Friday, September 8, 2017

Thrill of a Romance (MGM, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I had a double bill of Esther Williams last night with two movies I’d recorded from TCM in January 2015 just after Bathing Beauty, Thrill of a Romance (1945) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949). Thrill of a Romance co-stars Williams with top-billed Van Johnson — a nice-looking man but one who really doesn’t come off as that much of a sex god — though he doesn’t appear until the movie is almost a quarter through its 105-minute running time, and the first thing we see is Williams’ character, Cynthia Glenn, teaching swimming at a local pool in what appears to be a largely Mexican part of Los Angeles and living with her uncle Hobart (Henry Travers) and aunt Nona (Spring Byington), who’ve been raising her since her parents died when she was seven. Among her less successful students is Julio (Fernando Alvarado), who just jumps in the pool holding his nose while the rest of her class has already learned to dive — though later he catches on and does a beautiful dive off the high board that I suspect may have been a little-person stunt double. She’s spotted by insanely rich tycoon Robert G. Delbar (Carleton G. Young), who’s become a self-made gazillionaire thanks to his invention of a revolutionary new plastic called Practicon. 

At first sight of Our Heroine, Delbar is determined to marry her, and he stages his courtship with all the romantic subtlety and aplomb of the Nazis doing a Blitzkrieg invasion of some hapless European country. (World War II was still going on while this film was made and it, like Bathing Beauty, carries a closing credit announcing that MGM was making it available free for screenings to “Servicemen and Women” in combat zones.) By sheer force of will he gets her to date him and have dinner with him at a nightclub in which Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra is the featured entertainment. (They perform the lovely song “I Should Care” as well as a version of Dorsey’s star-making hit “Song of India,” but disappointingly virtually all of Dorsey’s appearances are talked over and the band isn’t showcased as well in some of its less prestigious black-and-white films, though when he plays “Song of India” Dorsey’s trombone contains a stark white mute I expected to hear Delbar point out and tell Cynthia it was made of Practicon.) Ultimately they get married and head out to a mountain resort hotel for their honeymoon — only just before they’re supposed to repair to the bridal suite for the night, Delbar gets contacted by his business partner and told he has to fly to Washington, D.C. that night to cut some major business deal, he’ll have to stay for a week and only one seat on the plane is available. (For a moment I wondered why, if Delbar was so filthy rich, he couldn’t just have chartered a plane and flown both himself and his new bride cross-country, but then I remembered this was still in the middle of World War II and there were restrictions on the availability of private aircraft.) While Cynthia is left alone in her hotel, it just happens that the adjoining room (and, even more importantly given the way this film is staged by its director, Richard Thorpe) is occupied by genuine war hero Major Thomas Milvane (Van Johnson), and of course this being a movie proximity works its magic and the two start falling in love. 

By the time Delbar returns from his business trip his wife and Major Tom (Charles couldn’t resist, joking about his name, when he interacted with an older character, “He must be Ground Control”) are canoodling — albeit decorously so, this being a Code-era film (though the situation is pretty Code-bending on its surface!), and when he finds out that his wife and Major Tom got lost in the middle of a mountain hike and spent the night together outdoors on a mountain — albeit they did nothing physical together beyond climbing themselves into mutual exhaustion — he has a hissy-fit and demands an annulment. Only it turns out that he doesn’t have to annul his marriage to Cynthia because when he married her he was still married to his immediately previous wife — he thought he had divorced her but his lawyer never put in the final papers. Thrill of a Romance isn’t much as an Esther Williams vehicle — she gets a few dips in various pools but none of the big aquatic ballets by John Murray Anderson or Busby Berkeley that were the big attractions of her best films — and most of its entertainment value comes from the avuncular presence of the great Danish Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior. Producer Joe Pasternack gave him an “Introducing” credit because he’d apparently never made a movie before, even though he’d been singing professionally for over three decades (he made his first records as a baritone in 1912 and then “pushed up” to tenor; by 1920 he’d recorded the two big tenor arias from Puccini’s Tosca in Danish for a local Danish record company) and had been a star at the Met since he made his debut there in Wagner’s Tannhäuser in 1924. Melchior was the sort of Wagner singer Jonathan Tolins was joking about in the play Twilight of the Golds when he had one of his characters say, “You’re supposed to believe this guy is a superhero when he looks like Ed Asner in a loincloth and a blond wig” (though in 1945 that joke probably would have been, “ … like Eugene Pallette in a loincloth and a blond wig”), and Pasternack realized that he wasn’t gong to be able to slim him down enough to play a romantic hero the way he did with his next big-name tenor signing, Mario Lanza. 

So he made a virtue of necessity and had Melchior, under the character name “Nils Knudsen,” going to the mountain resort in the first place in order to diet; he also becomes a sort of chaperone to the burgeoning relationship between Cynthia and Major Tom, and in the final scene — after Delbar has left her and she’s slunk back to her uncle’s and aunt’s home in disgust once she’s apparently lost both the men in her life — Van Johnson shows up and serenades her while Melchior provides the actual voice to which he lip-synchs, warning him to move his lips and gesture with his hands to make it look like he’s actually singing. (Van Johnson really had a professional-quality singing voice — he replaced Gene Kelly in the original Broadway production of Rodgers’ and Hart’s Pal Joey — but MGM, which ultimately lured both men to Hollywood, never cast Johnson in the sorts of song-and-dance roles that became Kelly’s specialty.) Melchior isn’t especially well used in this film — he doesn’t get to sing any Wagner, his one big aria is “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (though he sings the hell out of it; he’d previously recorded “Vesti la giubba” in German and he would re-record it and the other big Pagliacci tenor aria, “No, Pagliaccio no son,” in Italian for RCA Victor in 1946, a year after making this film, but the records would sit in the vaults until Melchior died in 1973 and RCA Victor put them on the three-LP boxed set they issued as a memorial), and for the most part he’s singing stuff like Schubert’s “Ständchen” (“Serenade”), though with tacky English lyrics by J. Macklyn Maskill replacing the original German poem by Ludwig Rellstab Schubert actually set, and a pretty bad pop song called “Please Don’t Say No (Say Maybe)” by Sammy Fain and Ralph Freed — but his voice is glorious and MGM’s sound recording does full justice to it (which was not always the case with his commercial records). There’s also a nice piano solo with Tommy Dorsey’s band played by a pre-pubescent girl who’s supposed to be Dorsey’s daughter, and an even nicer jam session featuring some of Dorsey’s band members led by the amazing pianist Dodo Mamarosa (who would go on to a modern-jazz career, including a recording date with Charlie Parker in 1947).  

Thrill of a Romance is one of Joe Pasternack’s oddball productions, set in what former MGM head Dore Schary called “the land of Pasternacky” — a reference to how little his movies had to anything recognizable as the real world — and also the sort of portmanteau movie that’s become woefully out of fashion, in which the strategy was to attract every possible moviegoer to the film by offering something in it someone would like. “You don’t like this?” such movies said to their original audiences. “Just wait a minute, and we’ll be giving you something you will like.” Today, of course, the strategy is just the other way, “narrowcasting” everything to smaller and smaller audience segments and rigidly excluding the kinds of genre mash-ups that gave a lot of 1930’s and 1940’s movies, including this one, much of their charm. Thrill of a Romance was directed by Richard Thorpe (which puts Lauritz Melchior one degree of separation from Elvis, whom Thorpe directed in Jailhouse Rock, though Esther Williams was even closer to Elvis than that — the two both appeared on the Milton Berle TV show on April 3, 1956, telecast from an aircraft carrier in San Diego, albeit in different segments, and at least one other person appeared in both Thrill of a Romance and that Berle TV episode: drummer Buddy Rich, with Tommy Dorsey here and Harry James on the Berle program[1]) from a script by Richard Connell (author of The Most Dangerous Game, hardly the sort of résumé item one expects from a writer on an Esther Williams movie) and Gladys Lehman — at least we don’t have to believe it took seven credited writers to come up with this the way we did on Bathing Beauty! Indeed, one quirk of Thrill of a Romance is that its basic plot was presented seriously four years later in Max Ophuls’ marvelous film noir, Caught — though in that one not only did the not-so-rich woman consummate her marriage to the domineering rich man, they conceived a child and much of the film’s last act revolves around his insistence that he get to keep the kid even if she leaves him — and frankly it would have taken a director with the sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch in the so-called “pre-Code” days to make this credible as the basis of a comedy!

[1] — And of course there were no degrees of separation between Tommy Dorsey and Elvis: some of Elvis’s first TV appearances were on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s half-hour Stage Show program in early 1956.