Wednesday, July 8, 2015

My Blue Heaven (20th Century-Fox, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was My Blue Heaven, fourth and last in the 20th Century-Fox boxed set of Betty Grable (it’s listed as “Volume 1,” which raises the hope that there’s a Volume 2 out there that might have some of her more interesting movies, including her best film, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, as well as the bizarre comedy Western The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend in which Preston Sturges directed her) along with Down Argentine Way (a great film, though it’s the contributions of Carmen Miranda and the Nicholas Brothers more than Grable’s work that make it so), Moon Over Miami and The Dolly Sisters. I had thought My Blue Heaven would have been made in the 1940’s and would have been a biopic of songwriter Walter Donaldson, who wrote the song after which it was named (and Gene Austin’s 1927 recording of “My Blue Heaven” was the best-selling record of anything until Bing Crosby released Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” 15 years later) and whose harmonically interesting and quirky songs were particularly good vehicles for Bix Beiderbecke (many of Bix’s best records with Paul Whiteman — “Changes,” “What Are You Waiting For, Mary?,” “Reaching for Someone,” “Out-of-Town Gal” — were of Donaldson songs, and Bix also recorded Donaldson’s “Oh, Baby” with the Wolverines and “Borneo” with Frank Trumbauer). Even a biopic that outrageously flouted or ignored the facts of Donaldson’s life would have been fun given all the many wonderful songs he wrote. Alas, that’s not what 20th Century-Fox did; instead they bought just the title and the rights to that one song, and based the film on a story called “Stork Don’t Bring Babies” by S. K. Lauren, which was worked up into a script by Claude Binyon and old 20th Century-Fox hand Lamar Trotti. They also assigned Henry Koster to direct; Koster, a German expat who came to the U.S. less to flee Hitler than to keep working after the German branch of Universal was shut down, signed on to Universal’s parent company in the U.S. and almost immediately had a hit in Three Smart Girls, the 1936 musical that catapulted Deanna Durbin to overnight stardom. He mostly made sprightly modern-dress musicals after that, both at Universal and at MGM (where fellow expat Joe Pasternak, producer of Three Smart Girls and most of Universal’s Durbin hits, had relocated in the early 1940’s), and got a major career boost when Sam Goldwyn hired him to take over The Bishop’s Wife (1947) after the original director, hacky William Seiter, had bombed. (Originally Cary Grant was cast as the bishop and David Niven as the angel who came from heaven to help him out, but when Koster took over he insisted on switching the roles.)

He ended up at Fox in 1950 and was on Grable’s immediately preceding movie before this, Wabash Avenue — during the shooting Grable said her dialogue sounded familiar, like it had come from a movie she’d seen, and later she learned it was from a movie she’d been in: the writers had just recycled lines from Grable’s role in the 1940 film Coney Island — though later Fox inexplicably assigned him historical and Biblical spectaculars like The Robe, Désirée (about a paramour of Napoleon, played by Jean Simmons — the Napoleon was Marlon Brando, who had to do the film for free after Fox sued him for walking out on a previous movie, The Egyptian, and he and Simmons both spent much of their time joking about how bad it was), A Man Called Peter and The Virgin Queen (Bette Davis’ second “go” at playing Queen Elizabeth I of England). The relatively light material of My Blue Heaven was far closer to what Koster did best, and the film as a whole is a bizarre mixture of musical and soap opera that if it were remade today would probably end up on Lifetime. Jack and Kitty Moran (Dan Dailey and Betty Grable) are a married couple who appear together on a radio show that’s supposedly loosely based on their own lives (sort of like George Burns and Gracie Allen, though nowhere near as funny!) but is mostly an excuse for them to sing and dance … yes, that’s right, they’re dancers on radio, but since this is a movie and we’d rather see them move than just stand stock still in front of microphones, that’s not especially bothersome. In the opening scene, Kitty visits her doctor, gets a mysterious list of recommendations, then heads for the studio where her show is broadcast and makes a few confusing ad libs to the script that send Jack into a state of perplexity — until he realizes at last that what his wife is telling him is that she’s pregnant and expects their baby to be born around Christmas. Only on their way back from a pretty wild party to celebrate the news, hosted by their show’s writers Walter and Janet Pringle (David Wayne and Jane Wyatt), Jack is warned not to drive — he’s already several sheets to the wind — and Kitty takes the wheel but is involved in a bad accident. She recovers O.K. but she loses the baby she was carrying and is told by her doctor that in all likelihood she’ll never be able to be pregnant again.

The Morans get an offer to do a TV show and seek out the Pringles to write it — even though the Pringles are living in semi-retirement in a farm community — and when the Morans get to their home they’re confronted by four Pringle kids doing a Hallowe’en show and lamenting that, with all the other holidays Irving Berlin wrote songs about, he never did one about Hallowe’en. (The Hallowe’en number, though derivative of the even better one in Meet Me in St. Louis, is still one of the best parts of the movie.) They learn that only two of the Pringle children are theirs biologically; the others were adopted — the oldest when the Pringles got tired of waiting for the biological lottery, and the youngest when a girl of their acquaintance got “in trouble” and the Pringles agreed to take her baby off her hands. Accordingly the Morans decide they, too, will adopt — and first they try to do so through a legal agency, only Mrs. Johnston (Laura Pierpont), the agency’s head, doesn’t trust actors with her children. She lets the Morans have a baby boy on a probationary basis, but then takes the kid away when the Pringles throw another drunken party (one would have thought they’d have learned their lesson!) to celebrate the new arrival right when Mrs. Johnston and her helpers, Miss Gilbert (Una Merkel) and … no, not Miss Sullivan but another woman, are dropping by for a visit with the child. Mrs. Johnston steadfastly and implacably tells the Morans that they have broken her trust in them, and repossesses the boy. Then the Pringles get a lead on a baby girl who’s available for illegal underground adoption; they arrange for the Morans to go to a roadhouse where they meet a slimy lawyer (John Burton) who’s willing to arrange for them to adopt the girl, since the mother consents and the father abandoned her anyway. The Morans do their TV show and it’s an instant hit, but the pressures of child-rearing and Kitty’s decision to fire their hatchet-faced, imperious nurse, Mrs. Bates (Minerva Urecal) on the eve of a show force her to give up her co-starring TV role to fellow dancer Gloria Adams (Mitzi Gaynor in her first feature-length film (her only previous credit was as Peggy Hendricks, billed as “Mitzi Gerber,” in a 1949 short called It’s Your Health). Alas, Gloria has in mind not only temporarily replacing Kitty Moran on the show but permanently replacing her in Jack’s life, and she gets him as far as a deep kiss (deep enough to leave lipstick) before Kitty arrives at the studio and goes into a jealous fury. Kitty returns to performing but gets a panicky phone call during the program, right after she and Jack have done a pretty strange spoof of South Pacific that required him to sing in a deep bass voice to sound like Ezio Pinza, from her all-wise Black maid Selma (Louise Beavers).

It seems that the baby girl’s biological father, who never signed away his parental rights, has returned and wants “their” child back. The Morans are told by an attorney that in general courts bend over backward to reunite children with their birth parents in cases like this, and they end up childless again until [spoiler alert! — not that you couldn’t guess at the ending if you’d seen more than about eight movies in your life], first Mrs. Johnston reappears, decides she misjudged the Morans and presents them with the boy they were going to adopt in the first place. Then that sleazy lawyer drops the case against the Morans over the girl Kitty had been shown raising through much of the second half of the film, and the Morans get to keep her. And finally, Kitty and Jack do a number for their TV show which is supposed to feature them on a rocking platform, representing an ocean liner at sea, only Kitty looks even queasier and more nauseous than she’s supposed to and after the show she goes to her doctor, who tells her — you guessed it — that she is once again pregnant au naturel. (This is one of those movies that makes you wonder when the protagonists, who’ve been shown either performing together or fighting with each other, carved out enough time to have sex.) My Blue Heaven is enjoyable as it stands but it’s the sort of movie that could have been much better. One of Betty Grable’s great professional frustrations was that she never got to work with Fred Astaire, and at one point Fox offered the part of Jack Moran to him and also to James Cagney, either of whom would have vastly surpassed Dan Dailey in star power and charisma. Though one of the things l like about older movies is their economy of running time — this lasts 96 minutes and tells a story for which a modern filmmaker would probably take an hour more than that — this one suffers from it in that the writers bring up major plot issues and then suddenly drop them. During the brief times we see Mitzi Gaynor off-stage there are hints that she’s a manipulative Eve Harrington-esque bitch determined to do Kitty out of both her stardom and her husband — but that pretty much disappears in the final third. (All About Eve was being made at the same studio, 20th Century-Fox, in the same year, 1950.)

Also the songs were by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Ralph Blane (Hugh Martin’s collaborator on the dazzling songs for Meet Me in St. Louis), only this was Arlen the craftsman rather than Arlen the master; the songs are serviceable vehicles for the dancing and singing of the leads (in that order because both Grable and Dailey were considerably better dancers than they were singers) but none are particularly memorable and they have the burden of competing with the Walter Donaldson standard after which the film was named. There’s an hilarious montage of all the different ways Jack and Kitty Moran perform “My Blue Heaven” on their program — which led me to joke they should have had Betty Grable turn to the camera and say, “Tune in next week and see how we do ‘My Blue Heaven’ then.” There’s also a marvelous number in which Grable, at home, is watching Dailey and Gaynor do the big number that had been written for her, “Live Hard, Work Hard, Love Hard” (which anticipates by three years the “Girl Hunt” ballet sequence in The Band Wagon by casting Dailey as a private eye and Gaynor as one of the two women in his life), and as Grable watches she casts nasty looks at the screen and turns the lyrics into her own determination to keep her husband and not let this obnoxious woman vamp him. Interestingly, all the TV’s shown in this film are color even though color TV (except for a few experimental systems) hadn’t been invented yet; CBS had a color system in the early 1950’s but it was incompatible — you couldn’t see the broadcasts, even in black-and-white, if you didn’t have a CBS color set — and NBC successfully got the FCC to delay implementing color until 1957, when they introduced a compatible-color system (which meant if you didn’t have a color set you could still watch the programs — you just couldn’t see them in color). I’m old enough to remember when color TV was still an exotic rarity and getting to see it was a special event, and one of my favorite old-Hollywood stories was the one about Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s brother and the financial manager of the Disney companies, telling him, “Why’d you waste all that money shooting the Davy Crockett TV shows in color? TV isn’t in color!” — to which Walt just smiled and said, “It will be.”

Interestingly, the best aspect of My Blue Heaven is Betty Grable’s acting; though she wasn’t a great actress this script stretched her more than most of her films did, and when she’s called upon to portray grief over losing her various chances to give birth and to adopt, she’s quite good, her restraint getting the point over far more than the overacting most actresses would have done in scenes like that in 1950 (or probably now). The idea of Astaire or Cagney in this film (even though both of them would have been too old by 1950) is haunting, though to my mind the real cast change 20th Century-Fox should have done is put Marilyn Monroe in the Mitzi Gaynor part. (Monroe would take over a part originally intended for Gaynor in the 1959 Billy Wilder classic Some Like It Hot.) When your leads are people like Betty Grable and Dan Dailey — first-rate performers but relatively uncharismatic ones — you need some star power in your supporting cast. But Fox had surprisingly little confidence in Monroe (in 1950 she’d just re-signed with them after being dropped both at Fox and Columbia) and even when they put her in a great film like All About Eve, they gave her a nothing bimbo role (remember George Sanders’ prissy dismissal of her as “Miss Caswell, a graduate of the Copacabaña School of the Dramatic Arts”?). Aside from Bus Stop, virtually all the truly memorable Monroe roles — The Asphalt Jungle, Clash by Night, The Prince and the Showgirl, Some Like It Hot, The Misfits — were made elsewhere. Grable and Monroe would work together in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) — where movie journalists, expecting off-screen fireworks between the old Fox Blonde and the new, were disappointed when Grable took it philosophically and said things like, “I’ve had my run. Let her have her turn.” Dan Dailey and Mitzi Gaynor also reunited for a film containing Monroe, There’s No Business Like Show Business, but in that one, instead of his lover, Gaynor played Dailey’s daughter!