Thursday, November 15, 2012

rude thoughts on metro's unfortunate film of meredith willson's "the unsinkable molly brown"

Turner Classics’ airing of Charles Walters' inferior film of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964) tonight @ 8 (est) provides me with the opportunity to do a little airing myself. This will be one of those hugely indulgent chain-of-thought posts.

Please bear with me. Here goes:

1. The MGM Myth. For what seems like at least a century, MGM promoted itself as the premiere source for movie musicals. If you were able to get through any of the “That’s Entertainment” movies, you probably absorbed a lot of misinformation – such claims as (a) Metro created the movie musical, (b) Metro created Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (no, it was RKO) and (c) Metro created Bing Crosby (no, it was Paramount). MGM did, however, create Esther Williams and it overhyped Judy Garland and Gene Kelly to the detriment of such overlooked but formidable talents as Howard Keel, Jane Powell and Marge and Gower Champion.

That’s my opinion, take it or leave it. While MGM may have been a force in designing original movie musicals, it was deadly when it came to Broadway adapations, with the possible exception of George Sidney's film of Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate." But that was clearly an exception. Simply look how the studio reduced the scores of both “On the Town” and “Bells Are Ringing” (with the latter succeeding, in spite of MGM, only because of Vincente Minnelli’s shrewd handling of the truncated material handed to him) or what it did to … “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

2. Meredith Willson. Poor Willson. After having been spoiled by the fidelity that director Morton DaCosta brought to the Warner Bros. film version of Willson’s "The Music Man"  (1962), he must have suffered culture shock at what MGM did to “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” (Of course, DaCosta, an underrated filmmaker, also directed the stage version of “The Music Man.”) It should be noted at this point that Warners was the polar opposite of Metro when it came to filming stage musicals.

Jack Warner’s dictum was, HANDS OFF, as evidence by the faithful Warner films of "The Music Man” and also “The Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees,” “Gypsy,” “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot” and “Finian’s Rainbow.” "The Music Man" in theory is the definitive MGM musical, but I doubt if Willson's tricky score would have appealed to the Metro suits. And only the gods of movies could imagine what Metro would have done with something like “Gypsy.” I can guarantee you that “Rose’s Turn” would have been the first number to go.

MGM hacked away at Willson’s score for “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” with its usual know-it-all superiority - and pretty much edited Willson out of the equation. Exactly 12 – count ‘em – 12 songs were cut from Willson’s score for the film, including the crucial “My Brass Bed,” “Beautiful People of Denver,” “Bon Jour,” “If I Knew,” the emblematic “Keep-a-Hoppin’” and “Chick-a-Pen,” which refers to the hero’s pet name for the show’s heroine.

You have to wonder why the studio even vied for the film rights to the show in the first place. It should be noted that “Beautiful People of Denver,” along with “Dolce Far Niente,” show up on the “Molly Brown” soundtrack as instrumentals.

By comparison, Warners retained just about the entire score of “The Music Man,” billing it as Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," while MGM's "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" was "a Lawrence Weingarten Production." For "The Music Man," Warners replaced only one song with a new one – and at Willson’s request. With so many songs cut from "Molly Brown," it is no surprise that Helen Deutsch’s scenario for the film is a watered-down version of what Richard Morris wrote for the stage.

3. The casting. The stage version of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was a personal triumph for a new off-beat Canadian actress named Tammy Grimes who, of course, was too idiosyncratic for an MGM musical. On the other hand, the play’s leading man, Harve Presnell, could have come from the same bolt of cloth as Howard Keel. If “Molly Brown” existed in the ‘50s, Keel would have played the male lead. In 1964, Presnell recreated his stage role. (For some bizarre reason, during the stage run, Presnell did not appear in the matinee performances; his role was played at those times by James Hurst.)

With Grimes out of the picture, Debbie Reynolds, an MGM vet, was the obvious choice to play Molly. But neither the studio nor the director Charles Walters (a former choreographer who also directed “Lili” and ”Good News” for Metro) wanted her. Both campaigned for the then-hot Shirley MacLaine, a lesser musical performer than Reynolds. It should be noted here that Walters directed both Reynolds and MacLaine previously – Reynolds in “The Tender Trap” and MacLaine in “Ask Any Girl” and “Two Loves,” all three MGM movies.

Frankly, both women could have played the role well but, frankly, the character of Molly had Debbie Reynolds written all over her.  The casting was obvious.  Natural.  Organic.

Reynolds, reportedly, offered to do the film for nothing. That may be old Hollywood lore but I’d like to believe it. She won the part and deserved it. Working hard and putting her heart into it, Reynolds was Oscar-nominated. The role is said to be her personal favorite and it ought to be: She’s the best thing about “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” If only the film itself were up to her level.

And if only its makers - and MGM - only appreciated her more.  The opening titles and display ads read: "The Unsinkable Movie Brown" ... "Starring Debbie Reynolds."  They should have read: "Debbie Reynolds is The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

4. Peter Gennaro. Other than Presnell, this popular TV choreographer was the only other holdover from the stage show and the movie arguably comes alive only when his dances are on screen.

Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse? Gennaro was every bit as good as those two legends.

5. The New Songs. While 12 of the stage songs were cut for the film, two were added. One, “Colorado, My Home,” a terrific song, was originally in the show but cut during the tryout because of the inability to produce the echo effect that the song required (although, inexplicably, strains of it remain in its overture). The necessary echos were no problem for the studio technicians. The other new song is the showstopping “He’s My Friend,” in which Reynolds does some hell-raising, ligament-straining dancing with Gus Trikonis (Goldie Hawn’s first husband and one of the Sharks in the film “West Side Story”) and the inexpendable Grover Dale. Gennaro outdoes himself here and, again, I’d put this production number up against anything created by Robbins or Fosse.

6. Grover Dale. OK, aficionados talk about Kelly, Astaire, Fosse and, you know, the usual suspects, but for me, the greatest dancer on film was Grover Dale. Unfortunately, he came along too late – at the end of the studio system. He made his movie debut here as one of Reynolds’ brothers,  which I guess was officially the last MGM musical. (I’m not counting the studio’s pick-up of Ken Russell’s “The Boy Friend" in 1971.) Had he come along a decade or two earlier, Dale would have been in MGM’s stable and groomed for movie-musical stardom. Still, in only a handful of films, he made an incredible impression – “Molly Brown,” George Sidney’s “Half a Sixpence” (recreating a role he played on stage), Jacques Demy’s “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”/”The Young Girls of Rochefort” and Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord” (in which he played Lee Grant’s boogaloo dance instructor).

On stage, Dale also appeared in “West Side Story” (as a Jet), Frank Loesser's cult favorite, “Greenwillow” (with his close friend Anthony Perkins) and Noel Coward’s “Sail Away” with Elaine Stritch. He has frequently choreographed shows on stage and was the uncredited choreographer on the film “The Way We Were. Dale was married to actress Anita Morris for 21 years - until her death in 1994. They had a son in 1978, James Badge Dale, who is now an actor.

7. Debbie. Finally, coming full circle and getting back to the indefatiguable Reynolds, I'd like to put in a word for her many lost movies. Among those missing from home entertainment formats are these made within a five-year period in the early 1960s: Frank Tashlin's "Say One for Me" (1959), George Marshall's "The Gazebo" (1959), Robert Mulligan's "The Rat Race" (1960), George Seaton's "The Pleasure of His Company" (1961), Vincent Sherman’s “The Second Time Around” (1961), Gower Champion's "My Six Loves" (1963) and Vincente Minnelli's "Goodbye, Charlie" (1964). At least, "The Rat Race" shows up on Turner Classics on occasion, and "The Gazebo," in fact, had a brief life (a very brief life) on VHS about a decade ago. Mervyn LeRoy’s difficult-to-see "Mary, Mary" (1963), also on Turner often these days, recently (and belatedly) surfaced on DVD, as did two other Marshall titles, "It Started with a Kiss" and "The Mating Game" (both 1959). Yes, Debbie made three - count 'em - three films for Marshall in '59, two co-starring Glenn Ford.

If I were carrying a sign now, it would read, FREE DEBBIE REYNOLDS!

(Artwork: Morrow's artwork for the stage version of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown"; composer Meredith Willson; the inimtiable Tammy Grimes, the original Molly Brown; Grimes performing the "Belly Uo to the Bar, Boys" number on stage; a pre-release ad for the film version; the ageless Debbie Reynolds and Harve Presnell in the film; Grover Dale on a 1960 cover of "Dance Magazine," and Debbie as Molly) 


Ginger said...

"Molly Brown" was always such a let-down to me. It's more of a semi-musical than a musical. Too few songs. I agree, though. Reynolds is great, but I would have liked to see what MacLaine would have brought to the role. It would have been phenomenal if Grimes had a chance to do it.

Lauren said...

This is one of those bad films that I always seem to enjoy. The other is "Bye, Bye Birdie," another musical reduced from the show on which it's based. Thanks for the fascinating insight. I hope you can do something similiar on "Birdie," which I know had a bumpy road getting to the screen in '63.

Kent said...

So refreshing to read a demystification of the MGM myth about its "great" musicals.

Milo Venti said...

RE: Grover Dale... "with his close friend, Anthony Perkins". What???!! Is this still 1960?
It's common knowledge that Tony Perkins and Grover Dale were lovers, and lived together for 6 years. This was fairly well known in Hollywood and New York, were they resided.
Both later married women, of course... Perkins to Berry Berenson and Dale to Anita Morris. But their love affair was a real and passionate one.

Blake Duth said...

Great insights into the MGM phenomenon; part of the phenomenon of show business is the ability to mobilize publicity and shape public opinion.

Daryl Chin said...

Yes, many movies remain unavailable in home video format, and most of Debbie Reynolds's adult roles at MGM are among the missing. However, MARY MARY has been available through Warner Archives (all that remains of the formidable Warner Home Video empire, founded on the archive holdings of Turner) for at least a year.

joe baltake said...

Daryl! Noted and corrected. Thanks, as usual, for another astute observation.

Steve said...

Great article, just what I was looking for.

wwolfe said...

In case anyone is interested in hearing the complete original score from the Broadway show - something I've never had a chance to do, since I've only seen the movie - it's available at amazon. My mom is a huge fan of "The Music Man," so we went to see "Molly Brown" in the theater when I was little. I remember both of us feeling let down because there weren't nearly as many good songs as in "Music Man." Now I know why: the folks at MGM cut most of the score for the movie!

vadim said...

Mаrvelοus, what a web site!

g.w. said...

I thought, oh, no, Joe is going to say nasty things about Debbie Reynolds, who I love and was lucky enough to meet and have fun with. She was a "star," with a star's ego-driven personality, but she was also a charmer, surprisingly connected to everyone she talked to (including me), and well, as mentioned, a helluva lot of fun. I've never forgotten her, and won't as long as I live. She lived up to what I'd hoped she was like, and, as you know, "Singin' in the Rain" remains one of my favorite films of all time, despite all that's come out about the film and its cast since.

Was I relieved to read you at least liked her in the "Brown" role and thought she did a terrific job, despite your "rude" thoughts on the rest of the film.