[11 April 2014]
There have been a thousand show-biz musicals where the hero and heroine advance and retreat through many misunderstandings, arguments, and contrivances until they finally get together, and Betty Grable’s million-dollar-legs shuffled through a lot of them. Fortunately, Mother Wore Tights doesn’t belong to that species for long. It gets all that out of the way in the first reel so it can concentrate on being another kind of movie entirely: nostalgic, sentimental Americana about the trials and tribulations of a family, as recalled by the child who’s going to write a book about it.
In this case, the book by Miriam Young was turned into a script by the generally intelligent Lamar Trotti, who also produced the picture. The movie opens with Grable and hubby Dan Dailey (never more likeable) as grey-headed grandparents, although Grable still looks stunning thanks to unconvincing makeup. Then it flashes back through their vaudeville career, which began at the turn of the 20th Century and goes at least up to WWI, when their oldest daughter (Mona Freeman) graduates from a finishing school where she temporarly learned to be ashamed of her vulgar and common parents until they reassure her by classing up their act to its dullest respectability.
The whole thing is charming, a carefully paced mix of old-time numbers punctuated by the odd lump in the throat, such as the Christmas scene and the graduation. It’s the kind of anecdotal refreshment where hardly anything happens and the characters genuinely like each other; it’s almost strange to see husband-wife and parent-child relations in a musical without phony arguments for “conflict”.
Director Walter Lang, a specialist at dressing up and selling frivolities, is right at home. He and Technicolor photographer Harry Jackson work out unobtrusive, sometimes complex camera movements that lend grace even to simple stagings. For examples, check not only the stage songs but the wedding scene and the daughter’s “empty bed” scene. Lang also organizes tastefully the many troupers on hand for support, from a genial Wiliam Frawley to grandma Sara Allgood to a cameo by ventriloquist Señor Wences. The most dated moment is when Grable and Dailey briefly put on minstrel accents to show what up-to-date cards they are, and this is honest to the period.
This popular hit was a highlight of Grable’s career. Alfred Newman’s score won an Oscar, and Jackson’s photography was nominated. It’s surprising that it’s never been on DVD (except in Spain) until now. Fox Cinema Archives has issued it on demand as a no-frills disc.