You know you’ve been watching too many MGM movies when the same musical battleship turns up twice.
First instance is as the grand finale of the less-grand I DOOD IT, a very early Vincente Minnelli movie or an archetypal Red Skelton vehicle, depending on how you want to look at it. It is pretty well impossible to contain both those aspects in your mind at the same time without spraining a lobe or two. And the film itself alternates between Skelton schtick, in a plot borrowed loosely from Buster Keaton’s SPITE MARRIAGE (a couple of set-piece routines are ported across in their entirety) and Minnelli ecstasies, with numbers constructed around Eleanor Powell or else guest stars like Lena Horne and Hazel Scott.
(The inclusion of black artists like LH and HS in pop-up numbers easily excised from movies in the South is on the one hand, faintly aromatic of chickenshit, and on the other, slightly more courageous than you would expect from MGM. They could have simply opted not to employ any black stars at all, like every other studio. An unrelated point is that ’40s musicals do suffer from an insane proliferation of completely gratuitous numbers which do not relate to the plot and often retard the development of any narrative to a quite damaging degree. If it’s Lena Horne, one doesn’t mind, but novelty organists and big bands are less acceptable. One thinks of THE GANG’S ALL HERE being the ne plus ultra of this kind of thing, but the tendency was widespread.)
Poor Eleanor Powell is situated right at the fault-line between the Skelton slapstick and the Minnelli musical. She’s a disastrous partner for Red, who always benefits from a sympathetic female lead to dial down his exuberance. Powell is somewhat lacking in warmth as a screen personality, and her role is an unappealing one (the character in the Keaton original is perhaps his least sympathetic heroine) and she’s not a wonderful enough actress to convince us she’s attracted to this man-cub. On the other hand, she dances up a storm, and her physical prowess comes in very handy in the “putting an unconscious woman to bed” routine reproduced from the silent movie.
Second instance is a sort of battleship cameo in S. Sylvan Simon’s GRAND CENTRAL MURDER, where the ship pops up as backdrop in a montage showing the rise to prominence of a Broadway star (Patricia Dane, also featured in I DOOD IT, whose interesting bio can be read here). I think she’s actually performing in front of rear-screen footage from I DOOD IT, blocking out Eleanor Powell. The shame of it!
The rest of the movie is a kind of whodunnit RASHOMON, with a roomful of suspects, an apoplectic police detective (inevitably, Sam Levene, though James Gleason would have done just as well) and a private eye and spouse (Van Helflin and Virginia Grey) who appear to be part of MGM’s relentless attempt to spin the THIN MAN formula out beyond one profitable series and have it take over cinema as a whole.
S. Sylvan Simon of the WHISTLING series directs the gab the way George Sidney would cover a big band number — gliding swiftly from soloist to soloist, elegantly taking in secondary players en route, always managing to either be in exactly the right spot or create meaningful tension about where he’s on his way to. It’s a really magnificent, symphonic example of the filming of dialogue.
Van Heflin is terrifically enjoyable here, though he does smoke a pipe. So the tendency towards boring patrician roles is already there, but this slight, youthful version of ole babyskull is also very eager to seize on any opportunity to irritate everyone around him, which always seems to make for an enjoyable character. Fiona pointed out that there’s something weirdly OFF about the way Heflin and Grey are introduced — as mysterious members of the shoal of red herrings who shimmer through the narrative. Only gradually does our hero emerge as the narrative’s front-runner, perhaps because director SSS’s handling of the performers is somewhat democratic: Van Hef doesn’t get a “hero shot” right at the beginning, like John Wayne in STAGECOACH, announcing that he’s some kind of big deal in this picture. And since another suspect is Tom Conway, who in other circumstances might just as easily have been the leading man, the first third of the film feels a little uncentered. But that could be a perfectly appropriate feeling to have in a whodunnit RASHOMON.
Endnote: appropriately enough for a piece wallowing in Hollywood’s recycling, I can finish with my belated realisation that the number at the end of I DOOD IT is lifted wholesale from the 1936 BORN TO DANCE, meaning that it is not in fact a Minnelli production, but… a Roy Del Ruth?