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 of the almost asexual 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 that'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 2011

8 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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