[16 August 2013]
This slice of escapist Americana from the WWII years, now available on demand from Fox Cinema Archives, is one those biopics of a popular composer that bears little or no resemblance to his actual life. Here it’s Ernest R. Ball, who, as explained in the epigraph by producer Damon Runyon, wrote “the most sentimental ballads the world has ever known.” Many of these lugubrious ditties, like “Mother Machree” and the title tune, have Irish themes. Ball wasn’t Irish but his frequent lyricist Chauncey Olcott was, although he’s nowhere mentioned in this movie.
Crooner Dick Haymes, looking strangely like a codfish, plays the classically trained composer who quickly finds fortune in popular music. Monty Woolley takes top billing as a self-invented promoter and humbug who has little to do with the story, but it could do with more of him. June Haver plays “the girl,” whose inevitable coming-together with our hero must be endlessly and tiresomely delayed with one contrived misunderstanding after another until it’s time for the picture to be over. Her big routine is the 11 o’clock number “Bessie with a Bustle,” where she appears in weird green form-fitting “male” attire while surrounding by cross-dressed hulks in lace and frills. That’s worth watching twice, not only for its bizarre pleasures but to observe how an elaborately staged number can be cut together gracefully in only ten shots. Throughout this Technicolor trifle, director Gregory Ratoff and photographer Harry Jackson pull off several felicitous lengthy takes as the camera dollies and pans around bustling yet precisely staged action.
Runyon is the one who deserves a biopic. Famous as an author and journalist (and personality), his work inspired many films but this is the last of the two he produced himself. The milieu of Broadway babies and a distinctly shady character (Anthony Quinn) is in keeping with Runyon’s world of colorful city life. He would very soon be dead of throat cancer, and his ashes were scattered over Broadway by WWI flying ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker.