astaire jealous by having the two visit a night-spot posing as a pair of fast women.
                One of the great things about “The Belle of New York” is that it gives Alice Pearce her own share of the musical menu. During the preparations for Elsie and Angela’s “scandalous” night on the town, they’re surrounded by boxes and boxes of hats and ribbons , doo-dads and finery;  little girls giddily sorting through presents on a slightly racy Christmas morning. The two deck themselves out in adjoining rooms, Vera-Ellen totally ravishing, as she progresses from lingerie to full going-to-town get-up.  Singing a song called “Naughty But Nice”, and performing one of those miraculous dances in a small space, the kind that showcases the MGM musical at its most  beguiling. Then we switch to the next room, as Elsie dons her own gay apparel- luxuriating in every step of the process -  and tosses off her own version of “Naughty But Nice”. Elsie’s section is played for comedy, of course. But, like Martha Raye, Pearce is an actress who can mug without offending. Who can be broadly funny and still adorably human. She twirls around the bedpost, then rushes about the room planting kisses, first  on portraits of men, then on  her own image in the mirror. She’s a funny-voice expert – and this time spices it up with an inspired detour into French accent land. It’s impossible to watch her without smiling. And it’s a sweet moment when Vera enters the room, looks her up and down, then says “Elsie, you look lovely!” – and means it. Inner and outer beauty perfectly merged. The two join voices for another round of “Naughty But Nice” {I've always loved that lyric,“I confess I wanna care less than Eva Tanguay”} and the scene comes to an exhilarating climax as the two link arms and dance – high-kicks and all – leap over the bed and out the door headed for adventure.
Once at the restaurant, the pair are a droll delight, trying to put their naive ideas on how to impersonate debauchery into practice. Sensing Astaire’s about to glance in their direction, Elsie sputters out, “Quick, look sophisticated!” The wrong people inevitably bump into the wrong people.  Mistaken assumptions are made and soon crockery, tables and fists are flying.  Everything goes wrong – then  goes right just in time for a happy ending. As Astaire and Vera fly off into the skies above old New York, someone says “They can’t do that!” To which Elsie replies serenely “Yes they can, they’re in love.” In the film’s final moments she’s there – the true center of a brace of well-wishers - cheering on the happy ending that couldn’t have happened without her. Waving a fond (albeit reluctant) goodbye to a dream she (and we) have shared. Isn’t that just how an MGM musical should end? Making you part of – if only for a little while  - a world of rhythm, harmony, magic realism and romantic endings.
 
P.S. I can’t believe I could write a whole piece on “The Belle of New York” without even mentioning Fred Astaire’s wonderful “Seeing’s Believing” number;  dancing up, around and over a full-scale recreation of the Washington Square Arch. With a flock of snow-white birds flying gracefully by (but not quite as gracefully as Astaire).This sequence on its own makes the film essential viewing for movie musical fans.

3 comments:

StinkyLulu said...

Thanks, Ken - so great to be back in the loop...

Fredrick Tucker said...

Finally someone who appreciates Alice Pearce on the same level as I. You were spot on! So well written--- loved it. And loved the contrast you showed between her and Miss Wickes. It may interest you to know that Miss Main was scared to death that Miss Pearce would be a scene-stealer and that after Miss Pearce confirmed her fear, her (Pearce's) role was beefed up.

CanadianKen said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment. Glad you liked it. And isn't it nice that Alice Pearce got a chance to shine in such a tiptop MGM musical? "On the Town"'s more famous. But the folks behind "The Belle of New York" had a better handle on how to honor Pearce's talent, gently showcasing her in a role she was able to run with. People are bound to continue discovering "The Belle of New York" and all the things that make it so charming. Including,of course,the contribution of Alice Pearce,the film's endearing other belle.