Friday 1 March 2024

Up in Central Park (1948)

Director: William A. Seiter
Writer: Karl Tunberg, based on the musical by Herbert Fields, Dorothy Fields and Sigmund Romberg
Stars: Deanna Durbin, Dick Haymes and Vincent Price

Index: The First Thirty.

Four words are needed to set you up for Up in Central Park and not all of them are obvious from the poster. Sure, it’s a romantic musical, as you’d expect. It’s also a comedy, or at least it’s supposed to be, and that’s there too. The fourth word needed, though, is “politics”.

You see, this is a fictional story set against the backdrop of a very real political era, that of the dominance of Tammany Hall in 1870s New York. Vincent Price is notorious William Tweed, whom everyone calls “Bill” or “Boss”, depending on whether they’re in his favour or not. And, just in case a word like “notorious” wasn’t enough, here’s a little history lesson.

Back when the Republicans were liberal and the Democrats were conservative, there was a Democrat named William Tweed, who owned New York, not literally, as he was merely third in the ranks of landowners, but through his influence and control. He sat on the boards of railroads, banks, utilities, mines, newspapers, even the Brooklyn Bridge Company. He was a state senator in New York and a congressman in Washington. He orchestrated elections and controlled finances, to the degree that, by the time he was convicted of corruption and sent to jail for life, he had extracted the equivalent of $5 billion in today’s money from the city.

He would seem to make a wonderful villain for the movies and so he does, though the New York Times critic wrote, “a more inappropriate choice could hardly be imagined.” I’m hoping he meant that Price didn’t look or sound at all like Tweed, as, to my eyes almost a century and a half after Tweed died in jail, Price is far and away the best thing about the picture.

In fact, there’s not much else positive to say about it. Deanna Durbin looks as cute as she’s described in the script and Albert Sharpe is an excellent Irish immigrant stereotype, but that is about all. It may be about the 1870s, but it’s a thoroughly 1940s film and a very dated one at that. Dick Haymes does the job he was asked to do as John Matthews, New York Times writer and romantic lead, but he’s cringeworthy.

It’s telling that we start with Price, giving a speech ahead of the latest election. Reelect Joe Oakley as mayor, he says, even if Joe Oakley is asleep in his carriage. In case you have doubts, here’s free beer! And he sends his men to pay two bucks to illiterate immigrants to vote his ticket as their first act in America, and that’s per vote! Timothy Moore votes twenty-three times, none of them legal all of which count.

Moore has just arrived with his daughter in tow, Rosie by name, and the opening musical number that Durbin sings on the ship explains just how naïve she is. America is a land where everyone can have everything, she thinks. It’s so packed with riches that money must grow on trees and everyone’s a millionaire. And, to her mind, Tweed merely underlines that, with the money he gives to her father—of course, it isn’t mentioned that women can’t vote—and, a scene later, appoints him the Superintendent of Central Park for $3,000 a year and a house in the park itself. It’s the American dream!

Of course, he’s only doing that because she might have overhead him talk about his plans just like a Bond villain. He’s interested in good government for New York. “Good, that is, for us!” I almost expected a moustache twirling at that moment. He’s an elegant Dick Dastardly.

If I’m giving the impression that the story is far from stellar, then you’re reading me right. However, this would have been a much better movie had it unfolded without songs, just as it would have been a better film if more of it had taken place in Central Park.

Many of the film’s harshest critics of this talk about how it cut out so many of the songs from the stage musical, but I thought that every one included was dire. The music is just what you’d get if you set AI to generate “’40s musical” and the lyrics are even worse.

How much worse, I hear you ask? Well, let’s just say that Carousel in the Park could be the best of a bad lot, but it includes lines like “It’s simply enchanting to see granny panting.” No, it’s not what you think, but it’s not a heck of a lot better. At one point, Matthews takes voice in a restaurant to explain how the world lights up When She Walks in the Room with lyrics about every single inanimate object he can see. That means that “the big stuffed elk becomes her slave” and other such lunacies.

Given how abysmal the lyrics are across all these songs, it’s perhaps not too surprising to find that the best of the musical numbers has no lyrics at all. It’s The Skaters' Ballet, which is very much a ballet but one performed without any actual ice skates, for no apparent reason. What’s more, it’s entirely imaginary because it’s what we get when Boss Tweed shows Rosie some of his Currier and Ives photograph.

And, yes, he’s trying to do exactly what that might suggest. This is the one he shows her as she recoils from the one clearly too risqué for her sensibilities. “Oh, now how did that get in there?” Tweed croons, with a clear twinkle in his eye, because he deliberately built up to it.

Whether he resembles the real Boss Tweed or not, Price is an absolute godsend here, as an ever-polite picture of corruption. I found him wasted in an earlier political picture, the very serious Wilson, which wouldn’t have been any better or worse had his scenes been cut, but I wouldn’t want to see this one without him.

Durbin looks the part and I’d never suggest that she can’t sing—she tackles some opera in this one and does it well—but Rosie Moore is a rather unsympathetic lead. She’s delusional at best and a golddigger at worst. When Tweed is inevitably brought down, she latches straight onto someone else, even though she’d slapped him multiple times before that moment.

If Tweed is a crook, Rosie is a bitch and her father is a stereotype, then it’s left to Haymes as John Matthews to save the day, except that he’s a patronising misogynist. If it wasn’t for a schoolteacher called Miss Murch, who tells it how it is to Timothy Moore, thus changing his character arc and thus rendering him less stereotypical, I’d suggest that there isn’t one redeemable character in the entire movie.

All we’ve really got is Vincent Price, in the best example thus far of how he made any film better by simply being in it. We aren’t on his side here, but we’re happy he’s there. Without him, this film would not be remotely plummy, to borrow Rosie’s most annoying catchphrase. Even with him, it’s hardly good.

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