Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Something for the Boys (20th Century-Fox, 1944)

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

The film was Something for the Boys, the third item in the 20th Century-Fox boxed set of Carmen Miranda, who began her Fox career with an explosive debut in the 1940 film Down Argentine Way — which also catapulted its female lead, Betty Grable, to stardom after she’d bounced around three studios in supporting roles through most of the 1930’s — but that film and her later big-budget second leads, That Night in Rio, Weekend in Havana and Springtime in the Rockies, weren’t included in this box (presumably because they were being saved for boxes featuring Grable and Alice Faye). The box starts with The Gang’s All Here, Miranda’s best film, featuring the marriage made in heaven between her and director Busby Berkeley — she was technically second-billed to Alice Faye (again) but she and Berkeley are the reasons you’d want to see it — and then filtered down to the later films she made after the appeal of her novelty act was beginning to wear thin. Indeed, the last two films in the box, Doll Face and If I’m Lucky, aren’t even in color — and color, particularly the shrieking hues of three-strip Technicolor honed to a neon brightness at Fox’s insistence, is a pretty basic part of Miranda’s appeal. Something for the Boys was based on a stage musical that had premiered on Broadway in January 1943 and run for 422 performances; it was written by Herbert and Dorothy Fields with songs by Cole Porter (none of which became standards), who as a Gay man with an eye for all the hot young men in uniform running around during World War II no doubt had his own ideas about “doing something for the boys.” The Fox producers kept the basic plot — three widely separated cousins who have never met, Blossom (Vivian Blaine), Chiquita (Carmen Miranda) and Harry (Phil Silvers) Hart, inherit a decrepit Southern mansion next to a U.S. Army base and turn it into a residence for soldiers’ wives — but threw out all the Porter songs except the title song, written for Porter’s fave Ethel Merman and here performed by Vivian Blaine at the head of a chorus line representing the show she’s appearing in at the start of the film. (The soundtrack of this song appeared on the CD Musical Ladies Sing the Music of Cole Porter but in a far inferior-sounding transfer than the one on this DVD.)

One of the gimmicks is that Chiquita (whose clash between her Brazilian mannerisms and her U.S. name is explained by making her the product of a marriage between an American traveling salesman and a Brazilian woman) has been working in a defense plant and has got the mineral carborundum stuck in her teeth, which has turned her essentially into a human radio — she can receive broadcasts no one else can hear, and her authenticity is established when she tells people what’s on the radio, they turn a radio on, and she’s right. All this is explained to us in a brief cameo by Judy Holliday, in her first film, playing one of Miranda’s co-workers; according to biographer Gary Carey, Holliday spat out the line at warp speed after being told by director Lewis Seiler that her part was unimportant and therefore she shouldn’t spend too much time getting out her dialogue. When her first take was incomprehensible Seiler told her, “Now, ah — what’s your name? Judy — yes, you’ve got the idea: fast, but intelligible, please!” Once we get to the Southern mansion — a place that gives the term “fixer-upper” a whole new meaning — Perry Como turns up as one of the servicemembers, sings two songs and then pretty much disappears. The love interest is between Blossom and Sgt. Rocky Fulton (Michael O’Shea), a successful civilian bandleader who got drafted; she always wanted to sing with his band, and now she gets the chance. They start an innocent relationship which is abruptly broken up by the arrival of his former fiancée, Melanie Walker (Sheila Ryan), a rich bitch who insists on taking over the entire operation and getting the royal treatment; she seems to be there because the writers (the Fieldses and their adapters, Robert Ellis, Helen Logan and Frank Gabrielson) realized that some sort of complication had to intervene in the Rocky-Blossom relationship to have any hope of filling out this slender story to a 90-minute running time. Midway through the movie the mansion is declared off limits after Harry is caught running an illegal casino upstairs and trying to fleece the servicemembers (who of course end up fleecing him!); the wives can still live there but without their husbands being able to visit them, what’s the point? Then all the servicemembers end up in a war-games training exercise (it seems as if the members of the writing committee were ripping off Abbott and Costello’s vehicles at Universal, the deserted mansion from Hold That Ghost and the war-games climax from Buck Privates — both considerably more entertaining movies than this one!) and Miranda’s magical carborundum radio enables Rocky to get information to his side, the Blue Army (they’re fighting the Red Army and this movie makes it seem like they’re re-taking the South for the Democratic Party); his side wins the war, he gets assigned to officer’s training, and he and Blossom make up after Melanie conveniently disappears.

Something for the Boys is one of those frustrating movies that starts with real potential and goes wrong at almost every juncture; it’s worth watching for shimmering Technicolor, good songs by Jimmy McHugh (maybe they ill-treated Cole Porter but McHugh was no slouch as a songwriter either; anyone with “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” “Blue Again” and “I Must Have That Man” on his résumé is a talent to conjure with!) and nice production numbers, especially for Miranda (though the finale, “Samba Boogie,” jars in its rhythmic alternation between samba and boogie — McHugh wasn’t able to integrate the Latin and jazz rhythms the way Don Raye and Gene DePaul had in “Rhumboogie” for the Andrews Sisters’ vehicle Argentine Nights at Universal five years earlier), as well as pleasant vocals by Blaine and Como. Perry Como had a really nice voice — it kept him a star for decades — but he didn’t have a clue about phrasing, which is why his records achieve a sort of exquisite dullness while Bing Crosby’s, Frank Sinatra’s and Tony Bennett’s still move. Vivian Blaine was in the middle of an attempt by Fox to turn her into a “straight” musical star — and they deserve kudos for letting her keep her natural brown hair instead of trying to shoehorn her into the “Fox Blonde” mold of Faye, Grable, June Haver, Marilyn Monroe (who transcended the type and became a legend) and Jayne Mansfield — but, like Como’s, her voice was pretty but dull and it took Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows, casting her as a second-lead, raucous-voiced comic singer in the original stage production of Guys and Dolls in 1950, to make her a star. The plot portions of the movie sort of lumber along, not actively unpleasant but not especially entertaining either (though Phil Silvers’ interminable minstrel number towards the end at least approaches “actively unpleasant”), and Something for the Boys ends up 90 minutes of O.K. diversion based on some pretty tired formulae that were boring both the filmmakers and the audiences by 1944.