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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.
The Best Things In Life Are Free is once again the typical Hollywood
musical biography where the main thing you come to hear are the songs.
The output from DeSylva,Brown&Henderson certainly gives you enough
Buddy DeSylva came from a theatrical family and as played by Gordon MacRae was a man of ambition who enjoyed high living. Lew Brown who was actually born in Russia was a tough kid from the slums and Ernest Borgnine fresh from his Oscar in Marty certainly knew how to play rough characters. And the third member of the trio Ray Henderson is a family and home loving guy from the suburbs as written and played by Dan Dailey.
All three of these guys worked together and apart. It is not true as the film has it that Ray Henderson was an unknown who latched on by chance when he was visiting his sister-in-law to DeSylva and Brown. Henderson was already a composer of note when he made the two a trio.
DeSylva,Brown&Henderson as a team were together from 1926 to 1930 and wrote several Broadway shows and some early sound musicals. Another mistake shows them writing Sonny Boy for Al Jolson on the spur of the moment after a call from Jolie. Actually they wrote the entire score for The Singing Fool and then followed that up Jolson's third film, Say It With Songs.
The title song and The Birth Of The Blues are probably their best known work, but the rest of the score is like a step back in time to the Roaring Twenties. You'll find a lot here and so much more that may have been left on the cutting room floor.
I'm sure the trio did have the usual frictions that develop among creative partners. DeSylva in fact did leave the other two to become a film producer, first at 20th Century Fox and later at Paramount. In Star Spangled Rhythm, Walter Abel satirized him as B.G. DeSoto. DeSylva was the promoter of the career of Betty Hutton. The other two eventually went their separate ways.
Despite a more than usual amount inaccuracies, The Best Things In Life Are Free can't help being good with all the wonderful music these guys gave us. MacRae, Dailey, and Sheree North give us some really good musical performances, I only wish Dailey had some dance numbers for himself or at least some that made the final film. Acting wise Ernest Borgnine is memorable as the tough slum character who made it on Broadway.
There is also a very funny performance by former heavyweight contender Tony Galento as a bodyguard assigned to protect DeSylva after he runs afoul of gangster Murvyn Vye. Galento was certainly dedicated to his profession.
The film got one Oscar nomination for Lionel Newman for Best Musical Scoring and considering what Newman had to work with, maybe he should have won the award. The Best Things In Life Are Free is a great musical treat and reminder of the days when songs had real melodies.
I thought the chemistry among the three leads - Gordon McRae as Buddy
De Sylva, Dan Dailey as Ray Henderson, and Ernest Borgnine as Lew Brown
- was absolutely perfect even if not necessarily true. Probably the
hardest thing to take at first is the excessively caustic nature of
Borgnine's portrayal of Lew Brown until you get to know a little more
about Lew, his background, and his friends and then things begin to
make sense. There's a good contrast of personalities here - De Sylva
civilized but selfish versus the street-wise loud and rude Brown who'd
put it all on the line for a friend. Henderson's gentle family man
play-for-keeps style versus De Sylva's flavor-of-the-month attitude
towards women. I don't know if any of this was true, but as cinema I
Knowing something about the early talkie musicals and the composers behind them, some things did bother me. At one point the film has the three going out to Hollywood to work on the 1929 early talkie musical "Sunnyside Up". This was largely a homespun little film in the tradition of the early Fox musicals with even a harpsichord number included. Instead, what we see on the set is an elaborate fan-dance like number with a man in a tuxedo singing "If I Had a Talking Picture of You" accompanied by dancing girls with long red boas. This is not how I remember Charles Farrell singing this one. In fact, if there is one big complaint I have is that the songs are pure 20's but the choreography and tempo of the numbers are like something out of an MGM musical ballet with Gene Kelly that would have been popular at the time of the film's release - 1956.
The key to enjoying this film is to focus on the beautiful music, good performances, and the pleasant nature of the story. Do that and I think you'll like it. I don't think this was ever intended to be a serious biopic.
Michael Curtiz's 1956 film "The Best Things in Life are Free" was
frequently shown on Chicago television in the 1960s. I had not seen the
film until it was recently broadcast on the Fox Movie Channel.
Unfortunately, it was not a letterboxed print, so it was very difficult
to determine the film's merits as it had the left and right margins
entirely cut off. That aside, I think it was an attempt at a darkish
musical with Curtiz touches and this was reflected in the script.
The film is entirely done on soundstages, no exteriors at all, so it feels kind of clunky, as many of the early Cinemascope films were as well.
I liked the actors, especially the wonderful actor and dancer Sheree North. Her best number, "Black Bottom", was badly impacted by the lack of a letterboxed print. She was very fortunate to be partnered by one of George Balanchine's finest male dancers, Jacques d'Amboise, photographed here in his dancing prime. Lucky Sheree North! Dancer (and future partner of Fred Astaire) Barrie Chase is also featured in the film.
I was amused by Ernest Borgnine's dancing, singing and acting, puzzled by Dan Dailey's lack of dancing, and liked Gordon MacRae, who played Buddy daSylva.
I liked the film, and hope to see a letterboxed print in the future.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Dan Dailey as Ray Henderson, Gordon Macrae as Buddy De Sylva, and
Ernest Borgnine as Lew Brown, were born to play these roles.
The Best Things in life are free, captures the 1920's superbly. And I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when these three writers were coming up with their never to be forgotten song standards.
Hollywood churned out many biog's of their songwriters in the 40's and 50's, and this is by far the most entertaining, and interesting. I disagree with every negative review.
When is comes to all of America's great songwriters from the past, I'm betting that the average American could not put the songwriters name to their favorite song from the 20's 30's and 40's. And this is a crime.
From Tin Pan Alley, to the great depression in 1929, and the Hollywood musical when most songwriters left New York to work in the Hollywood factory's to write up the great musicals that are still enjoyed today, these songwriters have been largely forgotten when it comes to the songs they wrote.
I'm an Englishman aged 65 on April 10th 2013, and I've studied the lives and works of the Great American songwriters since my late teens. And I believe that all Americans should know the name of the songwriters or writers who composed their favorite song standard.
Henderson, De-Silva and Brown, were indeed up there with Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin etc. What a legacy these writers and more, have left to the world in the finest songs ever written.
Henderson, De Sylva, and Brown. Not exactly in the same league as Berlin,
Porter, or Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein. Still, you may know a few of their
songs as they've lingered through the years - 'The Birth of the Blues', for
example, or 'Button Up Your Overcoat'; they also wrote the campus musical
The three mismatched songwriters are played here by Gordon MacRae, Dan Dailey, and Ernest Borgnine. Yep, and he even has a song or two. The stand-out though has to be MacRae's superb rendition of 'The Birth of the Blues', in which he proved yet again why he was in the top handful of singers in the movies. Girly support is from Sheree North, but she isn't very memorable. Nor, in fact, is the story of this trio - perhaps musical biopics were tired by 1956, or we were just wise to the cliches.
'The Best Things In Life Are Free' is worth a look when there are no superior musicals on, and is a fairly good example of colour and Cinemascope of the period. But a great musical, it isn't.
I have no idea how accurate this bio-pic is about the musical writing
team of Lew Brown (Ernest Borgnine), Buddy De Silva (Gordon MacRae) and
Ray Henderson (Dan Dailey) is, I have no idea as information about
these guys' personal lives is scant on the internet. However, I
strongly believe it's mostly fiction because that was the norm for
films like this in Hollywood during this time. Besides, I find it very
hard to believe Lew Brown could be this angry all the time! He did die
from a heart attack...so who knows? Not surprisingly, the film only
focuses on a small portion of their lives--from the time they teamed up
in the 1920s through their time in Hollywood and Broadway.
Much of the film is your typical 1950s musical--with some incredibly irrelevant and artsy dance numbers that are dream sequences (sort of like shorter versions of the HUGE one in "An American in Paris") and some traditional song/dance numbers. In between, there is story...but often this takes a back seat to the songs.
Did I like it? Not much. It's reasonably well made and the trio wrote some very familiar tunes that are sometimes enjoyable. But Borgnine's one-note performance wasn't enjoyable and the other characters seemed underdeveloped...though not as badly as Borgnine's. MacRae had a nice voice and was a heel. Dailey played the piano and was bland. I really wish they'd eliminated a few songs and focused much more on the story...but that is personal taste and the 1950s musicals often were more music than story. Compared to these other musicals, this one is just okay...and the Jolson sequences are, not surprisingly, dated. Seeing a guy who's obviously not Jolson and hiding it by ALWAYS having him in black-face was kind of silly...and tacky.
Not a bad bio as bio's go. I'm sure what you see in the film is NOT what really happened in real life for the most part. Still an enjoyable viewing, especially some great musical numbers like BLACK BOTTOM and BIRTH OF THE BLUES. Nice performances by all, especially Ernest Borgnine. Unfortunately this Fox MOD is in the pan and scan version, not Cinemascope as presented in cinemas. Strange that Fox, who invented the Cinemascope process would release some of their scope films flat. This really ruined my viewing experience. There is a disclaimer at the beginning that THIS FILM IS FORMATTED TO FIT YOUR SCREEN. This may have been true several years ago, but now 95% of the population have wide screen TV's, so why would a company who invented the scope process send out films in pan an scan? A tragedy indeed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I saw this picture on first release. My memory told me that it was
rather ponderous and heavy-handed. On the whole, I would have said,
"The Best Things In Life" offered no more than moderate or even
Now that I have seen the film again, I find that my memory assessment is largely correct. Particularly so far as the last half of the movie is concerned. There the story becomes hopelessly bogged down in an all-friends-together-once-more and dear-old-pals-through- thick-and-thin atmosphere of ridiculous sentimentality. And needless to say the on and off romance between MacRae and North finally wins out. Yes, all these sequences are rather heavy going, the only light touch provided by the somewhat uncomplimentary portrait of Winfield Sheehan (the Fox producer whom Zanuck sacked when he took over as production chief), played with amiable aggressiveness by Larry Keating.
What's more all the production numbers and almost all the good songs are in the first half too. The only decent one left for the second is "Sonny Boy", which starts life as a splendid joke but peters out somewhat in the half-strength hands of Norman Brooks' sadly diluted Al Jolson impersonation. Director Curtiz was actually working at Warner Brothers when Sonny Boy was in production, but he fails to make anything of the sequence. Maybe because he regarded Lloyd Bacon as a bum director anyway and wanted to show up his deficiencies? In any event, he disappointingly puts all the Hollywood episodes across as a nothing. On the other hand, Curtiz skilfully conveys the bustle and vitality of back-stage life, his fluid camera movement, allied with fine art direction and costumes, giving the movie an agreeably in-period flavor.
The songs are lively and pleasant. Borgnine is surprisingly agile in song and dance, while his full-bodied acting imparts plenty of dramatic zing, especially in such sequences as his confrontations with gravelly-voiced gangster Murvyn Vye. The support players are great too. Roxanne Arlen provides a rather delightful Barbara Nichols imitation, while Tommy Noonan and Tony Galento are equally adept at comic relief, the first as a harassed stage director, the latter as a pocket- frisking crim. Nice to see Julie Van Zandt (her only film so far as I know) in a sizable role as Sheree North's competition. As for Miss North herself, she puts across her usual Marilyn Monroe imitation very noticeably in "The Birth of the Blues" number where she is made up and hair styled as an MM dead ringer.
The production numbers staged by Rod Alexander are undoubtedly the most appealing aspects of the movie. Not only do they take full advantage of John De Cuir's eye-catchingly smokey sets, but they feature the equally visual Sheree and company (including the energetic Jacques d'Amboise) prancing around in some vivid costumes. Alas, there are some dreary scenes of domestic bliss with Dan Dailey, Phyllis Avery and their two kids, but fortunately we don't have to contend with them for too long. All the same about twenty minutes of judicious cutting would make all the difference between middling entertainment and the most pleasantly lively. The film editing throughout is very smooth. It's obvious that the production numbers were shot by a second unit as they're photographed in an altogether different style: far glossier and sharper than the rather fuzzy, blotting-paper texture of the rest of the movie. And thank goodness for that fabulous 20th Century-Fox sound (heard to special advantage in "The Birth of the Blues" and "Black Bottom" production numbers).
Working-stiff family man Ray Henderson, a piano player who dabbles in songwriting, meets struggling composers Buddy De Sylva and Lew Brown in 1920s Atlantic City; their musical partnership, formed by chance, evolves into a successful team which reaches the heights of Broadway and Hollywood. Biography of colorful tunesmith-trio who had hits with Al Jolson's "Sonny Boy" and the novelty numbers "Button Up Your Overcoat" and "Sunny Side Up" is nearly run into the ground by meandering musical routines which simply are not up to previous 20th Century-Fox standards. The casting also seems off: as the mercurial Brown, it isn't long before Ernest Borgnine loses his proverbial temper, yet his transitions from angry brute to dancing maestro have no resonance (the character never takes shape); Sheree North is the songbird who seems bound by faith to the three guys, though it's obvious her singing and dancing isn't as special as it's meant to be. As peace-keeper Henderson, Dan Dailey looks a bit sheepish at times (particularly in the "Overcoat" number), though Gordon MacRae as the overtly-ambitious De Sylva is nicely attuned to this milieu (and, for once, MacRae's baritone isn't over-worked). The production is glossy but lacks pizazz, while the uncertain path post-Hollywood isn't used to give the story an arc, only to point us to the formulaic happy ending. ** from ****
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