Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Greenwich Village (20th Century-Fox, 1944)

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

I was curious about Greenwich Village, a 1944 20th Century-Fox color musical which I had recorded off American Movie Classics back when it was still commercial-free, because Clive Hirschhorn’s book The Hollywood Musical listed Nacio Herb Brown and Leo Robin as having written a complete original score for the film (one of only two films — the other being Sam Goldwyn’s 1930 operetta film One Exciting Night — Brown worked on at any studio other than MGM) and credited them with the following songs: “I’m Down to My Last Dream,” “It Goes to Your Toes,” “Give Me a Band and a Bandana,” “Oh Brother,” “It’s Art for Art’s Sake,” “I Have to See You Privately,” “This Is Our Lucky Day,” “You Make Me So Mad,” “Never Before,” “I’ve Been Smiling in My Sleep,” “Tell Me It’s You” and “That Thing They Talk About.” As things turned out, though, “It Goes to Your Toes,” “It’s Art for Art’s Sake” and “Give Me a Band and a Bandana” were the only Brown/Robin songs used in the final cut; the rest of the score was made up of standards from the 1920’s (the film was set in 1922, though Fox’s version of the 1920’s didn’t look all that different from their version of the 1890’s in previous period musicals from the studio) like “Whispering,” “Swinging Down the Lane,” “When You Wore a Tulip” (which was actually from the “teens” rather than the ’20’s) and “Ain’t We Got Fun.”

Those weren’t the only things left on the cutting-room floor; according to Gary Carey’s biography of Judy Holliday, the Revuers — the legendary nightclub act from the real Greenwich Village, which included Holliday as well as Betty Comden and Adolph Green (as both performers and writers) — were signed for the film “to bring a note of much-needed authenticity to the film’s background.” The Revuers shot two sequences from their nightclub act and hung around “on the periphery of several other scenes,” Carey said, but they did all their work on the film for a second-unit director instead of the director of record, Walter Lang, and all of it ended up on the cutting-room floor “except for a brief scene in which Comden, as a hat-check girl, handed [Don] Ameche his fedora.” No doubt of far more concern to Fox was their difficulty in finding a female star: Alice Faye, their first choice; and Betty Grable, their second, both got pregnant; June Haver, their third, sprained an ankle during rehearsals and had to drop out; and finally they gave the part to Vivian Blaine, billed her fourth and gave her a special credit announcing that the film was “introducing Vivian Blaine in her first featured role.” (Actually her first featured role in a 20th Century-Fox film had been one year earlier, in Malcolm St. Clair’s Jitterbugs with Laurel and Hardy — just about the only Laurel and Hardy Fox film of any real quality.) As things turned out, Carmen Miranda ended up top-billed in the film even though her part, “Querida,” was clearly a second lead. Don Ameche was billed second and William Bendix third. Set in 1922, the plot cast Ameche as Kenneth Harvey, an aspiring classical composer from Kansas who comes to New York City to get his concerto published and performed by the great conductor Kavosky (Emil Rameau). Since he’s already left Kansas when the film opens, it can start in shrieking Technicolor and doesn’t have to open in black-and-white like The Wizard of Oz; the credited cinematographers are Leon Shamroy and Harry Jackson, with Natalie Kalmus and Richard Mueller as the Technicolor consultants, and the neon-bright overripeness of the colors is all too typical of what Shamroy, Fox and Technicolor all seemed to want.

Anyway, Our Hero ends up in a speakeasy called “Danny’s Den” owned by would-be theatrical producer Danny (William Bendix), whose great star attraction (Blaine) is being scouted by Ziegfeld but whom he’s determined to keep away from established producers until he can raise the money to launch her in a show of his own. It’s another one of those stories where we’re expected to believe that a hero so naïve he can hardly find his shoes in the morning has nonetheless written a great piece of music adaptable both for concert performance and as the basis for a show score (with lyrics written by Blaine’s character, who dropped her poetic aspirations and went to work for Danny as a singer to make a living). A romantic triangle naturally develops between Ameche, Blaine and Bendix — who loves her but gallantly gives her up at the end — and there’s a bizarre subplot in which a once-talented but now burned-out violinist (Felix Bressart) embezzles $3,500 from Ameche, ostensibly for a bond to ensure the musicians who perform the concerto will get paid, only to be confronted by Bendix’s gangster-like bodyguards and forced to give the money back. Miranda, though hardly on screen long enough to qualify for top billing, nonetheless dominates the scenes she is in and proves the most entertaining performer in the film (especially when she gets to sing a lot of “Give Me a Band and a Bandana,” as well as a bit of “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” in her native Portuguese — Brazilian music and the samba band Miranda insisted appear in all of her films seem particularly incongruous in a movie set in 1922, but they’re well worth seeing anyway); also of note is a great costume-ball sequence at Webster Hall in which a Black dance group called the Four Step Brothers do a great routine that momentarily brings the film to life. Aside from that, Greenwich Village is reasonably entertaining but no more, evidence that the Fox formula of building elaborate musicals around parts of New York City (previous entries had included Tin Pan Alley, Wabash Avenue and Coney Island) was running out of steam — and aside from a few nice gags about artistic pretension (the best is one in which Bendix, confused by a painting he’s ordered that from some angles looks like Picasso and from others like Duchamp, keeps rotating it on his wall until he finally hangs it in a direction that pleases him — whereas two pretentious customers at his speakeasy pass it and declare it a masterpiece, leaving a befuddled Bendix to wonder about what makes it so special) the story could have been set just about anywhere and one misses the real empathy and realistic sense of an artists’ colony Vincente Minnelli, Alan Jay Lerner and Gene Kelly brought to An American in Paris seven years later! — 12/14/02


For our movie last night Charles and I watched Greenwich Village, an item from the five-DVD box of Carmen Miranda I’d just got at Costco — and it’s startling to look her up on and realize her film career was so short (six movies in Brazil before she came to the U.S., 10 during her years under contract to 20th Century-Fox between 1940 and 1946, and just four more between her release from Fox and her death in 1955). The box focused on the second half of her Fox career, starting with her fifth film for them — the dazzling Busby Berkeley masterpiece The Gang’s All Here — and cycling through the rest of her output for the studio (omitting Four Jills in a Jeep, a semi-documentary about the USO shows during World War II in which Miranda played herself). Greenwich Village was a troubled production, originally planned as a vehicle for The Gang’s All Here star Alice Faye — who got pregnant with her second child just before it was scheduled to go before the cameras — and after an attempt to get Betty Grable to do it also fell through, Darryl Zanuck and the film’s line producer, William LeBaron, decided to make Miranda’s second-lead role the top-billed one and cast then little-known Vivian Blaine as the ingénue. What came out of this, directed by 20th Century-Fox reliable Walter Lang from a script by the usual committee (Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, “original” story; Michael Fessier and Ernest Pagano, “adaptation”; Earl Baldwin and Walter Bullock, script), was a follow-up to the sequence of Fox musicals built around parts of New York City that were, or could be, associated with music — Tin Pan Alley, Coney Island, Wabash Avenue — and also a rehash of a set of clichés most blatantly used before in Naughty but Nice (1939, starring Dick Powell in his last film as a Warner Bros. contractee) and Swing Fever (1943, with Kay Kyser in one of his unlikeliest roles): Midwestern hayseed comes to New York City with the manuscript of a potentially great classical work under his arm, tries unsuccessfully to get it published come scritto, but ultimately ends up involved with a group of Broadway producers who take the themes of his concerto/rhapsody/sinfonietta/whatever, turn them into show tunes and use them as the basis of a hit stage musical.

This time the hayseed composer is called “Kenneth Harvey” and is played by Don Ameche, also on the downgrade at the time, and in the year 1922 he comes to New York and ends up getting off the tour bus at Greenwich Village (incidentally the driver announces a list of legendary talents who got their start in the Village — including George Gershwin, whose own career was just beginning in 1922) and arriving in Danny’s Den, a speakeasy owned by Danny O’Mara (William Bendix — having just seen him in his marvelous performance as the crazy war veteran in The Blue Dahlia I couldn’t help but reflect, “Carmen Miranda and Raymond Chandler — one degree of separation!”), who’s trying to produce a Broadway show starring his girlfriend Bonnie Watson (Vivian Blaine, fresh from her appearance opposite Laurel and Hardy in Jitterbugs, their only truly good film for 20th Century-Fox, and being given a big push and a special “Introducing” credit) while at the same time keeping Florenz Ziegfeld’s talent scout away from his club for fear Ziegfeld might sign her for the Follies. Kenneth instantly falls in love with Bonnie himself, and in a marvelous piece of Chaplin-esque pantomime surprising from an actor as usually stiff as Ameche, he passes out in her bedroom after a drunken “surprise” party in her apartment (she lives in a room upstairs from Danny’s speakeasy) and ends up falling into bed with her — completely decorously, this being a Production Code full-enforcement era movie — and then falls out of bed again, coming to on the floor. Kenneth is intent on placing his concerto — whose main theme, oddly, is the well-known 1920 song “Whispering” by John and Malvin Schonberger which was Paul Whiteman’s star-making recording hit — with the legendary conductor Kavosky (Emil Rameau), who lives in a huge house with a stone block with his name on it in front (which led Charles to joke that by putting up his tombstone that early he’d taken “pre-need buying” to an extreme). Kavosky, not surprisingly, is based on Leopold Stokowski — like the real Stokowski, the fictitious Kavosky conducts without a baton and shows off the beauty of his arms to impress his audience — and, like the real Stokowski in Deanna Durbin’s great vehicle One Hundred Men and a Girl, Kavosky is imperious and virtually impossible for an aspiring musician to see. So Hofer (Felix Bressart), a former violinist in Kavosky’s orchestra who’s reduced to being a hanger-on at Danny’s Den, offers to help Kenneth get to see Kavosky and get his music orchestrated — only he’s really after scamming Kenneth out of the $3,500 in savings Kenneth brought to New York to live on while he got his concerto placed. (Kudos to the writers for breaking with cliché enough that they did not make Kenneth direly poor from the beginning — and also for having it be the “classical” entrepreneur, not the apparently sleazy Bendix from the Greenwich Village night world, who scams him out of his bankroll.)

Of course, Kenneth thinks that everyone in O’Mara’s organization — O’Mara himself, Bonnie and Querida (Carmen Miranda, essentially a comic-relief role more or less blown up to justify her top billing) — was in on Hofer’s fraud, and it isn’t until O’Mara’s review, the Greenwich Village Gaieties (a title clearly ripped off from the 1925 show The Garrick Gaieties, which began the superstar careers of song composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart), opens and features Kavosky himself on stage conducting a portion of Kenneth’s concerto — which includes three piano soloists instead of just one (no wonder he had such trouble interesting a music publisher in it!) ­— following which Bonnie comes on and interprets the main melody as “Whispering,” the pop song it was originally written as in real life (and as which it works considerably better). Greenwich Village is one of those frustrating movies that’s good as it stands but could have been a lot greater; for someone who’s supposed to be the star — at least if the billing order is to be believed — Carmen Miranda isn’t given much to do, just a few malapropistic comedy scenes, a running gag in which both her last name and her (claimed) country of origin change according to her agenda at the moment, and some songs. One of them is a rendition of “I’m Just Wild about Harry” with some nonsense patter-scat breaks that sound like what Gilbert and Sullivan would have if they’d been Brazilian. One is “I Like to Be Loved by You,” a Harry Warren song that, according to, is actually an outtake left over from the 1942 film Springtime in the Rockies and spliced in here. Miranda’s big number at the end is “Give Me a Band and a Bandana,” a lavish production that features a nice chorus in Portuguese (Miranda had it in her contract that she’d get to sing in Portuguese in at least one song per film) and a lot of choristers milling about pretty aimlessly while she and her hotshot samba band (another star perk of Miranda’s; she’d brought them from Brazil with her and insisted they be used in every one of her films — and they occasionally made appearances in films that didn’t include Carmen Miranda, like Sam Goldwyn’s quirky 1948 musical A Song Is Born) hold forth. This was obviously meant to be the follow-up to the big “Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” number from The Gang’s All Here but fell well short of its model, mainly because this time the choreography was by nice, reliable Seymour Felix instead of the demented genius Busby Berkeley.

It also doesn’t help that there’s surprisingly little of the raunchy Greenwich Village atmosphere; it’s true the writers and director Lang were hamstrung by the Production Code, which prevented them from showing a lot of the things the real-life Village is famous for (like its Queer community), but they tried to cram in whatever they could into a big number called “It’s All for Art’s Sake” that mildly spoofs the pretensions of artists’ colonies in general and anticipates the “Black and White Ball” scene that precedes the big ballet in An American in Paris seven years later; it’s a good number but, like the film itself, nowhere near as much fun as it could have been. One major missed opportunity was the Revuers, the legendary comedy troupe — Judy Holliday, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Alvin Hammer — who were hired for the film, shot at least two of their major comedy routines for it (including a spoof of the Shubert Brothers’ operetta productions and something called “The Baroness Bazooka”) and are actually listed in the credits — but none of their routines were used and the troupe ended up almost exclusively on the cutting-room floor. “[I]n the release print of the film … the Revuers had vanished except for a brief scene in which Comden, as a hat-check girl, hands [Don] Ameche his fedora,” Holliday biographer Gary Carey wrote (though I thought I saw the same woman who handed Ameche his hat briefly dancing down the “Village” street of the Fox back lot in a sequence shortly after that). Nor are we ever told why the interior of Danny’s Den is made to look like a pirate ship, yet another aspect of this movie of which all too little is made. Miranda and Bendix dominate the cast; Ameche is dull as usual except for that spectacular pantomime scene; and Vivian Blaine is charming, personable and sings with a nice voice, though just as Patricia Morison was wasted in Hollywood as a villainess in the 1940’s and found her true métier as co-star of the 1948 classic Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate, so Vivian Blaine found hers when she left Hollywood and played a superb comic role in the 1950 Broadway musical classic Guys and Dolls, including a raucous vocal style far different and more distinctive than her nice but rather bland singing here. — 9/10/14