Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rosalie (MGM, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was Rosalie, a big-budgeted MGM musical from 1937 based on a Broadway operetta produced in 1928 with a score by George Gershwin and Sigmund Romberg and a book by William Anthony McGuire and Guy Bolton. Curiously, the original songs were thrown out of the film version but McGuire got to do the adaptation of his original book — a rare privilege indeed for an original-material writer at MGM. (They tried to get Gershwin to write the songs, too, but he died before he could, which is the only good thing I’ve heard about Gershwin’s untimely death.) The plot is a rather clunky story which opens at the annual Army-Navy football game (represented largely by stock footage from newsreels and reminding us that the absurd pomp and circumstance that surrounds football games today is nothing new), the final game to be played by star cadet Dick Thorpe (Nelson Eddy, once again being cast as a military man so audiences would read his stiffness and limited acting skills as the discipline and reserve of an officer: a smart move on the part of MGM’s casting department).

Thorpe insists that his best friend, Bill Delroy (Ray Bolger), be put in the game for at least one play; Delroy fumbles the ball and sets up a Navy touchdown, but Thorpe scores for Army and the game is a tie. In the audience are Rosalie (Eleanor Powell), princess and heir to the throne of the fictitious European kingdom of Romanza (“I guess all the good names for fictitious European countries were taken!” I joked to Charles), and her lady-in-waiting and close friend, the Countess Brenda (Ilona Massey in her film debut). At the post-game party Thorpe romances Rosalie and she’s alternately put off by his egomania and attracted by his attentions — unfortunately, William Anthony McGuire never quite made either credible — and either as a test of his seriousness or a bizarre practical joke, she invites him to the Spring Festival in Romanza and says she’ll meet him dressed as Pierrette.

Thorpe accepts her invitation — did I mention that he comes from an independently wealthy family and his dad’s graduation present to him was his own private plane? — and, in defiance of West Point regulations, he flies to Romanza (where Billy Gilbert, of all people, is the air traffic controller at the Romanzan airport!), recognizes Rosalie at the end of her big dance number and romances her some more. Her parents are Frank Morgan and Edna May Oliver; she’s a stuck-up bitch who insists on making a dynastic marriage between Rosalie and Prince Paul (Tom Rutherford) but he’s a down-to-earth guy who’s as foofy as the King of Romanza as he was as the mayor in The Dancing Pirate a year earlier and would be as the Wizard of Oz two years later. (The scenes between Morgan and Bolger are among the most entertaining parts of this film and show off that the chemistry between them in The Wizard of Oz was no accident.) The King has also taken up ventriloquism as a hobby, and while he’s terrible at it he does express through his dummy, “Nappy,” what he really wants to do instead of what the Queen, his chancellor (Reginald Owen) — who’s also Prince Paul’s father — and his general, Maroff (George Zucco), are telling him to do. Of course, what he really wants to do is let Rosalie marry her American army officer/football player and let Prince Paul marry Brenda, with whom he’s genuinely in love.

This film rumbles through 122 minutes of running time, stretching its plotlet to genuinely annoying lengths, and while it would have been impossible for MGM to spend this much money (the set for Eleanor Powell’s big dance number cost $200,000 to build — other studios made whole movies for that kind of money! — plus another $30,000 for the electricity to light it) and this much high-powered talent and not make a movie with some entertainment value, Rosalie is a clunker. Nelson Eddy and Eleanor Powell have zero chemistry between them — it doesn’t help that he’s a singer and she’s a dancer (her vocals are dubbed by Marjorie Lane) and their talents don’t mesh (one reason for the appeal of the movies Eddy made with Jeanette MacDonald was their sheer real-life joy in each other’s voices; though they weren’t romantically linked in real life it was clear that they genuinely liked to hear each other sing). There are two great dancers in this movie, Powell and Bolger, but their characters barely meet and they don’t get to perform together.

Part of the problem with this movie is Cole Porter: yes, he was one of America’s great songwriters, but he was so out-of-place attempting to supply songs for a Nelson Eddy operetta that he wrote seven versions of the title song before MGM head Louis B. Mayer finally heard one he liked. “In the Still of the Night” has become one of the Porter standards (though it’s not one of his better love songs and lacks the ironic wit of Porter at his best) but all the other songs in this movie have been pretty well forgotten (though the “Rosalie” they ended up using was the subject of a vicious deconstruction by Artie Shaw and his band, featuring one of Tony Pastor’s clowning vocals — essentially giving it the same treatment they gave “Indian Love Call” from the MacDonald-Eddy Rose Marie). Like a lot of MGM musicals before Arthur Freed started producing them in 1939, Rosalie is too big for its own good: the central set of the Romanzan courtyard looks like it could encompass the entire country, and (as Charles joked) the set for the party after the Army-Navy game looks like they put a roof over the football field and held the party there. It also ill-uses the talents of Ilona Massey; though MGM had signed her largely on the strength of her singing voice, it’s not clear whether she gets to sing at all — there’s a coloratura number heard as part of the Romanzan Spring Festival done by a blonde soprano who’s shown only in long-shot and who sounds like Massey, but the singer is not identified with her or the character she’s supposed to be playing.

There are some delightful moments in this movie — including all the scenes between Morgan and Bolger and some of Edna May Oliver’s “takes” at her on-screen husband’s antics (let’s face it, it’s hard enough to believe that Frank Morgan and Edna May Oliver would ever have had sex with each other, and it totally defies belief that their offspring would be Eleanor Powell!), and Powell’s big dance numbers are intensely athletic but director W. S. Van Dyke frames her poorly (all too often he cuts her off at the ankles and we don’t get to see her feet) and she danced better in other movies (including Born to Dance and Honolulu — a far less pretentious movie than Rosalie and one in which Powell does a marvelous hula that proves she could dance with her whole body, not just her legs).

MGM’s greatest missed opportunity with Rosalie was that, given a story that is essentially The Student Prince with the genders reversed, they should have dared a similarly unhappy (or at least bittersweet) ending — and if you protest that U.S. audiences wouldn’t have stood for a Nelson Eddy musical with an unhappy ending, they did the very same year with Maytime, a MacDonald-Eddy musical and their best film together, an awesome emotional wrench where Rosalie is just a yawn. At the time Rosalie was made, the best musicals being made in Hollywood were the Busby Berkeley extravaganzae at Warners and the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicles at RKO — and frankly, though Astaire as an all-star West Point football player would have been a bit of a stretch, at least he and Rogers would have given this movie the insouciant charm it needed.