Sunday, October 5, 2014

If I'm Lucky (20th Century-Fox, 1946)

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

The film was If I’m Lucky, the last of the five movies in the Carmen Miranda boxed set and quite a bit better than its immediate predecessor, Doll Face, even though it involved many of the same personnel — producer Bryan Foy, director Lewis Seiler and stars Vivian Blaine, Perry Como and Phil Silvers as well as Miranda. Blaine, Como, Harry James (playing a trumpet-playing bandleader called “Earl Gordon” — they didn’t even give him a character name with the same initials as his own, the way they did by calling Glenn Miller “Gene Morrison” in Orchestra Wives so the band could use the same initialed bandstands on screen they did in person) and Miranda are billed ahead of the title, in that order, and Silvers gets to top the next miscellaneous card after the title. I remember seeing (and doing a VHS recording of) this film in the 1980’s, when the American Movie Classics channel still lived up to that name and they ballyhooed it big-time when they got the rights to show it. But I haven’t seen it since, nor have I ever seen Thanks a Million (1935), the considerably bigger-budgeted musical of which it was a remake (a project of Darryl F. Zanuck, who decided to launch his 20th Century-Fox studio with a blockbuster consisting of talents from his former home, Warner Bros., including Dick Powell and Ann Dvorak as his leads). All I know of Thanks a Million is Louis Armstrong’s beautiful recording of the title song (a poster to wanted to put up a clip of the film showing Powell singing the song and comparing his relatively leaden phrasing to Armstrong’s supreme eloquence, but by the time I saw the post a copyright notice had forced to delete the film clip and all that was left was an upload of the Armstrong record, which I already knew quite well anyway). The project is an odd story anticipating the trend of celebrities seeking public office and not letting their lack of any actual experience or qualifications to govern anything get in the way.

Earl Gordon and His Orchestra receive word from their manager Wally Jones (Phil Silvers at his most obnoxious) that the band has an audition for a radio show sponsored by Titan Tires — only when the band members, including singers Linda Farrell (Vivian Blaine) and Michelle O’Toole (Carmen Miranda — and yes, one wonders how a woman whose every fractured vocal inflection gave away her Latina origins got a blandly Irish name; writers Edwin Lanham, George Bricker, Robert Ellis, Helen Logan and Snag — Snag? — Werris don’t even explain it by making Miranda’s character the product of a mixed-race marriage the way Ellis, Logan and Frank Gabrielson did in Something for the Boys), give notice to their regular employers and show up for the radio gig, Wally Jones has to shame-facedly confess that it’s fallen through, “someone named Benny … Benny Goodman … got the job,” which must have made James feel weird because he’d got his first big break with Goodman and had played with him from 1936 to 1939. Just then they see a street parade for an independent “Commonwealth Party” candidate for governor, Darius J. McGagonnagle (Edgar Buchanan, who does well enough even though the similarity of the name to the part W. C. Fields played as “The Great McGonigle” in The Old-Fashioned Way made me wish Fields had been healthy enough to play this part, too). The McGagonnagle campaign is sponsoring an outdoor rally and feeding people hot dogs to get them to attend — though as soon as the food runs out and the candidate gets up to speak the audience dashes away in droves. Sensing a chance to hustle a job, Wally has the band members start to play; the crowd comes back and the band gets hired to perform at all the McGagonnagle rallies statewide. What the band members don’t know, though we do, is that McGagonnagle is really a front candidate for incumbent governor Quilby (Harry Hayden) and the corrupt political machine, headed by Marc Dwyer (Frank Fenton), who runs him; they need an opponent who’ll rattle around the back roads of the (carefully unnamed) state where this is going on and prattle on about the “common man” and the need for government to look out after him. But they also need said opponent to be dorky and inept enough that he loses by a comfortable margin. With Earl Gordon’s band behind him drawing the crowds and keeping them there for McGagonnagle’s speeches, he zooms up in the polls and — worse, from the point of view of Dwyer and the crooks in state government he’s looking out for — he’s also starting to sound like he really believes in all that “government for the common man” crap he’s dishing out to the voters.

So the bosses get McGagonnagle to do a belly-flop off the wagon (he’s been abstaining from alcohol for the duration of the campaign) by threatening to expose all the corrupt things he did for the machine before he saw the light, and when he’s too plastered to speak at a campaign rally three weeks before the election his place is taken by Allen Clark (Perry Como), a native of the state who joined Gordon’s band as singer partly because he was interested in getting them to perform a new song he’d written, “If I’m Lucky” (a nice piece by the film’s songwriters, Josef Myrow and Edgar DeLange, which neatly suits Como’s voice in ways the film’s swing songs do not), but mostly because he’d fallen in love with Linda Farrell (ya remember Linda Farrell?) at first sight and wanted to keep close to her. The machine withdraws McGagonnagle’s name as a candidate and nominates Allen Clark instead — but to cover their bases they also trick him into signing pledges to reappoint all the crooks who are robbing the state treasury blind — and Clark, who has no interest in politics and is openly hoping to lose the election so he, Linda and the band can get the Titan Tires radio show and become entertainment stars, is horrified that within two days of the election he has a seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls. So he goes to Dwyer and asks to withdraw from the campaign — and Dwyer threatens to spew enough mud about him that neither he nor anyone associated with the band will ever be allowed to work in show business again. This precipitates a disillusioned breakup with Linda, who thinks Clark has chosen politics and its corruptions over her, but in the final speech of the campaign — which is being broadcast statewide — Clark, like a true Frank Capra hero (and methinks the writing committee were looking over their shoulders at Capra’s work), lays out all the corrupt things the bosses tricked him into doing, gives the radio listeners the evidence against these guys, and regains Linda’s love and respect while converting his already big lead in the election to a landslide margin. At the end the police are chasing the band’s bus while Wally, who thinks they’re out to arrest them, urges the driver to go faster and get the bus over the state line (one wonders if the bus is running on Titan Tires) — until it turns out that the police are there to escort the newly elected Governor Clark to the statehouse, where he works out a deal that he’ll govern the state during weekdays while keeping his evenings and weekends free for the Titan Tires broadcasts and other appearances with the band.

If I’m Lucky is a dorky movie, and in the pre-Reagan, pre-Eastwood, pre-Bono, pre-Schwarzenegger age it probably seemed science-fictional to most audiences that a singer with no political experience would presume to offer himself as a candidate for office (and even harder to believe that he’d actually be elected!), but it’s also good fun and it gives Carmen Miranda a much better showcase than Doll Face did even though most of her role is a comic-relief second lead. She gets one big, spectacular number, “Bataclan,” and though the film is in black-and-white the number at least looks thought out for the black-and-white medium instead of looking (like her Doll Face number did) like we were watching a color film with the color turned off. Charles was convinced the choreographer, Kenny Williams, had been allowed to direct the sequence as well, Busby Berkeley-style, though the difference may have been due to a superior cinematographer. Instead of Joseph LaShelle, a good all-arounder who’d won the Academy Award for Laura but seemed uninspired (to say the least) by the assignment to shoot Doll Face, the cinematographer on If I’m Lucky was the great Glen MacWilliams. An American (despite his Scottish name), he had moved to England, where he was hired by Gaumont-British to shoot the Jessie Matthews musicals — and in her interview with film historian John Kobal, Matthews gave MacWilliams much of the credit for making her a star. She recalled that when she told him other photographers had said she had “a terrible nose,” MacWilliams said she had “a cute nose” and anyone who said she didn’t was just “alibi-ing their own bad photography.” Alas for Matthews’ career, MacWilliams fled the U.K. and returned to the U.S. when World War II broke out, and he ended up shooting Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (and no doubt relishing the challenge of keeping a movie that took place entirely inside a lifeboat visually interesting) and then got assigned to this film. His best work occurs during the “Bataclan” number, a rich feast of chiaroscuro lighting effects, high contrasts and offbeat angles that manages the interesting feat of showing Carmen Miranda off so well we don’t miss color during her big feature the way we did in Doll Face.

If I’m Lucky also piques my curiosity to see Thanks a Million; I suspect that, like Strange Confession (the 1945 Inner Sanctum series remake of the remarkable 1934 film The Man Who Reclaimed His Head), If I’m Lucky benefits from being a remake of an “A” production rather than a more slovenly story constructed exclusively for the “B” world. If I’m Lucky does suffer from Perry Como’s blandness as both actor and singer — no doubt Dick Powell threw himself into the character far more intensely both when he was speaking and singing — and one can’t help but wish Frank Sinatra would have done his own record of the title song (they had similar-sounding voices but Sinatra had it all over Como for musicianship and eloquence of phrasing), but even as it stands If I’m Lucky is a surprisingly good little film, well done and with a serviceable score — and it’s a worthy finale for the tenures of both Como and Miranda at Fox; Miranda’s is a comic-relief second lead but at least it’s a good comic-relief second lead (she’s supposed to be playing harp with the “Gordon” band and making Silvers’ character, her boyfriend as well as her manager, carry the harp — and in the one sequence that shows her playing it’s clear she studied long enough at least to look right) and Como is acceptable in what was the last movie he made that ever called on him actually to play a character. (He’d go on to make Words and Music at MGM, but in that one he was just playing himself.) About the only thing that really annoyed Charles about If I’m Lucky was that it gave Phil Silvers a chance to sing; Harry James also warbled a chorus in the “Bataclan” number but, as Charles pointed out afterwards, even if James was no competition for Louis Armstrong in the singing-trumpeter gig, he did have some awareness of music and how it’s supposed to go that totally eluded Silvers (whose specialty, both in movies and later on his hit TV show Sgt. Bilko, was playing unlikable characters).