Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bring Your Smile Along (Columbia, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie I’d recorded earlier from TCM: Bring Your Smile Along, a 1955 “B” musical from Columbia (who in the 1950’s picked up the mantle of leading “B”-musical maker that Universal had dropped after dominating the field in the 1940’s) starring Frankie Laine as aspiring singer Jerry Dennis, who rooms in a New York residential hotel with aspiring pianist Martin “Marty” Adams (Keefe Brasselle). They work at a burlesque house, where Laine hawks snacks to the audience and gets to sing to a roomful of dirty-minded middle-aged men who haven’t the slightest interest in any entertainer with a penis. (At the same time, the burlesque show as depicted here looks positively decorous in our era of lap-dancing.) Adams breaks off in the middle of accompanying the burlesque chorus’s number and starts banging out the Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu (one wonders if this was one of José Iturbi’s pre-recordings left over from Columbia’s 1948 biopic of Chopin, A Song to Remember), thereby getting them both fired.

Meanwhile, Nancy Willows (Constance Towers), music teacher at Wilson High School in Boston, has taken a leave of absence from her job and her engagement to biology teacher David Parker (William Leslie) to move to New York and see if she can make it as a lyric writer for popular songs. As sheer luck — or scriptorial fiat from screenwriters Blake Edwards (who also directed, making his feature-film directorial debut) and Richard Quine — would have it, she moves into the same building as Jerry and Marty, overhears Marty playing his newest song melody from across the hall, and is inspired by the sound of it to scrawl out a lyric and slip it under Jerry’s and Marty’s door, along with her card. Alas, the hotel’s owner, Mrs. Klein (Ruth Warren), places the lyric on Marty’s piano but vacuums up the card, so Marty is presented with a great lyric for his song but no idea of who wrote it for him. The film proceeds for a half-hour or so with Marty and Nancy just missing each other, and when they finally encounter each other — Marty hears Nancy singing his song with her words, he knocks on her door, she’s showering and doesn’t hear him, he crawls around on the building’s ledge and breaks into her window, and she brains him with a potted plant before he has a chance to explain who he is and what he wants with her — they become a formidable songwriting team and their opi also allow Jerry to become a recording star.

The rest of the movie consists of the romantic triangle between Marty, Nancy and David — though both Keefe Brasselle and William Leslie are such bland, colorless actors (if you can call them that) one doesn’t envy her for having to end up with one of them — while Frankie Laine sometimes seems like an extra in his own movie, singing the supposed songs of his co-leads (“If Spring Never Comes” by Bill Carey and Laine’s long-time musical director Carl Fischer, and “Mama Mia” by Ned Washington and Lester Lee) as well as the title song (by Benny Davis and Carl Fischer) and “The Gandy Dancer’s Ball” by Paul Weston and Paul Mason Howard (a hit for Laine on the Columbia label and the excuse for the film’s one semi-major production number). Laine is an engaging personality but he’s just too homely and beefy to be the major lead of a film — he’s given a comic romance with Marge Stevenson (Lucy Marlow), the former masseuse turned secretary to Marty’s and Nancy’s music publisher — and he does his best in some simple dance numbers. He’s also forced to put himself through scenes that were done better in other people’s movies — the neighborhood kids who hang out outside the brownstone where Jerry and Marty live (played by the members of the Robert Mitchell Boys’ Choir) are straight out of the marvelous opening scene of An American in Paris, and at one point Laine and Brasselle duet on the old song “Side by Side” in a sequence that seems to have come from a Bing Crosby-Bob Hope Road movie, a resemblance that only makes us all too aware of how much more entertaining the number would be with Crosby and Hope performing it.

Constance Towers is a nice Doris Day-ish personality and she has a great voice — she begins the film singing “Don’t Blame Me” at a Wilson High dance, and while she’s not quite in the same league as Sarah Vaughan (whose gorgeously swooping, almost operatic version of this song for Musicraft in the 1940’s is its best recording), she’s quite capable and throws herself into the song instead of just standing up and blandly singing it. Keefe Brasselle is his usual anodyne self, utterly unable to do anything even resembling acting and so hopelessly bland we find ourselves rooting for the biology teacher to get Ms. Towers instead (just as we can’t help but question the 1950’s assumption that she has to pick marriage or career — real-life songwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green had a long and lucrative career as collaborators even though they were both married to others) — he’s so boring in all his other movies I still can’t figure out how Ida Lupino, making her directorial debut in the 1949 film Not Wanted, managed to get a tough, sensitive performance out of Brasselle that for the first and last time in his career actually made him seem like a human being.

Columbia tried to make Laine a movie star at the height of his recording success in the early 1950’s, having him make four musicals and one dramatic film (He Laughed Last, also directed by Blake Edwards), in which he inexplicably didn’t sing at all; Laine was a great singer — he named Bessie Smith as his main inspiration and his uninhibited delivery and frequent register shifts (especially in his 1950 hit “Jezebel”) anticipated Elvis Presley — but he wasn’t either good-looking enough or charismatic enough when he wasn’t singing to compete with Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra in building his vocal fame into screen stardom. Still, Bring Your Smile Along is a comfortable film that showcases Laine effectively, and though it’s predictable it’s also good fun.