Thursday, July 7, 2011

Springtime in the Rockies (20th Century-Fox, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened Springtime in the Rockies, a 1942 20th Century-Fox musical starring Betty Grable, John Payne, Carmen Miranda and Harry James and His Music Makers (they were one of the few big swing bands that actually had a name instead of just “So-and-So and His Orchestra”), and according to Robert Osborne, when they made the movie, James was still dating his great singer, Helen Forrest, and he didn’t seem all that interested in Grable — which made it a shocker a year later when James and Grable married each other (much to the surprise of just about everybody at 20th Century-Fox and the disgust of Helen Forrest, who didn’t appreciate having been jilted and especially not for someone whose legs and ass were prominently featured in pin-up pictures liberally distributed through the ranks of U.S. servicemembers in World War II).

It was an O.K. musical but hardly in the same league as some of the other Fox productions of the time — The Gang’s All Here was made a year later and, though the female lead was Alice Faye instead of Grable, it carried over three cast members from Springtime in the Rockies (Carmen Miranda, Charlotte Greenwood and Edward Everett Horton) and had a much better score (Harry Warren composed the songs for both films, but in Springtime in the Rockies he came up with only one great song, “I Had the Craziest Dream,” and aside from that the best songs in Springtime were oldies from his previous scores — “At Last” heard on the background track and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” marvelously sung by Miranda in a samba version, in Portuguese — remember that Miranda’s contract with Fox required that they let her sing at least one number in her native tongue in each movie).

The main problem with Springtime is too little music and too much plot: it started as a story by Philip Wylie (which had previously formed the basis for a non-musical comedy, Second Honeymoon, made at Fox in 1937 and starring Tyrone Power and Loretta Young), and given that his best known credits were When Worlds Collide and a supposedly “nonfiction” book called A Generation of Vipers that blamed all American men’s problems on their mothers, his seems like an odd name to see on a movie that was supposed to be a light, frothy musical. The story (adapted by Jacques Théry and scripted by Walter Bullock and Ken Englund, and directed by Irving Cummings — who’d improved from the early-talkie crudities of In Old Arizona and Behind That Curtain but still was far from the most scintillating director in Hollywood, and as the helmsman for a musical was miles behind Busby Berkeley!) starts on the last night of a Broadway musical co-starring Vicky Lane (Grable) and Dan Christy (Payne).

They’re more or less in love but she can’t stand his seeing other girlfriends (there’s a nice gag scene in which she explains to her confidante, the Charlotte Greenwood role, that she can always tell which other girlfriend he’s just seen because of which perfume he smells like), and when the show closes she hooks up with her former dance partner/boyfriend Victor Prince (César Romero, looking like an animated tailor’s dummy as usual) and the two get a job at a resort in the Canadian Rockies (they’re billed together as “Victor and Victoria”!), where most of the rest of the film takes place. Dan goes into a drunken binge from which he recovers to find that he’s been offered a new show, but only if he can persuade Vicki to be in it with him. Along the way, thanks to further drunken sprees, he finds himself with valet McTavish (Edward Everett Horton) and “secretary” Rosita Murphy (Carmen Miranda), and there’s the usual series of romantic misunderstandings before Dan finally seduces Vicki, the backers of the new show turn up, Vicki has a hissy-fit and thinks that Dan romanced her only to get her in his cast, so Dan relocates their New York “honeymoon” to California and thereby loses his backers, only McTavish turns out to have money and finances the show — whose opening number is our big finale.

The best parts of Springtime in the Rockies are all that azure-blue scenery from cinematographer Ernest Palmer (even though it’s all too obvious that none of the stars were ever near the Canadian Rockies during the shoot and it’s all process work) and two songs, “I Had the Craziest Dream” (though the great ballad is not staged terribly well — Helen Forrest is obliged to come in during the middle of it dressed in Native American costume, and two genuine Native Americans, including the legendary Hollywood Indian Iron Eyes Cody, stand at the sidelines and make comments) and the finale, “Pan-American Jubilee.” It’s also nicely bizarre to see two women (Greenwood and Miranda) fighting over the dubious charms of Edward Everett Horton, and eventually (contrary to our expectations that the two Latinos in the cast would pair off) Horton ends up with Miranda, Romero with Greenwood and Payne with Grable — though how much longer their relationship will last, given that he’s still in New York City and still greatly tempted by all the other women who were tempting him before, is anybody’s guess. The opening number is called “Run, Little Raindrop, Run” and is staged in a fake rainstorm on stage — and for choreographer Hermes Pan, this must have been an unpleasant moment of dèja vu given that seven years earlier he’d worked on the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film Top Hat and staged a similar, but far greater, number in the rain to a better song (Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?”) and, of course, far superior performers!