Tuesday 16 February 2021

Happy Go Lovely (1951)

Director: Bruce Humberstone
Writer: Val Guest, based on a film story by F. Dammann and Dr. H. Rosenfeld
Stars: David Niven, Vera-Ellen and Cesar Romero

Index: 2021 Centennials.

While this is precisely the sort of film that rarely appeals to me, I had an absolute blast with it, and I’m trying to figure out why. It’s a musical but, like 42nd Street or Singin’ in the Rain, the song and dance routines all make sense within the wider plot. It’s a romance, but a touching one that happens by accident while neither half is looking, even though that accident is the core of the entire script. In fact, it’s a romcom, but one that benefits from a lively set of performances, including by our centenarian, the dancer Vera-Ellen, who is the female lead here rather than a prominent supporting actress. It’s set in Edinburgh, the cultural and geographic elements used sparingly but capably, even if some of the stock footage is obvious. And it’s a fantastic opportunity for me to see a few faces at a much earlier point in their careers than I’m used to. So I guess it’s the template for the sort of musical romcom that I’m likely to enjoy. Now, how do I plug that into Google to get realistic results?

I think it also helps that it’s a comedy of errors but not a love triangle, written by a talented, genre-hopping writer who had already become a talented genre-hopping director. He’s Val Guest—the Val is for Valmond—and, while I know him primarily for his work in the horror and science fiction genres, often for Hammer, films like The Abominable Snowman, The Day the Earth Caught Fire and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, his filmography is as full of comedies, war movies and musicals. His handling of comedy here is surprising light but with a firm attention to detail, which only gets better as the picture runs on. For a start, everything is layered so that these situations build, as they ought to do in comedies of errors, but there’s a fantastic little detail that surrounds it all that’s the icing on the cake. Not only does one minor assumption on the part of a chorus girl kickstart the whole thing into motion, but all that motion is utterly unnecessary, as we learn at the end that that very chorus girl had the solution being sought all along. That’s glorious.

She’s Betty Summers and she’s a minor part of a variety show, Frolics to You, which John Frost is putting on at the Mercury Theatre on Clayton Street during the annual Edinburgh Festival, with a star named Phyllis Gardiner in the lead. Well, he hopes to be putting it on but he’s struggling with finances. And I mean really struggling. The show hasn’t even opened yet but everyone in the audience during the rehearsal that constitutes our opening number is a creditor and they’re getting tired of waiting for their money. Frost, a fast talking showman in the style of Clark Gable newspaper reporters of the thirties, gets forty-eight further hours out of them, but he’s unable to pay the cast and crew and the chorus girls are already tiptoeing into their lodgings with shoes off because they’re a couple of weeks behind on their rent. Phyllis Gardiner has had enough of his promises, so she walks, adding to Frost’s woes. All that he needs is money and, while he’s blissfully unaware that it’s under his nose all along, he grabs at the first opportunity he sees.

Enter B. G. Bruno, via a convoluted set of circumstances that really should start with Janet Jones, Vera-Ellen’s character, who’s also one of Frost’s chorus girls. Her alarm clock doesn’t go off, so she wakes up late for rehearsal, prompting her to thumb a ride, which turns out to be a limo, whose chauffeur is happy to help her race to the theatre, but gets stopped by the police for speeding, during which confusion she leaves her purse in the vehicle. When that driver finds that purse, he goes back to the theatre to return it but, Betty, thinking he’s come for her, discovers that he’s Bates, chauffeur to B. G. Bruno, the richest man in Scotland, and assumes that he has to be dating Janet. And when she bumps into Frost and tells him, his eyes get big and we’re off and running. After all, he’s a millionaire. “He’s five millionaires,” says Frost. “I looked him up.” Whew! As I write this down, realising how quickly it all unfolds, it underlines how much this isn’t just a comedy but a screwball comedy and it doesn’t really slow down until the end credits.

Vera-Ellen is a lot of fun as Janet Jones. She has the girl next door qualities that allow her to be just one of the chorus girls, but she’s also talented enough to be a viable star, when Frost inevitably elevates her to replace Phyllis Gardiner, hoping that will spark Bruno to finance the show. Of course, he has to rehire her first, because he fired her that morning for being late, and that prompts a great scene where Vera-Ellen plays the straight woman to a young Cesar Romero, who is a force of nature here as John Frost. He’s trying to find her address by searching all the filing cabinets in the theatre’s office, when she walks in to apologise and he completely fails to recognise her. While it isn’t her singing in the musical numbers—she was dubbed by Eve Boswell—she’s a delightful dancer, most of these routines being based in ballet, as well as being an engaging actress and a savvy comedienne. It’s easy to see how B. G. Bruno falls for her, once he finds out that he’s supposedly going to marry her and wanders down to the theatre to see who she is.

He falls quickly enough that, when he realises during their first conversation that she thinks he’s a dramatic journalist, Paul Tracy, he plays along with the charade, which only gets more complex as things go along. This works, because if you need someone who’s able to play both a stuffy traditional businessman and a romantic lead for Vera-Ellen, you can do a lot worse than cast David Niven. He’s young here, though not as young as some of the actors I know from later on, like Gordon Jackson of The Professionals fame and John Laurie of Dad’s Army. Niven had started in the movie business in Hollywood in the early thirties, appearing as an extra in films like Cleopatra and Mutiny on the Bounty. Noticed in the latter by Samuel Goldwyn, he rose up the cast list, becoming a leading man in The Dawn Patrol, even if he was credited after his friends Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. After the war, during which he went home and served as lieutenant, he picked up his career as a star and was actually on a decline in the late forties and early fifties.

And, while Vera-Ellen and Cesar Romero were American stars and David Niven mostly worked in Hollywood, this is a British movie shot in the UK, albeit at Elstree Studios outside London rather than the Edinburgh we’re supposed to believe, that did good business in the UK, where Niven was still highly popular. While his comeback tends to be seen as starting with his Golden Globe for The Moon is Blue in 1953, the first major American film of its day to be released without a Production Code seal of approval, that ignores films like this one that did solid box office on the other side of the pond. It’s worth remembering that 1953 was also the year in which Ian Fleming published his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. While he didn’t base that character on Niven, he did send a copy of the book to him because he’d already had him in mind for any future adaptation and he was the author’s first choice to play Bond in Dr. No. Ironically, of course, Niven ended up playing Bond in Casino Royale instead, a parody directed by this picture’s writer, Val Guest.

Niven is fantastic here, sending up his image as an elegant and sophisticated romantic lead. B. G. Bruno is a self-made millionaire in the field of greeting cards, but he’s staid and traditional when we first meet him, half an hour into the movie, and we gradually find that he’s a man of simple pleasures. There’s a fantastic scene when a bill for fancy clothes for Janet Jones reaches his office. Some of the fun is that Amanda Coutures of Princes Street show up out of the blue, having heard Frost’s rumour that Bruno is dating her, to outfit her in a variety of expensive clothes. More of it is that, from the moment the delivery boy hands the bill to the doorman at B. G. Bruno Ltd., it goes through a chain of nine people in only ninety seconds. The seventh opens it, the eighth reads it and the ninth is Bruno himself. The best of it is that it’s ironically placed in front of him as he’s berating a staff member for “mixing business with pleasure” and “violating standards of decorum”, having allowed a lady to visit him in the office.

Of course, this bill doesn’t merely provide the impetus for him to visit the Mercury Theatre to find out who Janet Jones is and how he’s managed to become engaged to her; it also provides a reason for him to start looking at life in a completely different way. He’s taken aback not just by the bill but by the “surreptitious look” he’s given as he denies involvement. “What do you mean I couldn’t?” he asks his ancient bow tie wearing personal assistant and, gradually, himself too, as he falls for Janet Jones for real. A mere seven screen minutes later, she’s introducing herself to him in her dressing room, and almost five of those were taken up with a musical number. The scenes that follow are delightful, with Frost making crap up about B. G. Bruno to Paul Tracy for publicity reasons but Janet being a little more honest to B. G. Bruno, even thinking that he’s Paul Tracy. He’s charmed and they make a lunch date. Next morning, he delivers flowers to everyone at his own office to brighten the whole place up. Gay drapes and flowers always help.

This escalates quickly, both as a romantic entanglement which is as polite as 1953 decreed it must be and as a comedy of errors. It peaks when Frost wants Janet to bring Bruno to dinner so that he can get those creditors off his back again, so she has to persuade someone into pretending to be Bruno. That’s when Bruno, still pretending to be Tracy, shows up with flowers and she signs him up for the job. So Bruno needs to pretend to be Tracy pretending to be Bruno, in a restaurant where the staff and other patrons know that he’s Bruno. This is priceless stuff and the fact that Cesar Romero shows up in a kilt without any knowledge of how to sit down in one, is merely a means to elevate a great scene into a greater one. The fantastic dialogue starts before dinner, with Janet and her roommate Mae worrying whether Bruno will be able to play Bruno. “That’s terrible,” they tell him. “Go home and practice.” And it gets better throughout, as the millionaire Bruno constantly fails to play up to what Janet expects a millionaire to be and do.

Not being a musical buff, I haven’t seen Vera-Ellen in a heck of a lot of films, not that she made many of them, her big screen career including only fourteen, from 1945 to 1957, in one of which, Words and Music, a typically Hollywood biopic of the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, in whose A Connecticut Yankee she’d acted on stage. While she does everything that this movie demands of her as an actress, her primary talent was dancing and Hollywood put her in films with some of the best, including Fred Astaire, Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly. I absolutely adore the Oops routine she dances with Astaire in The Belle of New York, which features dancing on and off a moving streetcar, on and off the horse that’s pulling it and in a succession of deliberate comedic goofs that both of them pull off magnificently. However, she wasn’t the female lead in her most famous pictures, which is disappointing, especially when looking back in recognition of her wider talents.

This came two years after On the Town and she made that film’s poster, but it was Betty Garrett and Ann Miller above the title with Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Her biggest success was White Christmas in 1956, but that was a Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye picture, with her screen sister Rosemary Clooney billed above her. Here, she’s the focus throughout, even with Niven top billed. His character is in the film because of hers, not the other way around. I wonder why her career didn’t take off the way it should have done, though I’m sure box office returns have to inevitably be the largest part of it. She certainly paid her dues as a dancer, beginning at age ten as Vera-Ellen Westmeier Rohe and studying alongside Doris Day at the Hessler School of Dancing. She became one of the youngest Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall and debuted on Broadway in 1939, becoming noticed in stage productions by Samuel Goldwyn, who promptly cast her in 1945’s Wonder Man, third billed under Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo in only her debut role.

However, he took away her singing voice, perhaps because it didn’t match what he thought audiences expected. So instead of Vera-Ellen’s voice singing the songs accompanying the dances she obviously performed, they heard June Hutton in Wonder Man, Suzanne Ellers in The Kid from Brooklyn, Carol Stewart in Three Little Girls in Blue and so on, throughout her career. I have to wonder if it was a truly fair decision and also, once it had become routine, whether it prompted studios to think of her as a lesser talent, one they had to fix by hiring a singer for all the same parts. I wonder too if this was one reason why she cut her career short after a dozen years. After all, White Christmas was a massive success, grossing thirty million dollars against a budget of two, but she only returned to the screen once more for 1957’s Let’s Be Happy, another musical with ties to Scotland in which she played the lead role. Of course, there was another key factor, that of her second marriage to millionaire Victor Rothschild in 1954. I think that may have played its part!

I liked her a lot in this film but then she is very likeable, as a character and as an actress. Sure, Janet Jones makes up a lot of stories, which she inadvertently tells to the person who she’s pretending was in them, but she’s fundamentally honest and charming as she does so. Of course, it helps that he’s pretending to be someone else at the same time, so both halves of this natural romantic pairing are being honest and dishonest at the same time. She dances gloriously in a ballet style that’s very different to what I’ve seen from her in other films. The songs were the weakest part of the film for me anyway, so the fact that she’s dubbed in them really made no difference to me. I paid much more attention to her as an actress and enjoyed her light and natural comedic touch, that reminded me in many ways of Ginger Rogers, another name we think of for her dancing—after all, as Bob Thaves pointed out in his Frank and Ernest comic strip, she “did everything he did, backwards… and in high heels”—but was massively underrated in comedy.

Most importantly, I think, I came to this picture knowing the work of David Niven and Cesar Romero much more than that of Vera-Ellen, but I’m leaving it with a better appreciation of her talents. That’s only emphasised by much of that being despite the musical numbers rather than because of them. There are four of them, three with her as the focus, and she’s magnificent in them, but they give little understanding of the show everyone cares about so much, Frolics to You. They have completely different tones and appear to be set in completely different timeframes, the first traditional Scottish, the second mediaeval European, the third modern urban and the fourth a ballet entirely abstracted from time and place. I appreciated the talent displayed in each of these, but I’m going to leave the film remembering David Niven’s layers of deception, a brash Cesar Romero in a kilt and wondering why such a charming comedic actress as Vera-Ellen only made fourteen films. She died in 1981 at the age of sixty, twenty-four years after her last role.

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