Tuesday, February 17, 2015

50's WESTERNS PART 2: Whip Crack Away, Doris Day

                Like westerns, musicals  flourished in the early 50’s. Quality and quantity-wise this was the genre’s golden last hurrah.  Sure, the 60’s had its maxi-budget “special event” musicals, with road-show prices and  (usually)  Broadway pedigrees ;  plus the potential (all too frequently realized) -  for catastrophic losses. But in the early 50’s you could expect a new musical every couple of weeks. Certainly, some were sub-par  but the assembly line was humming and - let’s face it - assembly lines aren’t always bad things.  The sheer scale and depth of studio-sharpened talent involved usually meant that most of these pictures had something to remember fondly – a song, a dance, an inspired performer. A number of these early 50’s musicals were also - technically - westerns. So I’m including them in this particular conversation. As far as rip-snorting action, knock-down fights and general all-purpose mayhem go, the western musical never really tried to compete with its songless counterparts.  But the best of them tended to get their momentum from sharp scripts (which capitalized on the west’s built-in aura of adventure), top talent (onscreen and off), the  invigorating , panoramic punch of outdoor atmosphere and  - of course - good songs staged and presented with flair. And for anyone fond of both genres (like me, for example), an inspired , exhilarating convergence of the western and the musical is hard to beat.
                “Annie Get Your Gun”(1950), Irving Berlin’s Annie Oakley musical, was one of that year’s  biggest box-office successes. And though I used to wish that Judy Canova, Betty Garrett or Dale Evans had gotten a crack at the lead (they were all eyeing it) , I’ve gradually made my peace with MGM’s eventual  choice of Betty Hutton. The studio had, of course, started it with Judy Garland and -on paper- she’d seem to be an unbeatable choice.  But her fragile emotional state at the time has been rigorously documented.  In the extensive Garland /Annie footage  that’s been  preserved , she certainly seems tired, depressed and disoriented . What’s more, for all her talent, Judy has no affinity for the backwoods dialect. As a teen (in ‘36) ,she’d been saddled  with a yokel part (“Pigskin Parade”) and showed zero flair for it. Fifteen years later, things hadn’t really improved.  Hutton commits totally (when didn’t she?) but for once, reins in enough of her trademark over- exuberance to make Annie likeably human; she also lands the accent. Of course, the songs are great and leading man Howard Keel - virile, dashing and funny, too - proved to be one of Metro’s last great musical discoveries. The screenplay’s ragged, though. Everything, including the ending, seems a little rushed. And a beautifully conceived number “Let’s Go West Again” (performed on shipboard by the cast of a wild west show heading home from Europe) was left on the cutting room floor. Luckily, it survives as a bonus on the DVD.  The sequence begs to be re-instated.  Script-wise, the supposedly comic handling of the Indians in the film lands with an ugly thud. In the end, though, the film`s pluses manage to outweigh the minuses.   Still, I’d never count it as a personal favorite.
                Another near-miss for me was “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”(1954), even more of a money-spinner for MGM than “Annie”.  But I can never get past the deadly sound-stage backdrops  used  all  too frequently  (but not consistently) in a story that screams  for a great outdoors production ( the film’s set in frontier Oregon). Also there’s the pro-abduction as a valid form of courtship scenario. True, the script makes some attempt to mitigate that message, but it’s too little, too late. If you want someone to love you, kidnap them. It'll all work out fine in the end. That still comes across as the lesson here- and no matter how hard I try to ignore it, that concept just  sticks in my craw. The musical score, on the other hand (and it’s an original one), is terrific .  With the world poised on the edge of rock ‘n’ roll, none of the songs were hits. But several should have been and  they’re all pretty terrific.  The dancing, of course, remains the film’s most celebrated feature  and it’s definitely impressive (although I still would have liked to see it performed outdoors). But the dances are praised to the extent  that the lovely lead performances from Jane Powell and Howard Keel (probably movie career-bests  from both ) tend to be given short shrift.  Possibly because  neither  figures much in the dance sequences.  I remember from my childhood how the liner notes of the original soundtrack LP described Powell as “golden-voiced”. I’ve yet to hear a more perfect description of her unique sound. To me, she and Keel are the film’s biggest assets.  Great personalities, marvelous  singers, fine actors, and terrific looking to boot. But though I love the two stars and the score, the negatives mentioned keep it from my favorites list.
                Roy Rogers’ Republic westerns, most of them sufficiently stocked with songs to rate as musicals,  were Saturday matinee staples in the 40’s. By 1950 the series was winding down (soon after, Rogers moseyed over to TV  - and continued success),  but the last few Republics  included some charmers; especially “Twilight in the Sierras” and  “Trail of Robin Hood”, one of which co-starred Dale Evans ( with shorter hair than she'd sported in the 40's, but still a no-nonsense embodiment of the sublime) and both of which boasted Trucolor plus the cozy ,welcoming vibe most  Rogers westerns radiated. Republic also put singing comedienne Judy Canova back on the payroll (she’d been one of their box office stalwarts in the early 40’s). From ’51 to ’56 she turned out a string of bucolic comedies for them, the first couple of which rated color. In the initial outing the studio suddenly promoted her as “Queen of the Cowgirls”. A  miffed  response to "Queen of the West"  Dale Evans’ defection?  The film, “Honeychile” , wasn’t quite a western - but the next, “Oklahoma Annie” definitely got closer to the target, with Judy as a small-town sheriff battling badmen while (prat)falling  for rugged good guy John Russell. The songs were pleasant, a couple even presented with a certain inventiveness (not always a Republic hallmark). The picture opens with “Blow the Whistle”, Judy delivering her yodelly vocal while demonstrating an electric train set.  And  later - for the lilting “Never, Never, Never”  -a quadruple-tracked Canova  serenades  multiple mirror reflections of herself. Perhaps this “Annie” was the actress’ consolation prize for not getting “Annie Get Your Gun”.


 It’s minor but  Canova’s a pro, with a natural, openhearted likeabilty that counts for a lot. Still, the Republics were essentially meant for Saturday matinee consumption. Large-scale production values and box-office ambitions were the province of the major studios.
               Those big studios spent big money. But that didn’t always guarantee quality. The wild box-office success of Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel in MGM’s “Show Boat”(1951) coupled with the meteoric rise  of Mario Lanza, especially in “The Great Caruso” that same year, led to a brief renaissance  of screen operetta  in the early 50’s. “The Merry Widow” was dusted off in ‘52. And even saddled with an (inevitably dubbed)Lana Turner  (oh, why couldn’t Arlene Dahl have done this? She’d have dazzled opposite soon-to-be  husband Fernando Lamas) the production still worked pretty well.  Few of the others did.  Certainly not ‘54’s operetta western “Rose Marie”. The singing was fine; the three stars (Ann Blyth, Fernando Lamas and Howard Keel) were all capable enough. But this one suffered as much as “Seven Brides” from MGM’s crummy insistence on mixing genuine outdoor footage with lame sound-stage stuff. Just take a look at the “Totem Tom Tom” number in the 1936 MacDonald-Eddy version. Excitingly filmed and choreographed (outdoors on the shores of Lake Tahoe), it can still trigger tingles. The sad-sack indoor farrago we get in the ’54 edition is D.O.A. (supposedly staged by Busby Berkeley and  - if so -definitive proof that he’d lost his touch). The new script drains away all the fun of the earlier version ; there’s none of the romantic charge Jeanette and Nelson provided with their back and forth banter - and it’s sorely missed. Plus the ’54 “Rose Marie” weighs itself down with far too much Bert Lahr and Marjorie Main, mugging and caterwauling without ever raising a chuckle.
                 I saw Paramount’s  “Those Redheads from Seattle”(1953)  at more than one Saturday matinee when I was a kid. In a way, it was unique - a western musical in 3D (although I never saw it that way; theaters I went to don`t seem to have been equipped for 3D).  And the premise bristled with potential:  determined  red-head Agnes Moorehead and her similarly topped daughters , Rhonda Fleming and Teresa Brewer, head up to Yukon gold-rush territory to run a newspaper they’ve inherited. Rough-house and romance ensue.  But it all plays out as pretty flat sarsaparilla.  A real missed opportunity. Feeble  script, tepid songs, clich├ęd shenanigans.  Rhonda (a great singer) barely gets to vocalize at all.  In my mind’s eye, I sometimes see how nifty a “got it right” version might have been , with some spark in the writing, solid songs and better use of Ms Fleming . She made a lot of westerns (most of them superior to this one), but, unfortunately, hardly any musicals. Often hailed as the queen of Technicolor, she could have been queen of the western musical, too, had anyone put any real effort into exploiting the surprising range of her gifts.  
                “The Second Greatest Sex”(1955) was Universal’s  attempt to copy-cat “Seven Brides” and  - to its credit - actually established a more consistent outdoor feel than its predecessor. But that’s about all that can be said in its favor. The action`s lame; the songs are all weak sisters. It used one of MGM’s best dancers, Tommy Rall, but gave him little to work with. Keith Andes, a pretty fair singer wasn’t given much worth singing.  And (as always in her musicals) Jeanne Crain was dubbed. Also, by this time, the freshness that had fueled her appeal in the 40’s had morphed into a rather manufactured looking glamour.  And charisma-free leading man George Nader was no Howard Keel.  What “Seven Brides” got right, “Second Greatest Sex” got wrong and it disappeared from theaters in a flash.