Saturday, September 27, 2014

Doll Face (20th Century-Fox, 1946)

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

Last night Charles and I watched Doll Face, the next-to-last of the five films in 20th Century-Fox’s boxed set of Carmen Miranda, which begins with her greatest film — The Gang’s All Here, featuring the marriage made in movie heaven of Miranda’s larger-than-life talents and Busby Berkeley’s demented imagination) and has worked its way downhill from there with Greenwich Village (a nice musical that could have been better if the two satirical sketches the Revuers, authentic Village stars that included Judy Holliday, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, had been included in the final cut) and Something for the Boys (an O.K. musical based on a Cole Porter stage hit — though with all but one of Porter’s songs replaced with new ones by Jimmy McHugh) and this one, which reunited Something for the Boys director Lewis Seiler with three of his cast members from that film: Miranda, Vivian Blaine and Perry Como. But Doll Face was relegated to the slate of “B” movie producer Bryan Foy (one of the Seven Little You-Know-Whats), who like Seiler was a refugee from Warner Bros., and — worst of all — the budget was shrunk so much the movie was in black-and-white. What’s more, by the time Doll Face was made Fox had lost so much faith in Miranda’s appeal — they basically treated her as a novelty act that had been left on the shelves past its sell-by date — they billed her fourth, after Blaine, Dennis O’Keefe and Como.

The most interesting name on the credits of Doll Face is the writer of the original play on which it was based, Louise Hovick. Never heard of her? That’s only because she became considerably better known as Gypsy Rose Lee, and like Maybeth “Doll Face” Carroll, the character Vivian Blaine plays here, she was a stripper with intellectual pretensions. Among those was a belief that she could be a writer, an ambition she fulfilled with a novel called The G-String Murders (filmed in 1943 as Lady of Burlesque with Barbara Stanwyck and Michael O’Shea; the movie isn’t much but Stanwyck is at her hard-bitten best and it’s probably the best movie ever made about burlesque during the Production Code era) and a play called The Naked Genius, on which Doll Face was based and from which it was adapted by Harold Buchman and Leonard Praskins. The film opens in a theatre where legendary Broadway producer Flo Hartman (Reed Hadley) — and no, you don’t need two guesses to figure out what real Boy Named Flo who produced famous Broadway shows he’s based on — auditioning various performers for his latest production and insisting that anyone who appears in a Flo Hartman show must have “class.” After he rejects a two-man dance duo (who looked pretty good to me!) he hears Maybeth Carroll sing, is suitably impressed and is about to hire her when, in the middle of her song, one of his assistants recognizes her as the notorious “Doll Face” Carroll who’s currently appearing at the Gayety burlesque theatre run by her manager and boyfriend, Michael Hannigan (Dennis O’Keefe in a part that would have worked better for William Bendix, who had the analogous role in Greenwich Village). Hartman tells Hannigan, who brought Carroll to her audition and gave her a light kick in the ass before she started singing (a good-luck superstition between them), that he won’t hire a performer with so little class. While he’s shopping at a cigar counter, Hannigan notices that the clerk is giving away copies of a book called The Stars Reveal by author Frederick Manly Gerard (billed here as Michael Dunne but later known as Stephen Dunne). Judging from the cover design it looks like a science-fiction book, but the bits of its prose we hear make it seem like a self-consciously “intellectual” novel about ordinary people in grim situations.

Hannigan hits on the idea of having “Doll Face” write an autobiography, Genius de Milo, and having Gerard ghost it for her — and he converts her proletarian background as a plumber’s daughter in Brooklyn to an upper-class heiress who got bored with life among the 1 percent and thereby chose a sleazy theatrical career. That could have made an interesting movie — sort of like the Jessie Matthews vehicle It’s Love Again, where she was an aspiring entertainer being passed off as an heiress (this was during the time when Matthews was making a specialty of movies in which she had to pull off a difficult impersonation to achieve stardom — in Evergreen she had to pretend to be her own mother and in First a Girl, the second of the three versions of Victor/Victoria, she had to pretend to be a man) — but instead Gypsy Rose Lee and her adapters pursued a more normal romantic triangle as Doll Face starts falling for the writer, and he with her, while her understudy Frankie Porter (Martha Stewart — decidedly not the same one!) pursues her previously unrequited interest in Harrigan and the ludicrously named crooner with the burlesque show, Nicky Ricci (Perry Como) — c’mon, guys, couldn’t you have come up with a more credible name for an Italian than that? — pursues Frankie without success until Harrigan tells him that the way to win a woman’s heart is to beat her up, or at least threaten to. It’s a piece of advice that seems to have been taken to heart by at least one current (or recent) football star, but elsewhere in the modern world is considered nastily and vilely sexist. In this movie, however, it works, and Como — who acts with about the same (lack of) emotion as he sang (though he’s helped that with the exception of a swing novelty called “Hubba-Hubba-Hubba, Dig You Later,” on which the other Martha Stewart totally outsings him, the songs — by Jimmy McHugh again — achieve a level of professional blandness that quite matches Como’s singing of them) — has that sort of deer-in-the-headlights look we got used to during the George W. Bush presidency when he realizes that by threatening physical violence on Frankie he has in fact won her heart. The movie ends with a big show that Flo Hartman (ya remember Flo Hartman?) is producing with the cast of Hannigan’s burlesque show, based on Doll Face Carroll’s best-selling book — only Hannigan, furious at having apparently lost the battle for Doll Face’s affections to her amanuensis, gets an injunction forbidding her from performing in it. Eventually he relents and lets her go on, and she relents and ends up back in Hannigan’s arms at the fade-out.

As for Carmen Miranda, not only is she billed fourth, she’s saddled with the character name “Chita Chula” (apparently the writers weren’t any better at coming up with names for Latinas than they were for Italians) and she doesn’t get to sing until the very last reel, when she suddenly turns up in a low-rent version of one of her famous numbers called “Chico Chico (From Puerto Rico)” that looks like a scene from a color film watched on a black-and-white TV. Charles noted that in the decade since the great 1930’s musicals from Warner Bros., MGM and RKO Hollywood filmmakers seem to have forgotten the art of making a visually stunning and beautiful musical in black-and-white — there’s nothing here like the dramatic high-contrast photography (usually by Sol Polito) of the Busby Berkeley numbers at Warners or the glowing, burnished look of the Astaire-Rogers films from RKO — but despite the presence of an excellent cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle) the overall approach to this one seems to have been more to get rid of a few contractual obligations as quickly and cheaply as possible. One wishes that, even if they weren’t going to pay for color for the entire film, they’d at least used it for Carmen Miranda’s number! It turns out that Miranda filmed another song for the movie, a 1930 work by comedienne Elsie Janis and Jack King called “True to the Navy,” but it had been written for Clara Bow to sing in the revue musical Paramount on Parade and Paramount, which still owned the publishing rights, forbade Fox from using it in Doll Face. Indeed, I suspect that the ukase from Paramount’s legal department may have come down before the number was actually finished, because the number as it stands — the outtake is included as a bonus item on the DVD — is merely a master shot, without close-ups. Doll Face is an O.K. movie, nothing special — and, like Something for the Boys, disappointing in the gap between what it could have been and what it is; certainly the plot (which in some ways anticipates Garson Kanin’s play Born Yesterday, premiered on stage in 1946 and filmed in 1950 with its original Broadway star, Judy Holliday) had far more interesting comedic possibilities than Gypsy Rose Lee and her adapters gave it!