Friday, September 12, 2014

The Dolly Sisters (20th Century-Fox, 1945)

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

The film was The Dolly Sisters, a 1945 musical extravaganza from 20th Century-Fox that ostensibly tells the story of Jenny Dolly (Betty Grable) and her sister Rosie (June Haver), Hungarian-born singer-dancers who became major international stars in the 1910’s and 1920’s. They were originally born in Hungary as Jancsika and Rozsika Deutsch and were brought to the U.S. in 1905 by their parents, Julius and Margaet Deutsch. They first started entertaining as children and, like Buster Keaton and many talented child performers in the early part of the 20th century, ran afoul of the Gerry Society, a bunch of do-gooders in New York City who campaigned against exploitation of children in entertainment. (They went so far as to file suit to declare Buster Keaton’s parents unfit to raise him and to have him taken away from them — Buster saved himself from an orphanage and his parents from jail by performing his dangerous-looking act in court and proving to the judge that as hair-raising as it looked on stage, he was a professionally trained acrobat and he was not in any real danger when he performed.) When the Dollys were adults they appeared in a stage musical called The Echo and were signed by Florenz Ziegfeld. After the end of World War I they moved to France, where they became huge stars, bought a chateau and courted so many rich men they became known as the “Million Dollar Dollies.” They also spent a lot of time gambling, usually “staked” by their wealthy admirers. By 1927 their popularity as entertainers began to fade and in 1933, torn between two wealthy admirers and out for a drive with one before deciding whether or not to marry the other, Jenny Dolly crashed her car and needed to sell a lot of her jewels to finance the plastic surgery that preserved her looks. By 1936 Jenny had had to sell the rest of her jewels to live on, and in 1941 she hanged herself in her Hollywood apartment. Rosie survived her sister by 30 years, kept out of the public eye, did volunteer work for children’s charities in Hungary in the 1960’s and died in 1971. That’s from the Wikipedia page on the Dolly Sisters and, as you might expect, it bears little relationship to the plot of the film The Dolly Sisters: the sisters themselves and Jenny’s first husband, dancer, singer and songwriter Harry Fox, make it into the movie, and so does Jenny’s gambling habit and her car accident, but screenwriters John Larkin and Marion Spitzer remodeled most of their life story to fit the Hollywood cliché mold.

In their version the Dollys (who aren’t depicted as identical twins, which they were in real life, and this being a 20th Century-Fox musical they’re blonde instead of dark-haired, though at least Betty Grable and June Haver look enough alike they’re credible as sisters on screen) are good little girls and Harry Fox (John Payne) is the love of Jenny’s life: they married, are separated by World War I (in which Harry enlists and gets stuck in Germany with the occupation force well after the war is over) and have a tearful farewell in a Paris train station in which Jenny picks her sister and her career over her husband (John Payne’s mostly workmanlike performance picks up considerable power when he gets to act this scene — after Fox decided he was over-the-hill and dropped him he decided to duplicate Dick Powell’s transition from musical star to noir actor, and while he wasn’t as successful as Powell had been in either genre he was considerably more interesting and moving as an actor in his later noirs), though of course they’re reconciled at the end when they appear together at a New York benefit that’s the first appearance of the Dolly Sisters since Jenny’s accident. In the film they’re raised not by their parents but by Uncle Latzie (S. Z. Sakall, charming and cuddly as ever), and there’s an interesting argument between him and an unbilled Sig Ruman as Ignatz Tsimmis, manager of the Little Hungary Café, where they make their debut as entertainers (and I couldn’t help recall that Sakall and Ruman both were involved in Hollywood’s version of World War II, on opposite sides — Sakall as the bartender at Rick’s in Casablanca and Ruman as the Nazi, “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt,” in To Be or Not to Be). The first half of The Dolly Sisters is a sprightly musical, with one nice production number after another — including “The Vamp,” a bizarre song from the early 1920’s (an era that had more than their fair share of them!), which they perform at a movie theatre in Elmira, New Jersey at their first professional gig — and such new songs as “I Can’t Begin to Tell You” (which Grable secretly recorded for Columbia with her then-husband Harry James — Fox production chief Darryl F. Zanuck didn’t want his stars to make records for fear audiences would buy the records instead of paying to see the movies, so she was billed on the label as “Ruth Haag,” a pseudonym formed from her and James’s middle names) and a bizarre production number called “Old-Fashioned Girl” that segues into a preposterous ode to a woman’s makeup kit, complete with chorines impersonating lipstick, powder (and the puff it’s applied with), rouge and mascara. (The “mascara” lady sings a languorous ballad that reminded me of the “Marihuana” song from Murder at the Vanities.) There’s an even odder number later on that supposedly represents the Dollys’ big show in Paris, a staging of Shelton Brooks’ song “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball” with the Dollys performing in front of a bizarre chorus line of white girls made up to look vaguely Black — it only looks like they’ve all had a particularly intense course at a tanning salon and three-strip Technicolor, which was generally kindly to real Black people, goes haywire trying to reproduce this makeup.

In the second half the film does a hard right turn towards war melodrama — no combat is shown but the scene at the train station is emotionally intense and vivid and shot in a subdued color scheme more reminiscent of a film of today than what we usually think of as “Technicolor” (though Charles noted at least three people wearing bright-red handkerchiefs and scarves and argued that Natalie Kalmus, the “consultant” who rode herd on every Technicolor movie and always wanted the colors neon-bright, was this film’s real auteur) — and then to tearjerking as Jenny Dolly laboriously recovers from her accident, before it once again becomes a light, fun musical in the closing scene. Along the way there’s an appealing mix of 1920’s and new songs — though the only old song credited is “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” which had been done to perfection by Judy Garland four years previously in Ziegfeld Girl. Neither Payne nor Grable come close to the riveting emotional power of Judy’s version, but then we really didn’t expect them to either, and Payne shows off a decent, unexceptional voice that’s believable from a character whose principal talents are supposed to be songwriting and dancing. The Dolly Sisters was a troublesome experience for Grable because she wasn’t used to being paired up with someone with an equally important role (she hadn’t been since she and Alice Faye made Tin Pan Alley together in 1940), but she and Haver got along — oddly, the real Dollys had frequently broken up the act and then reunited to build publicity, which would have given Larkin and Spitzer a real (and Production Code-licit) dramatic issue to build their movie around — and the movie was a huge box-office hit at a time when Grable’s Fox contract was about to expire, enabling her to renew it at a $300,000 per year salary that made her the highest-paid woman entertainer in the world (a title she took over from Bette Davis, by the way). Competently directed by Irving Cummings, and highlighted by those two huge production numbers by Seymour Felix (in which he seemed to be trying to prove he could do just as demented a spectacle as the great Berkeley), and also benefiting from all that overripe Fox Technicolor (it’s a lot of fun to watch 1940’s color movies and be brought back to a time when color movies were actually colorful!), The Dolly Sisters is silly but great fun, ably showcasing Grable and Haver.