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Will Rogers Jr.,
Lon Chaney Jr.
Ray Henderson joins Buddy De Sylva and Lew Brown to form a successful 1920s musical show writing team. They soon have several hits on Broadway but De Sylva's personal ambition leads to friction as the other two increasingly feel left out of things. Written by
Jeremy Perkins <email@example.com>
Unlike most of today's audiences, I'm not 'alergic' to an old-fashioned Hollywood musical. Just last week, I saw "The Best Things In Life Are Free" for the first time in 15 years. It is disappointing - but not so much for what it is, but rather what it could have been: a classic. And considering the talent involved on-screen, I'd lay most of the blame at the feet of the director and the 'bean-counters'.
Fluidity and pacing are critical in a musical, and I think the direction and staging is a big issue in "The Best Things...". For example, with the exception of the 'Birth of the Blues' number, the camera feels almost nailed to the floor. By comparison, despite the raucous, finger snapping music and Sheree North's vivacious hoofing, the other big production number 'Black Bottom' feels oddly 'constrained' and 'flat' (almost one-dimensional). The musical numbers scroll by as if on a player-piano roll, with little cinematic depth or texture - despite lively action performed by talented people.
In my humble opinion, "Best Things..." has all the ingredients to make a great musical, but they somehow 'taste' like the 'generic-brand' as opposed to Grade-A fancy. This is even more strange upon looking at the 'brand names' utilized: the Set Decorations were by the same team as created the sumptuous "Daddy Long Legs" and "The King and I"(!). Costume Direction was by Charles LeMaire(!). The musical numbers were directed by John de Cuir ("No Business Like Show Business" and "Call Me Madame"). And lest we forget, director Michael Curtiz is the man who gave us "Casablanca," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Mildred Pierce," and just two years before, "White Christmas." While decidedly nearing the end of his career, Curtiz still had Elvis' "King Creole" and a few other decent films ahead of him.
So..., the ingredients of an "A-list" picture were decidedly in evidence. I lay the blame at the feet of penny-pinching executives. Having lavished so much money on sets,costumes and Cinemascope, "Best Things..." registers as if executives decided in mid-production to cut back on what was originally intended to be an 'A-picture'. But as opposed to a vehicle with truly great music or Broadway pedigree, the 'substance' IS the 'spectacle' in a movie like "Best Things...", and somebody cut WAY back on the 'spectacle'.
Perfect Example: MGM's "Meet Me in Las Vegas" was released this same year (and ALSO starring Dan Dailey). But "Meet Me..." had the glamorous cameo's (Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, Vic Damone...) and 'guest artists' (Lena Horne, Frankie Laine, Sammy Davis, Jr) that one expects of a musical of this kind.
In "Best Things...," this kind of 'sparkle' is curiously absent. Instead, the best thing "The Best Thing..." trots out is a bit-player in black-face(!) impersonating Al Jolson(!) Huh...? In 1956, Fox had contracts and/or 'relationships' with a number of great performers who, with just a bit of thought, could have been brought in to do some interesting '20's themed cameos: imagine JOHNNIE RAY as an 'updated' "Jolson;" DOROTHY DANDRIDGE as (the early-career, sexy) "Ethel Waters" or "Florence Mills;" or how about JANE RUSSELL as "Helen Morgan" or "Ruth Etting" (a role she regretted turning down a year earlier in MGM's "Love Me or Leave Me")? What fun that would've been...!?
While DeSylva, Brown & Henderson's work may not be of the caliber of Porter, Gershwin, Ellington and Coward (properly pronounced 'C-AAhhwd'
lol), the boisterous score is certainly evocative of the roaring
'20's. Charles LaMare's costumes are dazzling and fun. Appearing in his last film (before choosing to retire to concentrate on supper clubs and a lucrative career as a popular TV host), one remembers what a great voice Gordon McRae had. And its fun to see somebody BESIDES 'Marilyn,' or 'Jayne' in the female lead of a splashy fifties musical, Sheree North being quite an accomplished Broadway dancer, as evidenced by her top-notch performance with Balanchine ballet dancer Jacques D'ambroise in this film's 'Birth of the Blues' number (this scorching-hot fifties movie-musical number is, sadly, largely forgotten as it is buried within this film...).
A classic? Heck no. Still, I think "Best Things..." has 'good bones', and isn't the worst way one could while away a rainy afternoon getting lost in some old fashioned celluloid tinsel.
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