Monday, June 9, 2014

Look for the Silver Lining (Warner Bros., 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Look for the Silver Lining, a big, splashy Technicolor musical biopic of 1920’s singer-dancer-actress Marilyn Miller brought to the world by Warner Bros., which perhaps not coincidentally had also been the producing studio for Marilyn Miller’s three films: Sally (1929), Sunny (1930) and Her Majesty, Love (1931) — the first two based on two of her biggest stage hits, with scores by Jerome Kern. The director was David Butler, one of the leading lights of the early musical era — he made the pioneering Sunnyside Up for Fox in 1929 and the remarkable Delicious, the first film for which George and Ira Gershwin wrote songs, in 1931; he also directed Judy Garland in her first feature, Pigskin Parade (a pretty hapless movie partially redeemed by Judy, her future Wizard of Oz co-star Jack Haley, and Patsy Kelly in one of her usual island-of-sanity roles), but by 1949 his reputation was pretty hacky. Probably the most formidable collection of talents in this movie was in the writing department: the original story was credited to Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (who’d get their own biopic from MGM in Three Little Words one year later) and among the three screenwriters were Harry and Phoebe Ephron, Nora Ephron’s parents and major talents in their own rights, best known for Desk Set with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. (The third was someone named Marian Spitzer.) The big problem making this movie — well, there were two main problems: the first was that Marilyn Miller actually led a pretty miserable and dissolute life, which naturally had to be chopped and channeled into the comfortable and Production Code-safe movie clichés. After a lifetime of sinus troubles she died at 37 of complications from an operation that was supposed to relieve them, though she was also a chronic alcoholic and given to a lot of one-night stands with a succession of men. She married three times but only one of her real-life husbands appears as a character in the film: her first one, Frank Carter (played in the movie by the young Gordon MacRae, dull as usual in a part that doesn’t require more than he could give), whom she married in 1919 right after he returned from fighting in World War I but who died in a car crash a year later. (The real Miller built him an elaborate tomb which included space for herself, and she was indeed buried there after her own death in 1936.) After that the real Miller married Mary Pickford’s ne’er-do-well brother Jack, a marriage that turned out so poorly she went to France to divorce him — only to be rejected when the authorities in Paris took exception to her public comments praising France as a country in which it was particularly easy to get divorced, though she was able to get her divorce later by going to Versailles (oddly appropriate given what rambunctious goings-on had occurred there among the French royals and courtiers pre-Revolution!).

Miller’s third husband was a chorus boy named Chester Lee O’Brien, who was regarded then as a male gold-digger (according to her Wikipedia page, Miller lavished $56,000 on him during their two years together), though O’Brien not only survived her but established a career of his own as a theatrical manager for productions like Brigadoon and Finian’s Rainbow and worked on Sesame Street as an actor and stage manager from 1969 to 1992. Miller’s own movies showcase a spectacular performer in a rather dated style — though it’s hard to separate the quality of her performances from the relatively primitive aspects of the films themselves — and if anyone remembered her in 1949 it was probably because they’d seen the MGM biopic of Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By, three years earlier, in which Miller had been played by Judy Garland. Judy wasn’t at all like the real Marilyn Miller (and she was doubled in a lot of the more strenuous dancing sequences because she was pregnant with Liza Minnelli at the time), but who cared? Judy poured her heart and soul into the Kern standards Miller had introduced, “Look For the Silver Lining” from Sally and “Who?” from Sunny, and she had the benefit of Liza’s dad to direct her. (“Judy’s numbers were directed by her husband, Vincente Minnelli; the rest of the film wasn’t, unfortunately,” John Kobal rather cattily commented in his book on musicals.) Look For the Silver Lining was one of a cycle of big, splashy musicals Warner Bros. had started producing in the war years — including biopics like Rhapsody in Blue (George Gershwin), Night and Day (Cole Porter), Shine On, Harvest Moon (Jack Norworth and Nora Bayes, whom I described as the Sonny and Cher of their day — when they first met he was a vaudeville star, she an unknown, he discovered her, coached her, married her and did an act with her, only when they broke up both professionally and personally she became a bigger star on her own than he’d ever been) and April Showers (ostensibly fictional but pretty obviously based on the child-star career of Buster Keaton and the act he did with his parents on stage).

It was also endemic of a change in policy Jack Warner decided on after the mega-success of Doris Day’s first film, Romance on the High Seas, in 1948; though that was also the year Warners released The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Johnny Belinda, highly acclaimed films that also were box-office hits, Romance on the High Seas made so much more money Jack Warner decided that darkness was out and lightness was in, so he decided to steer his production schedule away from gritty dramas and noirs and towards bright, lively color musicals. Day would actually have been a good choice to play Miller except that she wasn’t that spectacular a dancer (though in 1953’s Calamity Jane she moves quite effectively), so after briefly considering Joan Leslie for the part Jack Warner went with June Haver. Like Mitzi Gaynor, Haver was a genuinely talented singer and dancer but not a particularly charismatic screen personality — she’d have been at sea trying to portray Miller in a realistic depiction of her life but she was just fine in the Production Code-bowdlerized version. The script is especially disappointing given all the fine writers Warners threw at it (one would expect something more interesting from the creators of Duck Soup and Desk Set!); like the real Marilyn Miller, the fictional one hails from Findlay, Ohio and gets her start in an act called “The Five Columbians” headed by her father, Caro Miller (Charlie Ruggles) — in real life he was her stepfather — and also featuring her mom and two older sisters. She manages to bull her way into the family act and get discovered by ace dancer Jack Donohue — played by Ray Bolger, who’s by far the most talented and exciting person in this movie — and in the one scene in the film that presented Haver with a serious acting challenge, she has to register being shocked and emotionally crushed when Donohue, whom she’s hoped would marry her, tells her he already has a wife and baby back home (they’re in London, where they’ve gone for work since they hadn’t been able to find any in the U.S.).

The movie is almost half over before Miller finally makes it back to the U.S. (signaled by an hilariously anachronistic shot of the New York skyline with the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in place — the scene is supposed to take place in 1914 and those buildings didn’t exist until more than a decade later) and achieves Broadway stardom in something called Profiles of 1914 (I inevitably joked that all the actors had to keep their heads turned so the audience would only see the sides of their faces). The rehearsal of Profiles of 1914 features another anachronism: they’re performing the Gershwin song “Oh Gee! Oh Joy!,” which wasn’t written until 1927. Miller then works her way up through a series of shows with years in their titles before she’s finally offered Sally, her first “book show” (i.e., one with a plot rather than a revue), and when we get to see a scene from Sally her co-stars are S. Z. Sakall and Walter Catlett, both of whom are a delight to see even though they don’t appear in the rest of the movie. The entire story is framed by a flashback scene in which Miller is visibly ill during rehearsals for an out-of-town (Boston) tryout of a revival of Sally — in yet another anachronism, we see 1949-era cars on the street outside the theatre even though the real Miller died in 1936 — and a visitor who remembers her from the old days in Findlay brings a poster of the Five Columbians when he visits Miller backstage. The old poster has the same effect on Miller as that madeleine had on Proust; she flashes back over her entire career, and at the very end we learn that she’s so sick her doctors have told her she should never dance again — though, being a believer in The Show Must Go On, she makes her performance and does her spectacular dances anyway. (One would have thought she could have continued her career as a nightclub singer.) The film ends with Miller alive and, if not especially well, at least still performing.

Look For the Silver Lining is a serviceable movie, entertaining without being especially deep (if you want “deep” in a bio of a showbiz figure, check out Doris Day’s tour de force as Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me six years later!), with the gorgeously overripe color designs associated with Technicolor (a far cry from all the dank greens and browns that dominate movies today!) and an overall air of insouciance that fits the subject even though there was a much more interesting potential movie in Marilyn Miller’s real life than the one Warners made (or could have made under the Production Code) in 1949. And it’s almost inevitable that any mention of Marilyn Miller should be accompanied by the tale of how Marilyn Monroe was named after her; the talent scout who signed Norma Jeane Baker to a 20th Century-Fox contract in 1946 was Ben Lyon, who 15 years earlier had been an actor who played the romantic lead to Marilyn Miller in Her Majesty, Love. Lyon suggested his new contractee appropriate the name “Marilyn Miller” for her own screen career; Norma Jeane protested that someone might remember the real Marilyn Miller and confuse them, but then she remembered that her maternal grandmother’s maiden name had been Monroe, and thus “Marilyn Monroe” was born. And at least one actor made films with both Marilyns: Joe E. Brown made his movie debut in the 1929 film of Sally and 30 years later was in Some Like It Hot.