Thursday, November 22, 2012

Two Sisters from Boston (MGM, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

For last night’s “feature” I ran Charles Two Sisters from Boston, an obscure but surprisingly charming MGM musical, produced by Joe Pasternak and directed by Henry Koster (the same team who had made Deanna Durbin a star with Three Smart Girls at Universal in 1936, a decade before this 1946 film) and starring Kathryn Grayson and June Allyson as the title characters. The film is set in 1900 and begins at a staid tea party in Boston, given by the Chandler family, where Martha Canford Chandler (June Allyson) is playing piano in a terminally dull chamber work and everything is going along at a snail’s pace of “correct” tedium when an officious young man announces to Martha’s uncle Jonathan (Harry Hayden) and aunt Jennifer (Isobel Elsom) — this seems to be yet another one of those movies in which teenagers have been palmed off on their aunt and uncle, presumably because their parents died — that the family’s name has been hopelessly disgraced. Both the dialogue and the demeanor of the actor’s performance (he’s nice-looking and a quite powerful performer, so it’s a real pity that we don’t see him again) are so reminiscent of a film from four years earlier in which Tim Holt played a young man equally upset with real or imagined blots on his family’s reputation that I immediately joked, “Ah, The Magnificent Ambersons — the musical!” No such luck, but the plot that did develop from this is quite witty in its own right. It seems that the big scandal that threatens to disgrace the Chandler family and cost uncle Jonathan his chance to be elected mayor of Boston is that Martha’s sister Abigail (Kathryn Grayson) is working as a nightclub entertainer at a sleazy spot called the Golden Rooster in the Bowery district of New York. The Chandlers immediately set out for New York to find out if this is true and, if it is, to pull Abigail from that unhealthy environment and drag her back to Boston post-haste. Next we’re taken to the Golden Rooster, where Abigail is billed as “High-C Susie” in a show MC’d and led from the piano by “Spike” (Jimmy Durante, who looks startling at first because he has much more hair than we’re used to seeing on him, but later we find out it’s a toupée when he takes it off and reveals the typical Durante scraggle), singing songs as raunchy as composer Sammy Fain and lyricist Ralph Freed could make them in a Production Code-era movie and showing off her legs (‘her limbs,’ the shocked Chandlers say in disgust).

When her folks from Boston come to visit, Abigail hatches a scheme to make them think she’s actually appearing in the opera — and when they find a slip of paper on the floor of her room with the name “The Golden Rooster” written on it, she convinces them it’s really the name of an opera, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or (which wasn’t written until 1907, seven years after this film supposedly takes place). The Chandlers immediately announce that they’re going to buy a ticket to that very night’s opera performance so they can see Abigail — which leaves her the task of bribing, flirting or bulling her way through onto the opera stage. She does that with the help of “Spike,” whose modus operandi throughout the whole film is to whisper something in the ear of the person he’s trying to influence — some deep dark secret he supposedly knows about them — and invariably he hits on a location they were in when they did do something they wouldn’t want the world to know about, and says his lips will be sealed if only they will … He manages to get Abigail into the chorus of an opera (a rather lame faux-opera concocted by Charles Previn, the music director, and Wilhelm von Wymetal, the opera director who got the call for a lot of Hollywood’s forays into the operatic world — and who “Anglicized” his name and is billed as “William Wymetal” here), where she steps out and embarrasses herself and everyone else (though she impresses her family) by breaking into a few coloratura bits in the middle of the big aria sung by tenor Olstrom (Lauritz Melchior, the main reason I wanted to see this — not surprisingly, his singing is acceptable in the faux-opera bits but comes to life when he can actually sing Wagner, the bridal-chamber duet between Lohengrin and Elsa in English translation and the Prize Song from Meistersinger in the original German, in a sequence supposedly representing a recording session) and getting herself barred from the opera house — to which she only got invited in the first place because “Spike” had dropped hints she was the mistress of Patterson (Thurston Hall).

Meanwhile, Patterson’s son (Peter Lawford) has fallen in love with Martha, and the plot spirals out of control into complications that end with Martha claiming that she is “High C Susie” from the Golden Rooster (and having to go on stage with a refractory non-voice to prove it!), Patterson fils being shocked that his new girlfriend would do something so unbecoming and socially embarrassing, “Spike” hatching a new scheme to get Abigail (back) into the opera by presenting her at a social event being given by Patterson père and his wife (Nella Walker) — which means he has to figure out a way to persuade Olstrom, the guest of honor, not to attend (the moment he recognized Abigail he would presumably order her out of there), along with an amnesiac butler at the Patterson home (Ben Blue) who’s also a regular at the Golden Rooster and therefore could also “out” Abigail, but he’s no threat if he’s kept sober (since, at least according to this script, alcohol consumption gets his memory to work again) — and there’s a final sequence in which Olstrom is starring in another faux-opera called Marie Antoinette, he’s playing Louis XVI (he’s listed in the poster for this opera as a baritone even though Melchior was a tenor) and Abigail (under a pseudonym) is going to play Marie Antoinette, and she thinks she’s got away with her disguise until her costumer takes off her wig for alterations, Olstrom recognizes her instantly, at first refuses to sing with her but later relents, Abigail gets the opera career she’s wanted all along (she only took the job at the Golden Rooster in the first place to make money to pay for singing lessons, and unlike Jeanette MacDonald in San Francisco and Dorothy Patrick in New Orleans, she doesn’t discover a hot new kind of popular music she wants to bring to the concert hall) and Patterson, Jr. gets Martha. It’s not much in synopsis, but Myles Connolly’s script (with additional dialogue by James O’Hanlon and Harry Crane) is a good one, full of witty bits (including the sequence in which Olstrom’s dog, Tristan, hears the playback of Olstrom’s record, assumes the classic RCA Victor/HMV trademark pose, and one of the recording engineers gapes in awe and says, “His master’s voice … ”) and enough variations on the old clichés we’re really not sure how it’s all going to turn out.

And for those who wonder how a screen teaming between Lauritz Melchior and Jimmy Durante would turn out, well, he’d earlier been teamed with Tommy Dorsey and Buddy Rich in a previous MGM musical (Thrill of a Romance, also a Pasternak production) and he seemed to be having a good time through the whole thing — in fact, around this time Melchior was briefly signed with MGM Records as well as making films for the parent studio. He’s properly avuncular and temperamental, but the film does do justice to his voice (at least in the Wagner segments), and the depiction of a 1900 recording session was accurate in part (the master record is recorded on a zinc blank which can be put immediately into a metal bath and played back — later wax blanks were used, which sounded better but required major off-site processing and couldn’t be listened to for about three weeks after the record was made — and the producer of the session is shown pulling Melchior back when he’s about to sing loudly and pushing him closer to the recording horn when he sings softly — this was so the record would reproduce at an even volume and a loud note wouldn’t cause the cutting stylus to vibrate so violently that it would slice through the adjoining grooves, ruining the record) and anachronistic in part (he’s accompanied by a small orchestra, with string players using normal instruments instead of Stroh violins — though in 1900 the frequency range that could be recorded was so narrow most opera records were made with no instruments at all except a piano). I hadn’t had much hope for this movie — I was mainly watching it as a relatively minor Melchior credit in between the Esther Williams Technicolor extravaganzae Thrill of a Romance and This Time for Keeps — but it turned out to be graceful, witty and genuinely charming, a triumph of style over (lack of) substance and yet more evidence that Henry Koster was a genuinely creative director and not just another studio hack.