[26 July 2013]
In the Gay ‘90s (that’s 1890s), Betty Grable sings perky songs in a working-class saloon until she gets classed up into a Broadway star by a fast-talking, go-getting hustler who’s the partner and rival of her employer. That describes two movies, and they’re both recently available on demand from Fox Cinema Archives.
First up is Coney Island, exactly the kind of light, bright, Technicolor nonsense that had wartime audiences lining up for Grable’s million dollar legs. She swirls through many old-timey songs plus a few new ones. Producer William Perlberg and his longtime writer George Seaton are so true to the bygone era that they even throw in a blackface number. It’s less obnoxious than it sounds because the makeup is realistic instead of minstrel-clownish; Grable just suddenly looks like Lena Horne. George Montgomery is the Henry Higgins who plucks off her down-market feathers and tells her to slow down and stop hopping. Cesar Romero is her boss and would-be Significant Other. Phil Silvers hangs around as second banana, and Charles Winninger is the adorable Irish alcoholic duffer who croons “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” Director Walter Lang is at the head of the class for this type of thing.
Then from 1950 comes Wabash Avenue, a virtual scene-for-scene remake that changes the venue to Chicago and feels seven years more tired. Victor Mature is a dashing hustler, but Phil Harris is rather far from Romero. Although director Henry Koster also specialized in light fare, this film feels darker in both tone and lighting scheme, though the unrestored Technicolor may affect my judgment. This one has the boss believing he’s responsible for a man’s death for almost the whole picture, until it becomes a more pivotal plot point. Grable’s character is less convincingly in need of a makeover, since she already seems polished belting out “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.” The support is less interesting all around, with Margaret Hamilton thrown away in a cameo as a temperance reformer. Still produced by Perlberg, this is more or less the same Grable vehicle, only it doesn’t shine as brightly.