Monday, March 8, 2010

Red, Hot and Blue! (Paramount, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I finally ran Charles Red, Hot and Blue!, a 1949 Paramount semi-musical vehicle for Betty Hutton (she sings four songs, though all of them are shown as al fresco performances rather than elaborate production numbers) which was one of the most amazing examples ever of Hollywood’s thoughtlessness towards the original material they were supposedly adapting. Red, Hot and Blue! had been the title of a 1936 hit musical with songs by Cole Porter, a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, and starring Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante (this was the show for which the posters and ads arranged their names in an “X” shape so neither of them would be billed over the other) and Bob Hope (who would ultimately become a bigger star than either Merman or Durante!).

Whereas the 1934 film of Porter’s The Gay Divorcée and the 1936 Anything Goes kept the original plot but threw out most of his songs (only one, “Night and Day,” survived in The Gay Divorcée and four in Anything Goes), while the 1956 Anything Goes kept Porter’s songs but threw out the original Lindsay-Crouse plot, the 1949 film of Red, Hot and Blue! threw out both Porter’s songs and the Lindsay-Crouse plot. The latter (described by Porter biographer William McBrien as “the tale of a rich widow, once a lowly manicurist, who, with assistance from her aide, an ex-convict, tries to benefit a lawyer who lost a great love at age six when he forced her against a waffle iron and branded her on the behind”) was replaced by a familiar tale (story by Charles Lederer and script by John Farrow, who also directed, and Hagar Wilde) of an aspiring entertainer menaced by gangsters.

The Porter songs were replaced by four Hutton vehicles (nobody else in the cast gets to sing) by Frank Loesser, and in terms of the general trajectory of his career they were decidedly loesser efforts (pardon the pun). Three of them, “I Wake Up in the Morning Feeling Fine,” “That’s Loyalty” and “Hamlet” (the latter a pop retelling of Shakespeare’s play along the lines of the version of “Jack and the Beanstalk” Loesser later wrote for Fred Astaire in his film with Hutton, Let’s Dance, a year later), are all-out scream-fests; the fourth, “Now That I Need You,” is the obligatory ballad which Hutton fractures, first accidentally and then (hilariously) on purpose in the climax, when she’s been taken captive by the gangsters and has to sing loudly enough to alert her boyfriend, small-theatre director Danny James (Victor Mature, in a bit of miscasting that almost achieves surrealism), to where the baddies are holding her.

Most of the movie is a sort of battle for Betty Hutton’s soul between Danny, who loves her and is trying to make a Shakespearean actress out of her (though the one scene we see him actually rehearsing her in is from a modern play), and Charlie Baxter (the marvelous William Demarest), her press agent, who’s trying to get her name in the gossip columns through bizarre publicity stunts, including sending her out on dates with various sugar daddies like eccentric millionaire Alex Ryan Creek (Raymond Walburn). For Eleanor “Yum-Yum” Collier (as Hutton’s character is called), the whole point of going out with Ryan Creek is to dine with him at a fancy nightclub and get herself seen, photographed and written about; for Alex, the whole point is to get in her pants (the relentless lecherousness of virtually every male in the dramatis personae is one of the most audacious, Code-bending aspects of this film), and he insists on keeping her in his car and having dinner brought out from the club to his vehicle, for reasons that remain a mystery both to her and to us until she finally talks him into going in the club — and they’re confronted by his wife (a marvelous Margaret Dumont type played by an uncredited Edith Leslie), Our Heroine having had no idea until that moment that the wolf she was going out with was married.

The first two-thirds or so of the film are told in flashback, narrated by Hutton as she’s trying to explain to gangster Hair-do Lempke (played, in a clever bit of casting, by composer Loesser — the gimmick is that the crook is also an amateur piano player and this is depicted by having Loesser noodle something on the piano that sounds a lot like “Over the Rainbow” — enough that I’m surprised MGM didn’t sue for plagiarism) that she didn’t really witness the murder of Lempke’s associate Bunny Harris (William Talman, in one of the many criminal roles he played in movies before he became the hapless prosecutor always beaten by Raymond Burr’s super-defense attorney on the Perry Mason TV show). Through the flashbacks, we learn that Harris was one of the many people Eleanor was willing to date in order to get a break in show business — much to Danny’s predictably jealous displeasure — and that though he was only a gangster, he posed as a producer of Broadway musicals to lure Our Heroine to his apartment, where he was ambushed and killed.

I liked Red, Hot and Blue! a bit better than Charles did; he was put off by the many genre shifts — part screwball comedy, part slapstick comedy, part gangster movie, part musical — and it is a shame that Preston Sturges, a master of the genre-bender and director of the film that’s commonly regarded as Hutton’s best (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), wasn’t around to direct this one. Hutton’s vocals have little to do with music as commonly understood — if anything, she’s even more raucous than Ethel Merman, with whom she worked on the original Broadway production of Panama Hattie (making it a “doubles” show, since Merman originated the lead in Annie Get Your Gun on stage and Hutton played it in the film version) — but there’s a certain appeal to her utter relentlessness and Loesser was a good enough songwriter to tailor appealing material to her rambunctious style. (My favorite of her songs was the first one, “I Wake Up in the Morning Feeling Fine,” in which she puts off her long-suffering roommates, June Havoc and Jane Nigh, with her irrepressible cheeriness and chipperness while they’re just trying to sleep off their recreational activities of the night before.) Red, Hot and Blue! isn’t a great movie, and it’s a major comedown for director Farrow (Mia’s father) after his two noir masterpieces of the year before (The Big Clock and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes), but it’s the sort of mindless fun I wanted after a long, hard day.