It's a shame that so many Broadway plays and musicals drift into obscurity because they were never filmed. For decades, theatre historians agreed that one of the greatest dance numbers ever staged was Jerome Robbins's second-act opening of 'High Button Shoes': a frenzied production number titled 'The Bathing Beauty Ballet' that spoofed silent films in general and Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies in particular. When Robbins resurrected his own number for the Broadway revue 'Jerome Robbins on Broadway', he was forced to rely upon bootleg film footage of this number, shot illicitly with a home-movie camera lacking a soundtrack ... and also missing the middle of the number, when the camera's owner had to rewind its clockwork mainspring.
The 1947 Broadway musical 'High Button Shoes' had a bizarre origin. Lyricist Sammy Cahn read a book titled 'The Sisters Liked Them Handsome' by Stephen Longstreet: a semi-fictionalised account of Longstreet's boyhood with his New Jersey family in the 1910s. Cahn, in a visit to his writing partner, composer Jule Styne, proposed they write a musical based on Longstreet's memoir, but regretted he had no idea of how to contact Longstreet. Styne took Cahn next-door to meet his neighbour: Stephen Longstreet! Unfortunately, during its development for Broadway, Longstreet's memoir was revised (by George Abbott) into a generic Broadway musical, unusual only for its 1913 setting.
I actively sought out this 1966 television production of 'High Button Shoes' because (apart from the bootleg) it remains the only film record of that show. (A 1956 version, with some of the original cast repeating their stage roles, appears to be lost.) The purchase of this property's television rights (by Sigourney Weaver's father!) made the show unavailable for Hollywood. As it stands, this is a radically abbreviated 'tab' production, abridged to fit the time slot of Garry Moore's regular comedy-variety series.
The basic story depicted the family life of the Longstreet family in 1913 New Brunswick: parents Henry and Sara, young son Stevie, Sara's sister Ruth and Ruth's boyfriend Hubert 'Oggie' Ogglethorpe. Their prosaic lives are interrupted by the arrival of confidence trickster Harrison Floy and his befuddled assistant Pontdue. In the original production, the role of Floy was tailored to the talents of Phil Silvers: his became the leading role, with Nanette Fabray playing Sara as the most important of the Longstreets. A weakness in the story is the absence of a romance between the two main characters. Sara's husband is very much a secondary role.
This 1966 production tries to adapt the material to the production needs of Garry Moore's comedy-variety series. Stevie Longstreet (the autobiographical character) is deleted altogether. Bland little Garry Moore casts himself as bland husband Henry Longstreet: fair enough, but what's the point? Less successful is the casting of Moore's perennial sidekick, tall bland Durward Kirby, as henchman Pontdue. Kirby -- who, in real life, had no sense of humour at all -- is wasted here.
More interesting, but only slightly more successful, is the casting of Jack Cassidy in the lead role of conman Floy. A very different performer from Phil Silvers, Cassidy acquits himself well here in material tailored for Silvers, even speak-singing his big number 'Nobody Ever Died for Dear Old Rutgers'.
Crooner Jerry Lanning, with his handsome face and splendid tenor voice, deserved much more stardom than he received. However, he's too staid here to play a character nicknamed Oggie. In the female lead, Maureen O'Hara isn't quite musical enough: she's easily upstaged by soprano Carol Lawrence as Sara's marriage-minded sister.
This tab production of 'High Button Shoes' retains just enough merit to make me wish I had seen the original 1947 production. On its own small but genuine merits, I rate this version 5 out of 10.
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