[18 January 2012]
Debbie Reynolds made an awful lot of minor ‘50s musicals (which isn’t the same as a lot of awful ones) after her dazzling breakthrough, and that’s strange, isn’t it? You’d think she’d have made the minor ones before her breakthrough and then skated on towards major musical projects for the rest of the decade, but somehow her projects devolved. Anyway, fans now have the chance to get their hands on these later items through recent releases in Warner Archives’ made-on-demand service.
Give a Girl a Break is one of MGM’s most unjustly neglected ‘50s musicals. True, the names of director/choreographer Stanley Donen and star Debbie Reynolds automatically make one think of a certain classic that eclipses all others, and whose title has something to do with singing in the rain. Still, if this follow-up from the next year doesn’t achieve that level of masterpiece-ness (Gene Kelly’s not around), there’s not a thing wrong with it and quite a lot right.
The plot is a small, human story about nice people. Three women audition for a part in a new Broadway musical. All three are good in different ways, and everybody likes and respects everybody else. Everyone is a professional, nobody is a scheming bitch or an unfeeling cad. Each woman is supported by a different man on the staff, and each has a deftly sketched private life with basic conflict, mostly the old “romance vs. career” motif without beating it to death. Who will get the part? It’s simplicity itself, without grating contrivance or cardboard villains. Everyone is likeable, the Technicolor design is beautiful, and the songs by Burton Lane and Ira Gershwin have clever lyrics.
The true star is the knockout choreography. Every number is based on some ambitious physical or formal idea, from split-screen devices (anticipating the telephone song in Bye Bye Birdie) to twisty gymnastics to reverse motion to brilliant staging, and each one temporarily convinces you it’s the movie’s most delightful piece. I could rave about each but I’m afraid of overpraising an essentially modest movie. Let’s just say this isn’t among those musicals you sit through waiting for the one anthologizable showstopper, because they’re all at a high level.
The main stars are the graceful duo of Marge & Gower Champion, with a secondary couple provided by Reynolds (doing her small-town deb act) and the phenomenally athletic Bob Fosse (doing his bashful beau act). Helen Wood does modern contortions, and she’s not the only one. You surely never thought to see bearish, accented character actor Kurt Kasznar singing and dancing, much less in a trio with Champion and Fosse, much less acquitting himself well, but here it is: a number that evokes a combination of “Moses Supposes” and “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain. And a soaking wet Fosse leaps on the street in a number not completely dissimilar from that film, yet not ripping it off either. These comparisions will inevitably pop into the viewer’s mind, but one doesn’t need them to like this brash, fun, energetic, humane movie.
In the same year, Reynolds starred in a more small-scale, black and white affair scripted by Max Shulman from his popular slapstick stories of teen romance. The Affairs of Dobie Gillis stars skinny, high-jumping Bobby Van as the titular lovesick student, Reynolds as his bubbly gal, Fosse as his frustrated roommate, and a bunch of comic characters like Hans Conried.
As a portrait of early ‘50s college life, it’s not. It was square and old-fashioned at the time, down to the choice of ancient songs. At one point, Van actually strums a ukulele in a canoe while Reynolds sings “All I Do Is Dream of You” (hmm, which she’d sung in Singin’ in the Rain, but there it’s a contemporary number instead of a nostalgic one). Of course Van and Reynolds finish the scene by getting dumped in the water; it’s that kind of movie.
The theme, such as it is, is mildly subversive in its admonitions to cut classes and even cheat in order to pursue your sex life rather than follow the mocked motto of “Learn learn learn, work work work.” Let’s just say that as slapstick satire, the Dobie Gillis TV show was better. What keeps this movie trivial is its refusal to exploit the potential of Fosse and Van. Fosse basically has one number and it’s in a group (which he didn’t arrange, of course—he wasn’t there in his career yet), and Van has one dance solo. Reynolds might almost not be there, and for much of the plot she’s not. The trailer implies there was once a big finale at the school dance, but the existing movie abruptly cuts away from that scene for a sudden wrap-up at the 73-minute mark.
The results aren’t indelible. They’re delible. And from the very same director, Don Weis, that very same year, there came yet another Reynolds musical dumpling. That would be I Love Melvin, a Technicolor concoction that again evokes Singin’ in the Rain by pairing Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. He pretends to be a big photographer who can put her on the cover of Life magazine. It’s half cornpone and half delight, and the apotheosis of both is reached with an optimistic number sung by a little girl while O’Connor roller skates in mad circles, convincing you he’s the greatest stunt dancer in the universe. Maybe this is one of those musicals where you’re waiting for the jaw-dropping number worthy of That’s Entertainment, and that one’s it—though you also mustn’t miss the ballet with Reynolds as a football.
The highlights of this one are so high, it became one of the movies that made a few critics wonder if they had a budding auteur on their hands. “The Don Weis cultists in Britain and France are not normally frivolous, but just this once it remains to be seen”, wrote Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema. Really, the auteurs in this case were O’Connor, his choreographer, and MGM itself. After more colorful throwaways, Weis stuck with TV and had a very successful career there. In The American Vein, Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi survey his TV work and declare him “on a purely ‘professional’ level, one of the most accomplished of all contemporary directors” whose work “dignifies and helps shape the formulas in which he works”. I’ll admit that his unusual Twilight Zone episode, “Steel”, is one of my favorites.
Meanwhile, and just for the record, the same songwriters from Melvin, the same Technicolor, and the same Debbie were in Norman Taurog’s Bundle of Joy, her only on-screen pairing with brief husband Eddie Fisher, and to these eyes and ears, it’s too inconsequential to sit through. That was four years after Singin’ and the most forgettable musical yet for our Deb, notwithstanding such time-passers as Athena and Hit the Deck. The combinations just have to be right.
She had much better luck on straight comedies with people like Blake Edwards, Tony Randall, Glenn Ford, George Marshall and Vincente Minnelli (I don’t care what anybody says, I like Goodbye Charlie). Then, when everyone must have been certain she’d sung her last musical, came the elephantine The Unbearable Molly Brown (wasn’t that the title?), about a loud, dumb clodhopper who gets rich by accident, dumps the hubby who made her so, and turns the sinking of the Titanic into a personal triumph. This grating affair was a monster hit amid much shouting of bad songs. Should we conclude that after starring in a sublime classic early in her career, Reynolds just hadn’t been aiming low enough?