Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I LOVE MELVIN 1953

In what must certainly be one of the oddest cases of inspiration I can think of, I was moved to revisit this pleasant, largely overlooked MGM musical after recently suffering though the film, Love and Other Drugs (2010), a fatuously formulaic romantic dramedy that crosses the creaky "ailing kook" scenario (think Sandy Dennis in Sweet November) with the overused yuppie-sleazeball-gets-redemption, clichĂ© (Rain Man). The re-teaming of Brokeback Mountain's Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway in this painful-to-sit-through morass (morass...hmm, now there's a word I don't use every day. Unquestionably a Freudian suggestion brought about by the film's raison d'ĂȘtre: to get Gyllenhaal to show more of his ass), got me to thinking about the days when this was a common practice in Hollywood (re-teaming co-stars that is, not showing more ass).

Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds were twin, cute-as-a-button, bundles of energy in 1952's Singin' in the Rain; but, as the 19 year-old Reynolds was the love interest of 39 year-old Gene Kelly, (O’Connor was 26), the pair shared few scenes together. To cash in on that film's success, MGM swiftly re-teamed the more age-appropriate duo in this feather-light, low-budget feature that, while ultimately failing to launch the two as the next Judy Garland / Mickey Rooney, proved itself to be one of the more light-heartedly entertaining entries in MGM's late-era roster of musicals.
Debbie Reynolds as Judy LeRoy, nee Schneider
Donald O'Connor as Melvin Hoover
Una Merkel as Mom Schneider
Allyn Joslyn as Frank Schneider
Richard Anderson as Harry Flack
Being the story of a photographer’s assistant who tries to win his girl by promising to get her picture on the cover of Look magazine (that’s the entire plot, folks!), I Love Melvin is about as insubstantial as they come. But in sidestepping the excesses and pretensions of some of the more elephantine musicals of the day (An American in Paris, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The King & I, South Pacific, etc.), I Love Melvin distinguishes itself by way of its simplicity. The charm rests squarely on the appeal and chemistry of its two stars, and its wisp of a plot never gets in the way of their considerable talents.

A night out at the movies result in Judy's affections being torn- almost literally -between Melvin and her little sister, Clarabelle (Noreen Corcoran).

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
When I was growing up, Friday nights were a big deal around our house because my parents let me stay up late and watch TV. Before the age of cable and the infomercial, late-night television programming was an oasis of old movies. The Late show; The Late, Late Show; and The Early Show offered a virtual Master’s Class in film history. All manner of obscure and noted films of every stripe were unspooled (along with countless commercials for the local auto dealership) exposing me to a library of before-I-was-born movie gems, many of which rank among my favorites to this day.

I first saw I Love Melvin (even its title pokes fun at its modest ambitions) when I was 13 years-old, sullenly holed up in my room in a typical adolescent funk over something or other. I had never even heard of the film when I settled down to watch  it, and what I most vividly recall is how quickly and thoroughly the bouncy cheeriness of this unassuming little musical overcame my pre-teen gloom and fixed me in rapt attention to the dazzling singing and dancing on display. On reflection, it's clear that I responded strongly to the way Debbie Reynolds character was depicted as a moony, dreamer type. Her penchant for losing herself in comically overblown, Walter Mitty-esque fantasies echoed my own experience.
In one of Judy's many fantasies, she envisions herself dancing with a trio of Gene Kellys and a trio of  Fred Astaires
Since the daydreams and fantasies of a shy, introverted kid eventually led to a fulfilling life as a professional dancer on stage, film, and TV—that’s MY story— I’ve always held a spot in my heart for movies that encourage young people to believe in and work towards their dreams (Xanadu: “Our dreams don’t die. We kill them!”; The Rocky Horror Picture Show: “Don’t dream it, BE it!”; and of course, Nine, and the song that gives this blog its name).  


PERFORMANCES
I’ve always liked Debbie Reynolds, but I can't say I've always been strong enough to sit through some of her movies. She was the screen's first and best Tammy (Tammy and the Bachelor [1957]), but I wouldn't wish Goodbye, Charlie (1964) or How Sweet It Is! (1968) on my worst enemy. Yet, even in these less-than-pleasing outings, Reynolds' great gift was that she exuded a genuine likability and tomboy toughness that added a much-needed spark to her weaker films. In I Love Melvin she is in fine form, handling the comedy and musical numbers with graceful assuredness.
Debbie Reynolds was always a better actress than she was given credit for. She played frighteningly against type in What's The Matter With Helen? (1971) and really should have won the Oscar for her standout performance in Mother (1996).
The rubber-limbed Donald O’Connor is the kind of extraordinarily athletic dancer that I never tire of watching. Like Gene Kelly (a personal fave), Donald O’Connor always looked like he was having the time of his life when dancing. In I Love Melvin, O'Connor's boyish appeal so perfectly suits Reynolds' wholesome charm that the only reason I can think of for why this film didn't click with audiences is because, as written, the romance only STARTS when the movie ends. Up until that point it's all pursuit; there are surprisingly few scenes of the couple just getting along. By way of contrast, the pairing the almost asexual boyishness of O'Connor with the smoldering, sex-on-the-hoof Marilyn Monroe in 1953's There's No Business Like Show Business was so odd that it bordered on the perverse.

In I Love Melvin, O'Connor shines in several showpiece dance numbers. Here he adopts Gene Kelly's Singin' in the Rain lamppost pose.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I know it's just my personal taste, but the '50s were my least favorite decade for musicals. Not only did the need to compete with the burgeoning threat of television result in a glut of visually garish, needlessly grandiose behemoths, but the choreography at the time was of the squatty, inelegant style showcased in the "Get Happy" number from Summer Stock (1950) and later parodied in the "Thanks a Lot, But No Thanks" number from It's Always Fair Weather (1955). I think a lot of people who say they don't like movie musicals got that way after watching a '50's musical.

I Love Melvin is the exception that proves the rule, if only because it contains one of my top, top favorite musical numbers...one that ranks with the classic clips of Astaire, Busby Berkeley, Bob Fosse, and Eleanor Powell. It's the dance duet, "Where Did You Learn To Dance?" performed with personality plus by Reynolds and O'Connor.  Exemplifying all that is right with the film, it's a number shot on a simple set with no pyrotechnic choreography, yet achieves moments of tiny greatness in merely letting the energy, talent, and charm of the two carry the sequence. It's one of those disarmingly "simple" numbers that you know was hell to get to look so flawlessly effortless.
 It makes me feel like a kid just watching these two underrated talents burn up the screen. As far as I'm concerned, it is THE best number in the film.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
It's to I Love Melvin's credit that, whether intended or not, so many of the scenes involving Reynolds and her onscreen family recall the eccentrically homey touches Vincente Minnelli brought to Meet Me in St. Louis. Reynolds's character lives with her parents and younger sister in a small New York apartment (there are some great location scenes, especially of Central Park) and their interplay is nicely modulated with moments of character comedy that is farcical, but never overplayed. By way of conflict, Reynolds is given an unsuitable suitor - the handsome Richard Anderson - in what was once referred to as "The Ralph Bellamy role" (later known as "The Dennis Miller role").  As is often the case when the heroine is given a rival who's fated to be dumped for the hero by the final reel, I Love Melvin jumps through hoops trying not to depict Reynolds' dismissive treatment of Anderson as unkind, but it never truly succeeds.
Cruel to be kind?
Hollywood musicals like to show love as a fated destiny, but they habitually ignore the collateral damage
I've become something of a broken record of late as I bemoan, in post after post, how I feel contemporary movie musical talents fail to measure up to even the most workaday talents of the past. I don't suspect my opinion will be changing any time soon. Not when I Love Melvin; a sprightly film of hummable tunes, clever dances, and captivating performances, can be considered so commonplace in its day as to be overlooked, yet there's not a director, choreographer, composer, or performer today capable of coming within a hair of its modest brilliance.
In a whimsical take on the college musical, Debbie Reynolds stars in the "Football Ballet" as (what else?) the football.
AUTOGRAPH FILES:
Reynolds autographed this photo following a performance of her one-woman show,  "Alive & Fabulous" in 2010
Copyright © Ken Anderson

15 comments:

  1. i haven't seen this one! i haven't even heard of it, so i'll be adding it to my list. like you, i adore watching o'connor dance. he is not the most fluid, but the joy he emits is contagious! in fact, whenever i'm really blue i find 'moses supposes' on youtube and have a few dozen watches until i feel better. i will concentrate on kelly, then next time on o'connor and so on, back and forth with each view and melt each and every time (as a former dancer i'm always thrilled to watch that tempo change - soooooooo cool)!

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  2. Hi Kathrynnova
    A former dancer! Wow! You're becoming cooler with every post!
    I agree that O'Connor is not a great technique dancer. I think that's whay he never looked quite right in romantic numbers. But as a bundle of energy and an embodiment of how much fun dancing can be, he's right at the top. Funny you should mention the "Moses Supposes" number from "Singin' in the Rain." Although I think the number is fantastic, a friend was recently telling me that each time he watches the film, that's the ONE number he fast forwards through. I don't think he's a very cheerful guy, my friend.

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  3. I'm a professional dancer and choreographer in New York. Donald O'Connor's technique, especially in tap, is superior to Kelly's. He was not ballet-trained per se but he had a natural jump and he could turn well enough to hold his own. In many ways, his dancing is closer in complexity and nuance to Astaire's. Kelly knew his limitations and worked brilliantly within them. O'Connor had to be more versatile.

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  4. Thanks very much for reading my post and leaving a comment. Nice to hear from another dancer. I've been a professional dancer and choreographer here in Los Angeles for over 25 years, and while I agree that O'Connor is a skilled tap dancer, I have to stand by what I say about his not being a technique dancer. Inarguably talented and versatile, to me he's more of a character dancer like Ray Bolger.

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  5. Hi Ken,

    I got a kick out of the stream of consciousness that led you from that Jake Gyllenhaal movie, which I agree is wretched though his willingness to show off his fine tush softened the agony a bit, to this bubbly confection. Funny how seemingly unrelated films can put others in mind.

    I noticed this when I was strolling through your archive a couple months ago and though I had seen it at that time it had been years so I decided not to read your critique until I had a chance to give it a re-watch. I was finally able to do that today since TCM ran it this week.

    Minor for sure the film is still a treat in its earnest desire to please and as you said the exuberance of Debbie and Donald. As well as two character actors I'm always happy to see show up in any film, Allyn Joslyn and the marvelous Una Merkel. They actually were so well matched I could have watched a whole movie with them as the main characters. Neither is as well remembered as they should be these days but both added immeasurably to dozens of films in their careers.

    Fifties musicals are an odd breed. For some reason the innovation that was common in the 30's & 40's seemed to dissipate into a competent but staid reliability and predictability in the 50's for the most part with garish colors and clunky sets trying to fill the Cinemascope screens. Sometimes because of the talent involved, Marilyn Monroe & Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Doris Day in most of her films, or the source matter was solid, Oklahoma!, Carousel, Kiss Me Kate, Show Boat or The King and I and tended to attract the top talent those deficits didn't matter much but they were the exceptions rather than the rule. Still by and large I enjoy most 50's musicals, with the exception of An American in Paris which I find tortuous, it's the majority of 60's musicals that I find ponderous and overblown. I'd still rather watch any musical from those periods though then most attempts at the genre turned out today. I am curious about Into the Woods but only because I loved the stage show, the preview I've seen doesn't fill me with a great deal of hope unfortunately.

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    1. Hi Joel
      I'm with you in finding Una Merkel and Allyn Joslyn thoroughly delightful as Debbie's parents. They've enlivened and lent solid support to so many films.
      The older I get, the more "quaint" 50s musicals seem to become, and I don't mind them nearly as much as I used to. It's either that or I've become so used to the luxury of fast-forwarding through the leaden non-musical scenes of so many of the films you cited, they just appear to be better.
      I approach modern musicals with trepidation and what I suspect is lowered expectations. I love anticipating a movie musical, but these days that anticipation is less a desire to be blown away than for the film to not entirely suck.

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  6. Back to I Love Melvin. I've always loved Debbie Reynolds, a performer who could truly be said to have personality plus but who rarely comes across as overbearing. She's a sprightly delight here, although she does treat Richard Anderson rather shabbily but he's rather a dolt to not take the hint of her obvious indifference. I also think she's a much better actress than she was ever given credit for, she was wonderful in The Catered Affair, The Rat Race, Mother of course and many others. Part of the problem is that she was too good at her main game, musical comedy, that it was difficult for her to be seen in a more dramatic light. Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin faced the same dilemma.

    I'm less fond of Donald O'Connor. He is talented and exuberant but his effervescence often tips over into boorishness for me, I also just could never see him as a romantic leading man. That's why he was perfect in Singin' in the Rain but less so when called on to carry a film. You're so right about the incongruity of his match up with Marilyn in Show Business, a big splashy 50's musical I adore, not that physical opposites don't attract-her private choice of husbands shows that clearly-but there has to be some chemistry there and the sensual MM has zero with the churlish pipsqueak that O'Connor plays. I don't think it's all necessarily physical either Marilyn co-starred with David Wayne, hardly a hunk of masculinity, in How to Marry a Millionaire and We're Not Married and they paired quite charmingly. As Melvin he's an eager beaver and he and Debbie perform well together but they seem more like buddies than lovebirds.

    The musical numbers except the one you pointed out are an uninventive bunch, the football number is cute if dumb, but are pleasant enough. However in the film makers desire to show off the Technicolor photography some of the costumes are done in such eye searing colors as to induce a strain on the poor viewers peepers. The Spanish number in particular is a pepto bismol nightmare!

    As always a delightful synopsis of an old gem, in this case a slightly tarnished one but still one worth checking out.

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    1. I agree with you about Reynolds. She is a better actress than given credit for. And indeed I find her to have a "harder" persona than her name and kewpie-doll looks relay.
      She's so often better than her material.
      O'Connor is likable when given an awkward or self-effacing character, but when given a cocky or confident character, I think I see what you mean when you say he can tip over into boorishness.
      I had to laugh at your citing the garish use of color in this film. So true! A real problem with some of these 50s era MGM films.

      i'm glad you got around to re-watching this slight little film and thought to come back here and relay your findings. Always such sharp observations across a broad spectrum of topics! Much appreciated, Joel!

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  7. Hi Ken,

    Well I’ve come back to this little number again. Positively reeling from the recent spate of amazing performers leaving the stage, and after a quiet few weeks it’s picked up with unabated speed in the new year with Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara Hale, John Hurt, Emmanuelle Riva and Mike Connors being snatched up within the last three days!!! I sought refuge in TCM’s day long tribute to in my view the greatest of all the recent losses, Debbie Reynolds.

    That is in no way intended as a swipe at anyone else who passed, we lost an enormous amount of gifted people last year but Debbie is the one I grew up with. Even though by the time I came to awareness of her the major portion of her film career was over it never seemed that way with the near constant availability of her films as you said on the late shows and her ubiquity on the talk show circuit, youthful and vibrant and probably on the 30ish side of 40. So as we aged together and she kept right in there plugging through good times and tough ones remaining in the public eye through her own endeavor as well as all the attendant Carrie Fisher connection she became a steady joyful and fun presence. Someone it was a pleasure to spend time with and who seemed like a person it would be fun to actually know.

    I didn’t watch everything shown, the main reason being Debbie is one of the stars who I’ve managed to see their full filmography, but I did revisit her more obscure titles…and How the West Was Won-a personal favorite. Along with Hit the Deck-a film which came to mind when I was rereading your piece on this film with its big often nonsensical and clunky numbers, though the finale is massive and impressive-I took another look at this. It is cute and amiable as before but my main takeaway this time with the through line of Debbie’s other films to judge by was that it became apparent why she was able to sustain her film career longer than her costars in those two films, Russ Tamblyn in the first and Donald O’Connor in Melvin.

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  8. Despite her button cuteness even at this junction there’s a knowing maturity lurking underneath whereas the other two are all puppy dog eagerness. Just like another one of her early costars, Bobby Van, the boy/men are loaded with musical talents but their earnestness never translated and grew into a maturity where they could pair well with a variety of leading ladies. While retaining that freshness Debbie did and as I watched several of her later films it struck me how well she interacted with actors that on paper sound like an odd couple match. Where I noticed it the most was in How the West Was Won where her love interest is Gregory Peck. Not only were they mismatched in stature with the well over six foot Peck towering over petite Debbie, though that was well handled in them rarely being filmed side to side, what they projected to the camera just seemed so contradictory. Debbie’s infectious ebullience versus Gregory’s staid earnestness. But it works because her wise slyness mixes with his often hidden rascally side resulting in a surprisingly simpatico partnership. There’s an undercurrent of carnal attraction to their scenes that comes through to the audience.

    Compare that to O’Connor, not with the head scratching paring with Marilyn-that’s just beyond the pale-she would have eaten him for breakfast, but even with others who were not as overtly sexual like Ann Blyth or Vera-Ellen. His ardency comes across as a love-struck buddy with no romantic vibe, so it’s not surprising that he quickly moved to support and then out of films to clubs and stage which were a much better showcase for his particular magic.

    It also points up the lost opportunities that were missed when her film career stalled. True she may not have made sense in the New Cinema of Klute or Five Easy Pieces but I think given the chance to work in material similar to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?-I can easily envision her What’s the Matter with Helen? character competing in that marathon but with a heavy tinge of the delusional Alice-or as The Catered Affair showed something heavy along the lines of the kitchen sink drama of I Never Sang for My Father. It wasn’t to be but she did leave much glorious film work to revisit and appreciate.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Thank you for sharing your personal memories and impressions of Debbie Reynolds and her career. Your assessment of her onscreen appeal and offscreen persona illuminates why she was one of those stars people felt like they grew up with.
      I liked especially your take on her chemistry with her co-stars, and speculating about how she might have fared in more serious/naturalistic films come the late 60s and 70s.
      I think of how Ingmar Bergman spoke of how he had to work hard to break Ingrid Bergman of her "dated" style of studio-system acting to get such a genuine performance out of her in "Autumn Sonata." I too think that a good director (perhaps a Mike Nichols) and Reynolds' hard-work ethic, could have been a fascinating collaboration. I'm forever amazed when I'm reminded that Ellen Burstyn & Reynolds were born the same year. Such amazingly different careers and styles of acting.
      Happily, like you, I too think she has left a legacy of wonderful film work that I'm certain will grow in esteem as time goes by. Thanks so much, Joel!

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    2. Oh Ken you got me thinking with you observation about Debbie and Ellen Burstyn being born the same year and the trajectory of other actresses who shared either similar nearness in age or qualities.

      First of all, and you probably already are aware of this, Debbie and Ellen worked together in a film that I can see you clearly abhor, Goodbye, Charlie. Now I can’t say that it’s anywhere near a favorite of mine either though I don’t despise it as much as you and while this has nothing to do with the quality of the picture I think it’s one of the films where Debbie looks her absolute best. Anyway Ellen wrote about her time on the film in her autobiography and she mentions that she was running lines with Debbie during a setup and prompting her from Debbie’s script and saw the notations that she had written there about facial expressions to use or attitudes to strike. Ellen was dismissive of the technique feeling it immediately limited the performance, I guess it would be the studio system style you mentioned but to me it just seemed like another approach to the work. However it served as a galvanizing moment for Burstyn causing her to return to classes and a deeper immersion in the Method. So I guess that’s it’s no surprise that they are so dissimilar, though both memorable in their way.

      Spurred on by the idea of their shared birth year I did some digging and discovered several performers who would be considered members of the New Cinema or who bridged the gap between but moved into that group who were born in close proximity to Debbie with several actually being older but who seem of a different more recent period, Anne Bancroft-‘31, Gena Rowlands-‘30, Joanne Woodward-‘30, Eileen Brennan-’32, Diane Cilento-’33 and Piper Laurie-‘32. There were several men as well, Donald Sutherland-‘35, Robert Duvall-‘31, Gene Hackman-‘30 and Peter O’Toole-‘32 but that of course is a different vibe to begin with. I think that it’s a case of talent and the suitability of that talent maturing at different rates.

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    3. Debbie started so young and her effervescence suited the Golden Age musical period whereas particularly in the case of the other women their power came from a more seasoned shrewdness. Perhaps Anne Bancroft’s two Hollywood periods are the best illustration of what I’m trying to say. In her 50’s film she’s watchable but still a bit unformed and raw rarely leaving the lingering impression she did in her return to cinema in the 60’s and moving forward where she was a FORCE. But Debbie was Debbie from day one in The Daughters of Rosie O’Grady but even though she acquired a sexy knowingness there was never a world-weariness that seemed indigenous to those other woman and which was a staple of post 60’s cinema.

      Speaking of world weariness I always thought it would have been fascinating to see one Golden Age actress whose stock in trade was that very quality, Ava Gardner cast alongside Anne Bancroft as sisters. They were a little less than a decade apart in age but oddly alike. Of all the actresses proposed for Mrs. Robinson it is easiest to envision Gardner in Bancroft’s place because of that very similarity. Of course by the time Anne rose to prominence Ava had pretty much scuttled her career through both indifference and booze but to have seen them in something along the lines of an American version of Cries & Whispers or a newer version of Toys in the Attic I think would have made for a fascinating film.

      By the way the idea of Debbie being guided by Nichols or John Frankenheimer or John Schlesinger is very intriguing and could have been a noteworthy collaboration.

      Sorry to babble on so but you know I’m crazy for this kind of thing!

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    4. Hi Joel
      That's a great bit from that Ellen Burstyn memoir to bring up (I read it, but clearly retained very little!). It does present a clear illustration of just a difference in each actress's approach to their craft.
      I do agree that Debbie Reynolds looks good in "Goodbye Charlie"- and a good deal of my dislike of that film is centered on Tony Curtis. He's just always been one of those actors who rubs me the wrong way.
      The actresses you listed who are all of a similar is quite eye-opening in that I wouldn't automatically group them as peers in my mind.
      The one thing that does feel obvious and sets Reynolds apart is precisely what you note about her being something of a solid screen presence from the get-go. Really a wonderful series of observations you make. Especially the association you have with Ava Gardner and Anne Bancroft. It's nice to imagine how they would have been together.
      On a similar/dissimilar note, casting-wise, I always harbored a fantasy that Barbra Streisand would drop her onscreen attraction to Nick Nolte/Robert Redford types and be cast ins ome brother-sister/husband-wife role opposite the late David Brenner. I always thought they'd be hilarious together.
      Thanks, Joel. I always get ideas for posts I'd like to write when I read your comments.

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