On Two (Lesser) MGM Musicals

I Dood It (Vincente Minnelli, 1943)

Vincente Minnelli’s second film is pretty much a straight remake of Buster Keaton’s last silent picture, Spite Marriage. Red Skelton plays the Keaton role, a sap obsessed with an actress who finds himself married to her when she wants to get back at her lover. The actress is played by tap-dancing dynamo Eleanor Powell, and the film’s primary flaw is how little she’s allowed to be herself.

Throughout her late 30s films, Powell proved herself a remarkable film presence, athletic and fast and graceful, her performances exploded the otherwise disastrously generic films she found herself in. (She arguably out-danced Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940, not even Gene Kelly could claim that accomplishment). When she wasn’t dancing though, she was mostly harmless, charming, cute, but unmemorable. She gets a lot more to do acting-wise her and she manages to pull out off splendidly. Not just as the comic prop in the famous “putting the passed-out wife to bed sequence”, the best sequence in Keaton’s film and passably recreated here, but in the film’s less spectacular spaces she manages to create a whole, realistic person, no easy feat in a Red Skelton movie.

The problem though is that there simply aren’t enough musical numbers. MGM seemed to realize this, as there are a couple wholly superfluous number right in the center of the film, with Hazel Scott doing “Taking a Chance on Love” (the best song from Minnelli’s debut, Cabin in the Sky) and Lena Horne singing “Jericho”. These are terrific, but their only relation to the movie we’re watching is that Skelton happens to be in the theatre at the same time as them.

Even worse is that Powell only gets three dance numbers. The first comes near the beginning, a fantastic Western number with rope tricks. The second is an all-too-brief Hawaiian dream sequence. The third is outright stolen from the climax of Powell’s 1936 film Born to Dance, with Skelton simply cut into the footage where James Stewart was in the original. Try as TCM’s Robert Osborne did to convince me that wartime necessity made such a recycling an understandable necessity, I remain unconvinced. It just smacks of corporate laziness. And Osborne didn’t mention it, but as I suspected, that second number is ripped off too, from Powell’s 1939 film Honolulu. Lame. Eleanor Powell had such a short film career, with only about ten films over eight years before she retired (there were a couple of minor roles to follow, along with a nightclub act, but mostly she focused on raising her son (she was married to Glenn Ford)). I’ve been trying to think of a kung fu movie equivalent for Powell. In terms of career brevity and performing skill, and subpar quality of the pictures she found herself in, the best match I could think of is Bruce Lee. She’s obviously not the multi-national icon Lee was and remains to this day, but in terms of on-screen output, I think it’s a fair comparison. If so, then this might reasonably be considered something like one of those Bruceploitation films that recycled old footage of him into a cheap formula product.

In the Good Old Summertime (Robert Z. Leonard, 1949)

It’s tempting to say that the difference between The Shop Around the Corner and this its musical remake is the difference between the work of an auteur like Ernst Lubitsch and the work of a studio machinist like Robert Z. Leonard. Tempting, but that doesn’t really capture just how much is wrong with this film.

There’s the sitcomization of the plot, with the central conflict between the shop owner and his best employee reduced from the suspicion of sexual betrayal leading to attempted suicide to a simple misunderstanding revolving around a leaden prop-based running joke.

There’s the total inadequacy of Van Johnson as the romantic lead. I mean, it’s no easy task being compared to James Stewart, the greatest motion picture actor of all-time, but apparently Van Johnson was a thing with great popular appeal and I have no idea why. He’s tall I guess. He’s fine as Gene Kelly’s morose, cynical, drunk sidekick in Brigadoon, but as the prime mover of this film he’s inert.

There’s the ghost of Buster Keaton, in the last of his MGM roles. At least in this one his character isn’t named “Elmer”. He’d be a waxwork in the next year’s Sunset Blvd.

The best thing about the film, as usual, is Judy Garland. But the part wasn’t written for her; she was a last-minute replacement for June Allyson. Rather than rewire the script to accommodate more music, instead they just awkwardly shoehorn in some songs for her to sing (because apparently when you buy a song score at a music shop, you want the clerk to sing you the tune (though if you can’t read music, why buy the score?). The songs aren’t very good, even the best one, the title song, sounds like a cheap rehash of “Meet Me in St. Louis” (not unlike the film’s turn of the century Chicago setting and that earlier Garland film, actually). Of course, the film takes place almost entirely at Christmastime, so maybe naming the movie after that song wasn’t the best idea?

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