[By Mars Five- Originally published 9/4/2016]
Let’s set some parameters.
Netflix is a glorious invention and has more good movies available than I could watch in a lifetime. But as Blaise Pascal once remarked, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a darkened room in front of a flickering screen and appreciate what they have.” I can’t help wondering what I might be missing. Therefore—despite not having seen Persona or Tokyo Story—I’ve perversely decided to check out what lies beyond the red envelope.
My fantasy was to find neglected masterpieces but so far most of what I’ve seen are generally competent, intermittently compelling movies. Still, you never know, so I’ll keep trying. In fact, I just ordered a dozen. Most of them are available as bare-bones, manufactured-on-demand discs from Amazon. (They’re also available from Amazon Streaming, but that’s not practical for me.) Since these are—almost by definition—movies that are less familiar, I thought it would be worthwhile to write up my thoughts on them. Actually, that’s a little disingenuous. Since these movies are less familiar, less popular, and less clickable, no commercial site will ever want to publish my thoughts on them. But maybe, just maybe, if I run across something interesting and can get a few film geeks on The Avocado excited about it, we can push it back into the conversation. It’s worth a try. My plan is to do one of these a month.
First up: Springtime In The Rockies(1942)
This is a Betty Grable musical from Fox. There’s a nod to the times in the first scene: street noise is heard but the screen is completely dark because New York City is under a war-time black-out. That’s the only explicit reference to the war. Now off to a magical, wonderful music land!
Backstage at a Broadway show, Dan Christy (John Payne) tells his partner Vicky Lane (Betty Grable) that he’s late because he was picking out an engagement ring. The perfumed, lipstick-smeared hanky in his pocket argues otherwise, so she dumps him, breaking up their act. She soon gets a gig at Chateau Lake Louise, Alberta. Though it’s not obvious now, this is implicitly a war reference. No offense to the inhabitants of the Great White North, but when I think of romantic musicals, I’m imagining Rio, Paris, maybe Venice—not Lake Louise even if it is “the jewel of the Canadian Rockies.” But it’s wartime and sacrifices must be made. As is traditional, the few exterior shots were picked up by a second unit, everything else being shot back in Hollywood.
The first two-thirds of the movie are very nice. Dan Christy learns that his agent (Jackie Gleason) has lined up backers for a show—but only if it includes Vicky. So off to the Rockies by the next plane he goes. There’s an impressive supporting cast. Vicky’s maid, Phoebe, is played by Charlotte Greenwood, and we also see Cesar Romero (Vicky’s new fiancé), Carmen Miranda (John’s secretary, hired when he was drunk), Edward Everett Horton (John’s valet, ditto). Almost everyone gets at least one good scene and some snappy dialogue, so the movie is watchable just on that basis.
The musical numbers are solid. Big Band leader Harry Palmer plays himself, and Helen Forrest has a song, though she seems strangely disconnected from the movie—she does her thing and vanishes, never interacting with the rest of the cast. I’m actually not completely sold on Carmen Miranda, and the movie itself doesn’t seem quite comfortable with her. There’s an odd “Good Neighbor Policy” reference that’s intended as a joke but falls flat. Her fractured English is entertaining, but is already becoming shtick. But credit where credit is due: that Portuguese-language version of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” is damn entertaining, and her manic energy adds a spirit of anarchy to the movie, always a good thing for a comedy. Here’s another song—I thought it had a better quality YouTube video—called “Tic Tac do meu coração”:
The last third, unfortunately, isn’t as good. Dan is trying to trick Vicky into breaking her engagement, marrying him, and—he neglects to mention—saving his butt by agreeing to join his new show. This is rom-com creepy. It doesn’t help that of Grable’s numbers with the rivals, a dance with her fiancé (Romero) is the most effective. The hijinks drag. I did enjoy the following exchange, however:
The fiancé is coming to Vicky’s room, so she unsuccessfully tries to get Dan to leave through the window. “Why didn’t you leave by the fire escape as I asked you to?” “Look: no fire escape.” “Well, a gentleman would have jumped!”
This scene also has problems with the colors. Most of the movie is in bright Technicolor—too bright in the case of one Mountie’s eye-gouging red coat—but the scene in Vicky’s hotel room has a low, romantic lighting that ends up looking very muddy. (This is manufactured-on-demand, remember, so there’s generally no restoration work.)
But in the end all problems are overcome—Dan realizes he really loves and wants to marry Vicky, quick thinking by Carmen Miranda patches up the lovers’ final quarrel, financing is procured for the new show, and everybody comes together for a huge Broadway finale, “Pan Americana Jubilee.” Overall, I liked the 1940 musical Down Argentine Way—which is available on Netflix—better. It had almost the same cast—Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, and Charlotte Greenwood—better numbers, and didn’t drag in the final third. I also preferred Don Ameche to John Payne as the male lead.
I considered padding out this review with a little Hollywood background. Maybe something about Betty Grable herself, who’s not that familiar anymore? (Quick show of hands: how many have actually seen one of her movies? Huh, that’s more than I expected…) But really, there’s not much to say. She considered herself a light entertainer and turned down opportunities to star in more “serious” roles. Her filmography is a long list of respectable-looking non-classics: the proto-noir I Wake Up Screaming (“a film that paved the way for later, better movies”); the Gershwin musical The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (George Gershwin had actually died ten years earlier and the score was assembled from unpublished music); the final Ernst Lubisch movie That Lady In Ermine (Lubitsch died eight days into the shoot); the Preston Sturges “romantic comedy Western” The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend (“generally conceded to be a disaster”). Only one of these is currently available on Netflix and I haven’t seen any of them. They—and a large number of her other musicals—are usually available as manufactured-on-demand discs if you’re interested.
In conclusion: Betty Grable had a good run in the forties and fifties, and then she faded away.
But there is one other thing worth mentioning about Springtime in the Rockies. Let’s go back to the opening, where the screen is dark because New York City is under a war-time black-out. You might be asking why American cities were blacked out when no German bombers could cross the Atlantic. The answer was the submarine threat: ships made easy targets when outlined against city lights. My father was child in Marblehead, Massachusetts at that time, and he remembered seeing burning, sinking ships off the coast almost every night for the first few weeks of the war. In the morning, wreckage and the occasional body washed ashore.
Well, that turned dark. Still, I have a point to make. Musicals have the reputation of being sweet, light, and airy—the meringues of cinema—and are dismissed as mere escapism. But Springtime opened on November 6, 1942—in the middle of the battles of Stalingrad, Guadalcanal, and el-Alamein. How much reality are audiences supposed to endure? If there was ever a time and a place to defend frothy entertainment then I’d say—in an astonishingly inappropriate turn of phrase—that this is the right hill to die on. This movie is shallow, artificial, and the plot is not of the strongest. If I were in a bad mood I might even call this movie stupid. But when it came out it was perfect and beautiful and took people away from their troubles and that was all that mattered.
Obviously, I’m over-interpreting. I don’t think the movie’s creators actually intended to make a statement about escapism. The nod at relevance—the black-out—was just a technique to transition the audience from the world outside to the world of Hollywood. Still, that little acid hint at a world outside now gives the movie a slightly more complex flavor. I watched it twice to write this review and I’ve grown fond of it. If I wanted to use categories like Deservedly Obscure, Pleasant Enough, and Call Criterion!—this would rate a “Pleasant Enough.”
Note: All of Springtime In The Rockies is available as Minha Secretária Brasileira on YouTube—either dubbed or subtitled—because lusophones know who the real star was.