Tuesday, February 17, 2015

50's WESTERNS PART 2: Whip Crack Away, Doris Day

                Like westerns, musicals  flourished in the early 50’s. Quality and quantity-wise this was the genre’s golden last hurrah.  Sure, the 60’s had its maxi-budget “special event” musicals, with road-show prices and  (usually)  Broadway pedigrees ;  plus the potential (all too frequently realized) -  for catastrophic losses. But in the early 50’s you could expect a new musical every couple of weeks. Certainly, some were sub-par  but the assembly line was humming and - let’s face it - assembly lines aren’t always bad things.  The sheer scale and depth of studio-sharpened talent involved usually meant that most of these pictures had something to remember fondly – a song, a dance, an inspired performer. A number of these early 50’s musicals were also - technically - westerns. So I’m including them in this particular conversation. As far as rip-snorting action, knock-down fights and general all-purpose mayhem go, the western musical never really tried to compete with its songless counterparts.  But the best of them tended to get their momentum from sharp scripts (which capitalized on the west’s built-in aura of adventure), top talent (onscreen and off), the  invigorating , panoramic punch of outdoor atmosphere and  - of course - good songs staged and presented with flair. And for anyone fond of both genres (like me, for example), an inspired , exhilarating convergence of the western and the musical is hard to beat.
                “Annie Get Your Gun”(1950), Irving Berlin’s Annie Oakley musical, was one of that year’s  biggest box-office successes. And though I used to wish that Judy Canova, Betty Garrett or Dale Evans had gotten a crack at the lead (they were all eyeing it) , I’ve gradually made my peace with MGM’s eventual  choice of Betty Hutton. The studio had, of course, started it with Judy Garland and -on paper- she’d seem to be an unbeatable choice.  But her fragile emotional state at the time has been rigorously documented.  In the extensive Garland /Annie footage  that’s been  preserved , she certainly seems tired, depressed and disoriented . What’s more, for all her talent, Judy has no affinity for the backwoods dialect. As a teen (in ‘36) ,she’d been saddled  with a yokel part (“Pigskin Parade”) and showed zero flair for it. Fifteen years later, things hadn’t really improved.  Hutton commits totally (when didn’t she?) but for once, reins in enough of her trademark over- exuberance to make Annie likeably human; she also lands the accent. Of course, the songs are great and leading man Howard Keel - virile, dashing and funny, too - proved to be one of Metro’s last great musical discoveries. The screenplay’s ragged, though. Everything, including the ending, seems a little rushed. And a beautifully conceived number “Let’s Go West Again” (performed on shipboard by the cast of a wild west show heading home from Europe) was left on the cutting room floor. Luckily, it survives as a bonus on the DVD.  The sequence begs to be re-instated.  Script-wise, the supposedly comic handling of the Indians in the film lands with an ugly thud. In the end, though, the film`s pluses manage to outweigh the minuses.   Still, I’d never count it as a personal favorite.
                Another near-miss for me was “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”(1954), even more of a money-spinner for MGM than “Annie”.  But I can never get past the deadly sound-stage backdrops  used  all  too frequently  (but not consistently) in a story that screams  for a great outdoors production ( the film’s set in frontier Oregon). Also there’s the pro-abduction as a valid form of courtship scenario. True, the script makes some attempt to mitigate that message, but it’s too little, too late. If you want someone to love you, kidnap them. It'll all work out fine in the end. That still comes across as the lesson here- and no matter how hard I try to ignore it, that concept just  sticks in my craw. The musical score, on the other hand (and it’s an original one), is terrific .  With the world poised on the edge of rock ‘n’ roll, none of the songs were hits. But several should have been and  they’re all pretty terrific.  The dancing, of course, remains the film’s most celebrated feature  and it’s definitely impressive (although I still would have liked to see it performed outdoors). But the dances are praised to the extent  that the lovely lead performances from Jane Powell and Howard Keel (probably movie career-bests  from both ) tend to be given short shrift.  Possibly because  neither  figures much in the dance sequences.  I remember from my childhood how the liner notes of the original soundtrack LP described Powell as “golden-voiced”. I’ve yet to hear a more perfect description of her unique sound. To me, she and Keel are the film’s biggest assets.  Great personalities, marvelous  singers, fine actors, and terrific looking to boot. But though I love the two stars and the score, the negatives mentioned keep it from my favorites list.
                Roy Rogers’ Republic westerns, most of them sufficiently stocked with songs to rate as musicals,  were Saturday matinee staples in the 40’s. By 1950 the series was winding down (soon after, Rogers moseyed over to TV  - and continued success),  but the last few Republics  included some charmers; especially “Twilight in the Sierras” and  “Trail of Robin Hood”, one of which co-starred Dale Evans ( with shorter hair than she'd sported in the 40's, but still a no-nonsense embodiment of the sublime) and both of which boasted Trucolor plus the cozy ,welcoming vibe most  Rogers westerns radiated. Republic also put singing comedienne Judy Canova back on the payroll (she’d been one of their box office stalwarts in the early 40’s). From ’51 to ’56 she turned out a string of bucolic comedies for them, the first couple of which rated color. In the initial outing the studio suddenly promoted her as “Queen of the Cowgirls”. A  miffed  response to "Queen of the West"  Dale Evans’ defection?  The film, “Honeychile” , wasn’t quite a western - but the next, “Oklahoma Annie” definitely got closer to the target, with Judy as a small-town sheriff battling badmen while (prat)falling  for rugged good guy John Russell. The songs were pleasant, a couple even presented with a certain inventiveness (not always a Republic hallmark). The picture opens with “Blow the Whistle”, Judy delivering her yodelly vocal while demonstrating an electric train set.  And  later - for the lilting “Never, Never, Never”  -a quadruple-tracked Canova  serenades  multiple mirror reflections of herself. Perhaps this “Annie” was the actress’ consolation prize for not getting “Annie Get Your Gun”.


 It’s minor but  Canova’s a pro, with a natural, openhearted likeabilty that counts for a lot. Still, the Republics were essentially meant for Saturday matinee consumption. Large-scale production values and box-office ambitions were the province of the major studios.
               Those big studios spent big money. But that didn’t always guarantee quality. The wild box-office success of Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel in MGM’s “Show Boat”(1951) coupled with the meteoric rise  of Mario Lanza, especially in “The Great Caruso” that same year, led to a brief renaissance  of screen operetta  in the early 50’s. “The Merry Widow” was dusted off in ‘52. And even saddled with an (inevitably dubbed)Lana Turner  (oh, why couldn’t Arlene Dahl have done this? She’d have dazzled opposite soon-to-be  husband Fernando Lamas) the production still worked pretty well.  Few of the others did.  Certainly not ‘54’s operetta western “Rose Marie”. The singing was fine; the three stars (Ann Blyth, Fernando Lamas and Howard Keel) were all capable enough. But this one suffered as much as “Seven Brides” from MGM’s crummy insistence on mixing genuine outdoor footage with lame sound-stage stuff. Just take a look at the “Totem Tom Tom” number in the 1936 MacDonald-Eddy version. Excitingly filmed and choreographed (outdoors on the shores of Lake Tahoe), it can still trigger tingles. The sad-sack indoor farrago we get in the ’54 edition is D.O.A. (supposedly staged by Busby Berkeley and  - if so -definitive proof that he’d lost his touch). The new script drains away all the fun of the earlier version ; there’s none of the romantic charge Jeanette and Nelson provided with their back and forth banter - and it’s sorely missed. Plus the ’54 “Rose Marie” weighs itself down with far too much Bert Lahr and Marjorie Main, mugging and caterwauling without ever raising a chuckle.
                 I saw Paramount’s  “Those Redheads from Seattle”(1953)  at more than one Saturday matinee when I was a kid. In a way, it was unique - a western musical in 3D (although I never saw it that way; theaters I went to don`t seem to have been equipped for 3D).  And the premise bristled with potential:  determined  red-head Agnes Moorehead and her similarly topped daughters , Rhonda Fleming and Teresa Brewer, head up to Yukon gold-rush territory to run a newspaper they’ve inherited. Rough-house and romance ensue.  But it all plays out as pretty flat sarsaparilla.  A real missed opportunity. Feeble  script, tepid songs, clichéd shenanigans.  Rhonda (a great singer) barely gets to vocalize at all.  In my mind’s eye, I sometimes see how nifty a “got it right” version might have been , with some spark in the writing, solid songs and better use of Ms Fleming . She made a lot of westerns (most of them superior to this one), but, unfortunately, hardly any musicals. Often hailed as the queen of Technicolor, she could have been queen of the western musical, too, had anyone put any real effort into exploiting the surprising range of her gifts.  
                “The Second Greatest Sex”(1955) was Universal’s  attempt to copy-cat “Seven Brides” and  - to its credit - actually established a more consistent outdoor feel than its predecessor. But that’s about all that can be said in its favor. The action`s lame; the songs are all weak sisters. It used one of MGM’s best dancers, Tommy Rall, but gave him little to work with. Keith Andes, a pretty fair singer wasn’t given much worth singing.  And (as always in her musicals) Jeanne Crain was dubbed. Also, by this time, the freshness that had fueled her appeal in the 40’s had morphed into a rather manufactured looking glamour.  And charisma-free leading man George Nader was no Howard Keel.  What “Seven Brides” got right, “Second Greatest Sex” got wrong and it disappeared from theaters in a flash.

                But there were some winners, too. The wildly experimental “Red Garters”, with its shockingly stylized sets, left audiences dumbfounded in ’54. In a brilliant departure from the norm , “Garters”  embraced a stage-bound look from start to finish and carried it off.  What might have proved claustrophobic  emerges, instead, as  cunning and  quirky. It didn't find many takers when it was new, but - seen today - the movie looks like a work of wonky genius.  Genuinely eccentric fun, performed with  zest  by a cast of talented B-listers.  A high-wire act that manages to spoof westerns and musicals with equal aplomb. Admittedly Rosemary Clooney was an A-lister in the music biz but she was just trying out her wings as a movie actress in the early 50’s.  If musicals had stayed in vogue, it would have been nice to prolong onscreen acquaintance with her.  In retrospect, on the strength of her ingratiating work in both “Red Garters” and the super-hit “White Christmas” plus her omnipresence on the hit parade, she owned ’54.
                I don’t know whether Doris Day  was considered for  “Annie Get Your Gun” in 1950. She’d certainly have been a perfect fit. But I’m kind of glad she got to do “Calamity Jane” instead.  It’s a much better movie. Not just the best western musical of them all,  it’s one of the best musicals, period. It’s the only one of Warner Brothers '50's tuners that actually stacks up to the best MGM had to offer. Day was a world-class musical-comedy talent, too often forced to elevate twaddle that was completely beneath her. How the same studio and many of the same collaborators got it all so right this one time I’ll never know. But they did. They definitely did. A spirited Doris Day, of course, is perfectly  cast ; if she’d never done another film (and she remained a top box office figure for a decade and a half after “Jane”) this one would have assured her screen immortality. There’s nothing she doesn’t get right. The tomboy irresistibility, the spunk, the stamina, the humour, the pathos, the action, the dancing and  - of course - (after all, we’re talking about Doris Day) the marvelous, marvelous singing. Right from the word go,this picture completely captures the full potential in the concept “ western musical”.  And  the pace never lets up. Perfect songs, perfect cast,  perfect bliss. I`ll try to convey something of the feel of the film`s  sensational opening. Under the Technicolored Warner Brothers logo, there`s a brief orchestral heart-swell  as the credits start to roll . An unseen male chorus calls out ”Calamity Jane!” as those words pop onto the screen. A stagecoach rushes by in the distance and the melody we`re hearing, ``The Deadwood Stage”, is taken up by off-camera whistlers, who repeatedly interrupt their whistling to sing the words “Whip Crack Away” , the only part of the lyric they give us. As the credits end, two riders watch the stage rattle past.We see them from the back. One male voice calls out  “The Deadwood Stage!” Another repeats it. Then the whole off-screen male chorus  erupts with the words “THE DEADWOOD STAGE!” It all builds beautifully. So that only something extraordinary could maintain this level of musical-comedy magic. Enter Doris Day as Calamity Jane, riding shotgun on top of the coach, next to lovably grizzled character actor Chubby Johnson. That megawatt smile, the affectionate poke she gives Chubby, the air of glowing health and positive energy she gives off  - they're all something to behold. Immediately engaging, likeability off the charts, she takes up the song and we finally get those lyrics that have been teasingly withheld.

  “Oh, the Dead Stage is a-rollin’ on over the plains,
     With the curtains flappin’ and the driver a-slappin’ the reins.
A Beautiful sky! A wonderful day!
  Whip Crack Away! Whip Crack Away! Whip Crack Away!”
Oh, the Deadwood Stage is a-headin’ on over the hills,
   Where the Injun arrows are thicker than porcupine quills.
Dangerous land! No time to delay -so
Whip Crack Away! Whip Crack Away! Whip Crack Away!”

There’s more to the song  – and it’s all great.  I don’t think I”ve ever seen a movie musical where every element of the opening number works so flawlessly.  And  -–of course -–Doris Day is the glowing center of it all. Completely at home in her western buckskin, effortlessly athletic as she clambers up, down and around the stagecoach, serenading passengers and audience. And the number gets bigger, as all of Deadwood springs into song to greet the stage when it pulls in. Doris packs in about ten lifetimes` worth  of show biz magnetism , cavorting on top of the coach, then dazzles some more, describing and distributing  the fancy goods the townsfolk have been waiting for. Finally, she barrels into the Golden Garter Saloon, prancing, leaping and generally transcending all known standards of musical comedy excellence. Putting over this wonderful, catchy number  (it`s as bouncy as a ride on the Deadwood Stage) -  so convincingly, so monumentally  that  - by the time it ends - audiences are in a state of happy capitulation. What else can I say? It’s life affirming. I ‘ll resist the urge to  describe the whole movie. Suffice to say, it and Doris fly high from beginning to end.  I will note one moment  - when Calamity lands in Chicagee to bring a real live singing star back to Deadwood. (Don’t they know they already have the world’s best?). Sussing out the town, she jostles a cigar store Indian ( complete with tomahawk) and thinks he’s real. She leaps into action:
    “Drop it, ya murderin’ copperhead!”
 Then, realizing it’s just a carved figure, says to the amused onlookers, `I`ll be hornswaggled!` Which she follows with the most irresistibly endearing sheepish look I’ve ever seen. There and gone in a second or two. But marvelous. I can`t think of any other actress who could have played this moment quite so perfectly.  Thank you, Doris Day.
                                “Oklahoma!” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s landmark stage musical was lovingly transferred to the screen in 1955 (they executive produced it themselves). A massive hit, it retains much of its charm some sixty years later. For most of its length it utilizes the outdoor western setting to grand effect. And the decision to mount the dream ballet on a sound-stage can be defended as a valid representation of a reality different to the one in which the story proper plays out. The score, of course, had set Broadway agog. And the orchestrations for the film are wonderful. It makes for one of the great soundtrack LP’s. I remember how excited I was when there was a copy of it under my Christmas tree in ’55, that surrey with the fringe on top set against a high-octane orange background. As noted, none of the 50’s western musicals  make any real attempt at equallng the bang-up action sequences from the non-musical ones. But if (like “Oklahoma!) they were well-paced and well-scripted that wasn’t really a problem. You got the joys of a western setting amplified by the soaring music and lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Fred Zinnemann (of “High Noon” had no experience as a director of musicals  but he acquitted himself nicely here. The casting was (mostly) terrific. You get the sense it was a happy film to make - and it remains a happy one to watch
                Now for a hobby-horse of mine. As the musical’s hey-day wound down, careers that would have flourished in the genre hit a brick wall. Studios simply didn’t bother exploiting exceptional newcomers with musical talent. When  musical superstars like Grayson, Powell, Keel and  Kelly found their movie careers suddenly collapsing around them, there was little hope for freshman talent  like Joanne Gilbert (a standout in “Red Garters”)  or Bobby Van , dancing whiz kid with a genial Donald O’Connor vibe. In a parched  movie-musical  landscape where O’Connor himself  couldn’t get parts, Van was stymied. Which  brings me to one of my pet examples of MGM not utilizing what they had. They signed Robert Horton in 1951. Startlingly handsome, he radiated a kind of quiet good-guy charisma ; he was also a natural actor with a fine speaking voice and  - as if all this weren’t enough – a terrific singer, too. Never once during his three years at Metro, Movie Musical Central, did they ever let him sing. He did get one chance at showing his western mettle as the star (though second-billed to Gilbert Roland) of a programmer  called “Apache War Smoke.” It’s a fine little film (a remake, actually, of the studio’s “Apache Trail”(1942) with William Lundigan, another actor Hollywood never did right by. And Horton’s excellent in it.  This should have been the springboard to genuine western movie stardom.  Didn’t happen.  He did find success singing on Broadway and eventual TV stardom on “Wagon Train”. But if Horton had been granted the kind of movie career he deserved, he’d be up there with the icons.
                Now, most fans of the movie “Oklahoma!” know that two versions of the film were made simultaneously. Same cast. Same personnel.  But one version used regular cameras, the other one,
Todd-AO,  a widescreen process that came and went rather quickly, but did score a resounding success with “Oklahoma!“ . Luckily for fans, both versions are available on the deluxe “Oklahoma” DVD. And it’s fascinating to watch the two. Each has camera angles and acting gestures and inflections worth preserving. And it seems such a privilege to be able to access both versions. If you love “Oklahoma!” it’s heaven to have a second one.  But I’m going to be greedy  - and completely unrealistic. I somehow wish they’d simultaneously made a third one.  Now, Gordon MacRae is a perfect Curly - and his chemistry with Shirley Jones is a joy. But in an ideal world, there’d  be an alternate version with Robert Horton as Curly. With his western prowess and vocal gifts, it’s a role he was made for. And let Jane Powell be his Laurie. True, she was already a veteran  when “Oklahoma!” was filming. But she was still only 25 and entering the peak of her formidable powers.  If ever there was a leading lady worthy of a Rodgers & Hammerstein score it was “golden-voiced” Powell.  “Seven Brides” had proved her affinity to western settings. Coming after that film, “Oklahoma!” would have given her two of the 50’s biggest  hits back-to-back. And we’d all have gotten to see her perform “Out of My Dreams” “Many a New Day” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” forever and ever.  Now my imaginary alternate “Oklahoma!” would retain most of the supporting cast of the real  “Oklahoma!”. Why mess with perfection?  Rod Steiger stays. Charlotte Greenwood, Jay C. Flippen.  Certainly the great Gene Nelson.  Even Barbara Lawrence is indispensable, if only for that exponentially insane “Gertie” laugh. But my version would have a different Ado Annie. I accepted Gloria Grahame back in the day. But, in retrospect, it’s odd casting and hasn’t aged that well. My “Oklahoma 3!” would have the best of all possible casting choices for the role - Shirley MacLaine.  She was brand new at the time  but she was on the Hollywood scene. ’55 was the year she debuted in  Hitchcock’s “The Trouble with Harry” and Martin & Lewis' “Artists and Models”. She’d been brought to Hollywood on the strength of her dancing, singing and droll clowning on Broadway in “The Pajama Game”. And we all know how those transcendent talents of hers blossomed on film. Oh, what an Annie she’d have made!  So let me have my fantasy. I’d never want to ditch the Gordon MacRae/Shirley Jones version. And I know that there’s no way on earth a third concurrent film version of “Oklahoma!” would have been commercially, logistically or even logically possible. But in my head, there can never be too many musicals. and certainly never too many western musicals. Maybe, if you`re reading this, you too can picture the Horton/Powell/MacLaine “Oklahoma!” and revel a little in the thought of it as something nice that might have been.

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