by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was My Wild Irish Rose, a bio-musical of a now virtually forgotten entertainer, American-born Irish tenor Chauncey Olcott, who became famous around the turn of the last century for a series of Irish-themed musicals and songs, many of which have become quasi-folk standards (notably the title song, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Mother Machree”). The film was made in 1947 by Warner Bros. as a vehicle for Dennis Morgan, who’s actually quite good, though it took the usual liberties with Olcott’s life and career. It was written by Peter Milne (with Sid Fields and Edwin Gilbert providing uncredited additional dialogue) from a reminiscence called Song in His Heart by Rita Olcott (presumably his daughter; his wife was named Margaret O’Donovan but the “O’” part of her last name was dropped and her first name was changed to “Rose” for the film in order to tie her in to Olcott’s famous song).
The movie was intended as pure entertainment and in that it succeeds brilliantly; blessed with personable performances by Morgan, Arlene Dahl as Rose and Andrea King as Lillian Russell (who performs the one song the real Lillian Russell recorded, “Come Down, Ma Evenin’ Star” — Russell’s recording is available at http://www.archive.org/details/LillianRussell-ComeDownMaEveninStar1912 — and came far closer to Russell’s delicate, almost operatic style than Alice Faye had in the Russell biopic seven years earlier), sprightly direction by David Butler, a deliberately campy script by Milne (there’s a joke when Olcott gives Rose a particularly undistinguished pick-up line that he’s been kissed by the Blarney Stone; judging from all the campy self-conscious “Irishicity” in which Milne drenched his dialogue, it seems like he went down on the Blarney Stone!) and, above all, absolutely gorgeous, neon-bright three-strip Technicolor cinematography by Arthur Edeson (whose best-known credits, All Quiet on the Western Front, Frankenstein, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, would hardly have seemed to suit him for a project like this), William V. Skall and “Technicolor consultant” Natalie Kalmus. It’s such a pleasure to see a film that actually uses color to dazzle the eye and create the story’s atmosphere instead of just being there because audiences expect it, and which uses the full visible spectrum instead of concentrating on dull greens and browns — even though the shrieking purple jacket Morgan wears for his role in one of Olcott’s shows makes it look like he’s auditioning for Barney: The Musical.
The plot starts in Buffalo, New York, where the real Olcott was born; he’s a worker on a tugboat and he’s living with his mother (Sara Allgood — who else got to play the mother of an Irishman in Hollywood in 1947?), stepfather (George Cleveland) and stepbrother Joe (Clifton Young), and where being a hero of a movie musical he’s restive and anxious to pursue a singing career, while his family is dead-set against it and instead tells him he should be content with a career in the tugboat industry and that someday he may get to captain his own boat. Olcott schemes to get an introduction to a touring minstrel company and also to meet the famous Lillian Russell — there’s a charming if clichéd scene in which he crashes a party with Russell and three tycoons at an upscale restaurant, runs up a tab of $110 (in 1890’s dollars!) and then finds that the tycoons strategically withdrew and stuck him with the bill. He buys a lease on a bar in the Acropolis House hotel, so named because its proprietor, Nick Popolis (George Tobias), is Greek, and invites the minstrel company in for free drinks only to find that they’re still staying at a competing hotel.
In the first instance of a gimmick Milne pulls twice more, Olcott gets his chance at a career in minstrelsy when one of the minstrels gets drunk and is unable to perform, and he goes on tour with the company only to lose that job for insubordination (much like Al Jolson in The Jolson Story, made the year before). At this point the real-life Olcott went to Europe, had a career as a comic-opera singer and returned to America an established star, but that’s not what happens here. Instead, Lillian Russell’s leading man drinks himself out of that job and Olcott, using the name John Chancellor (Milne doesn’t bother to explain this, but Olcott derived this from his original name, Chancellor John Olcott — “Chauncey” was just short for “Chancellor”), goes on to a career with Russell and a rumored affair between them. Meanwhile, Olcott’s sort-of girlfriend, Rose Donovan, gets jealous even though she’s engaged to another man — and matters stand there until Russell’s real boyfriend invites her to join him in Cuba and marry him there, and she closes the show, gives everyone two weeks’ salary and leaves Olcott “at liberty” again in more ways than one.
Then Nick Popolis, who’s also a Broadway producer of musicals featuring Olcott’s boyhood idol, Irish tenor William Scanlan (William Frawley), hires him to understudy Scanlan and, when Scanlan loses his voice on the out-of-town tryout tour, to sing Scanlan’s songs backstage as Scanlan lip-synchs to his voice (a gag also pulled in 1947 in the Paramount musical Variety Girl and later used more famously at the end of Singin’ in the Rain). The inevitable happens, and Scanlan’s health collapses so totally as a result of his drinking that he can’t go on at all and Olcott has to perform in his place — and as in 42nd Street and generations of backstage musicals since, he wins over an initially hostile crowd with the simple beauty of his voice. (There’s something a bit sad about Frawley being cast as an alcoholic who drinks himself out of a major career because he almost did that in real life; he had just sobered up and quit drinking when Desi Arnaz cast him as Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy, and Arnaz had to do a lot of jawboning to persuade CBS that Frawley would be reliable.)
Olcott goes on to a superstar career and also meets up with Rose Donovan’s father (Alan Hale) at a steambath owned by two of his former minstrel colleagues, strong man William “Duke” Muldoon (played by former Western star George O’Brien) and Hopper (Ben Blue), and without telling him any names says that he’s in love with a girl and wants to marry her but her father is standing in the way. Donovan père naturally tells him that if he really loves the girl, he’ll run off with her and elope — which he does, leaving her dad steaming mad but with nothing he can do about it — and the film ends happily, with Olcott performing “My Wild Irish Rose” as the finale of his latest show and his real-life Irish Rose in a box in the audience.
Dennis Morgan wasn’t much of an actor, but he’s just right for this part — personable, charming and able to slip his voice from his normal American accent to an Irish brogue and back almost instantly (there’s a funny bit in which one of the people involved in his show praises that he speaks like a real Irishman — and Morgan responds in his American accent, then realizes he’s supposed to be keeping up the pose of being Irish and slips back into the brogue). His vocals are also spot-on; though the real Olcott’s records (available online at http://www.archive.org/details/ChaunceyOlcott) were made when Olcott was in his 50’s and audibly past his prime, Morgan catches the right “Irish” style and actually outsings him — though on the song “A Little Bit of Heaven” Morgan is up against the competition of the world’s greatest Irish tenor ever, John McCormack, whose Victor recording blows him away and exemplifies the high, if rather jaundiced, praise Walter Legge gave McCormack when he said that the star opera singers of his day “have much to learn from McCormack’s singing of songs that are unworthy of his art.”
My Wild Irish Rose is actually a quite good movie of its type, with a personable and effective lead performance and a script that, though drenched in clichés, actually gains from audience familiarity with the clichés — “Oh, yes, we know where this is going,” we think, then take satisfaction when it goes precisely there — and the music is more or less authentic (it’s hard to tell given that the point of comparison is Olcott’s acoustic recordings, made from 1911 to 1920, but the arrangements of the “Irish” songs sound about like what would have been heard at the time) except for the minstrel scenes, which are set not to anything an audience of the 1890’s would likely have heard but to loud, brassy state-of-the-art 1947 swing — though the staging of the steamboat race between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee (done, as it would have been in the 1890’s, with model boats “racing” on a track backstage) is quite clever and appealing. My Wild Irish Rose is the sort of film that doesn’t aspire to greatness but aims for — and achieves — solid entertainment, and if the “Irishness” occasionally gets too sticky, let’s face it: that’s what Chauncey Olcott and his songs were all about!