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The Color of Money (1986)
Okay, but hardly a Sequel
I wanted to like this movie. I really did. When I heard that it was a sequel to THE HUSTLER, one of my all-time favourite movies, and directed by Martin Scorsese, I had to see it. Sadly, the result was a disappointment, hardly a sequel in the truest sense of the word. Sure, its main character is a pool player named Eddie Felson and he is played by Paul Newman, just as in the first film. Okay, up to that point. But beyond that, there is nothing to even suggest that young Eddie Felsen and the older, more mature Eddie Felsen is even the same person.
Too many background details are either forgotten or ignored, not the least of which was his thrashing of Minnesota Fats, an expert pool player who remained undefeated for more than fifteen years, making him the man to be reckoned with. Surely that is the stuff of legend at least among pool players who take the game seriously yet no one seems to even be aware of it in the second movie. In fact, the name Minnesota Fats doesn't even enter the conversation.
Nor is it explained what turns Felson's life took after his acrimonious split with manager Bert Gordon (George C. Scott, in the original) who vowed that he would never shoot big-time pool again. And Eddie lives alone now. Does he ever have any regret about the shabby way her treated his girlfriend (Piper Laurie) who was driven to suicide and best friend (Myron McCormack) who he dumped along the way in his incessant drive to be the best?
Such questions deserve answers, but none come into play and what we are left with is a fairly standard story of a liquor salesman (Newman) who occasionally plays pool and decides to mentor a young gun, Vincent (Tom Cruise), to hustle high-stakes games and split the take. Inevitably the two must square off to find out who is best.
Newman is okay here, though hardly the electrifying performer we have come to expect over the years. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is good as Carmen, Vincent's girlfriend who likes the excitement of being around him and around the pool halls. And Tom Cruise, as the young hotshot with the pool stick soon becomes annoying with his excessive brand of cockiness.
On its own, THE COLOR OF MONEY is not without interest, but as a sequel it misses the mark by a wide margin.
The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951)
Energetic performances by Curtis and Laurie make for delightful adventure
To begin, I've always found movies with Arabian Nights settings to be curiously seductive, even if infested with clichés. The exotic (though studio bound) locales, pastel colours, lavish interiors, voluptuous dancing girls, and lively daring-do provide, if not quality, an irresistible recipe for pure escapism. Universal Studios regularly churned out these carpet rides during the late '40s and early '50s, often using them as proving grounds for many of its young contract players.
THE PRINCE WHO WAS A THIEF may well be the best of the lot. It is a happy combination of above-average script sourced from a short story by Theodore Dreiser, technically competent direction, and fortuitous casting of the two leads.
Tony Curtis plays a young Prince of Tangier, marked for assassination as an infant but raised into adulthood by thieves and becoming one himself until he can reclaim his birthright, all with the help of fellow thief, Piper Laurie. Both players, who went on to better films and even critical praise, attack their roles with a boundless energy that's contagious, yet they avoid upstaging each other. So appealing was their on-screen rapport that they would make three subsequent films together. Here, the accent is on acrobatics and the athletic Curtis and the agile Laurie deliver in spades, performing all of their own stunts with the exception of Laurie's (she was 19 at the time) climb to the top of a high wall on the backs of men near the climax. A playful banter between the two throughout adds a good-natured battle-of-the sexes to the proceedings and keeps the story humming along.
Direction was deftly handled Rudolph Maté, a Hungarian ex-pat who had previously apprenticed with Alexander Korda as cameraman and with Fritz Lang and René Claire as cinematographer. While none of his later work produced classics, his films remain effective and visually appealing as evidenced here.
Those Redheads from Seattle (1953)
"Tessie" brings confused musical to life
With its catchy title, an exotic location, some peppy tunes, and a good cast, THOSE REDHEADS FROM SEATTLE could have been a passably good musical had screenwriters Lewis R. Foster (who also directed it) and Daniel Mainwaring paid more attention to the plot instead of letting the intended 3-D effects carry the burden. As it is, we have an uninspired programmer masquerading as a musical whose only real merit is the introduction of then-current radio chart-busters Teresa Brewer and Guy Mitchell to the movie going public.
All proceedings are undermined by a confused plot which takes place during the late 1800s in a Klondike where the journey from Skagway to Dawson is as easy as a Sunday afternoon constitutional with no White Horse Pass to pose any peril, where the weather is so balmy that the characters need not wear ear muffs or mitts for protection from frostbite or even see their own breath, and where snowstorms are non-existent. There is not even a hint of a single gold strike nor of fortunes won and lost overnight.
The movie just can't make up its mind whether its plot is one of revenge for the murder of the eponymous redheads' father or to showcase the young women's determination to adapt to the "harsh" life in the remote northern reaches of Canada on their own. The requisite villain, a one-dimensional cipher, appears only twice: the first time at the beginning to kill the father and the second time at the end to be dispatched by the hero (Gene Barry) so that the latter can win the admiration and eternal gratitude of the heroine, lovely Rhonda Fleming.
Still, the musical numbers, "Chick-A-Boom," "Baby, Baby, Baby," and the beautiful ballad "I Guess It was You all the Time," performed with verve and gusto by Mr. Mitchell and Miss Brewer, are entertaining in their own right, even if they don't fit the situations or advance the plot in any way.
But there is one good reason for watching this movie and that reason is Teresa Brewer. "Tessie," as she was known to her fellow musicians, simply illuminates the screen with her bubbly effervescence every time she enters a scene. She grabs your attention and holds it. This is no mean feat given that she often has to share the screen with gorgeous Rhonda Fleming but she does just that. Watch her face as she eagerly anticipates greetings from her estranged family as they approach her from church, only to be snubbed by them as a show of disapproval of her chosen vocation as a dance hall singer. Tessie was a natural on-screen performer and it's a shame she didn't pursue a career in movies. Paramount had apparently offered her a contract but she turned it down so that she could have time to raise a family. Had she not done so, she might have gone on to rival the popularity of Warner's Doris Day. She certainly had the personality and talent.
Salty O'Rourke (1945)
A Winner on any track...
SALTY O'ROURKE is one of those fine, unpretentious, smoothly paced films with accent on entertainment and slick production values that one has come to expect from director Raoul Walsh. Here we have a racetrack tale replete with Runyonesque lowlife characters who frequent the territory: gamblers, bookies, disgraced jockeys, and long shot thoroughbreds.
Starring Alan Ladd in one of his best performances (of which there were many), the story concerns a gambler, Salty O'Rourke (Ladd), who suddenly discovers that he has inherited a $20,000 debt left unpaid by his murdered partner and is given one month to repay it or pay with his life. He schemes to enter a fast, but relatively unknown, racehorse in the Darlington Handicap where he is sure to clean up and fulfill the odious obligation. To do this, he must enlist the services of the talented but obnoxious Johnny Cates (Stanley Clements), a jockey who has been barred from riding on American tracks but is the only one able to handle the temperamental animal. Further complications arise when the jockey, forced to go back to school as a condition of his reinstatement, manages to get himself expelled on the first day ("I got all the education I need and I ain't gonna overdo it," he sneers.). It is left to Salty to meet with the teacher, Barbara Brooks (Gail Russell), and trowel on the charm to induce her to allow Cates back into the classroom. Cates now falls for Barbara in a big way, but becomes extremely jealous when he learns that the she is attracted to Salty who, up to this point, has been biding his time merely as a conciliator between teacher and student. As the big day approaches and the jockey's animosity towards his employer grows, the outcome of the race is cast into doubt.
Ladd and Clements are excellent in their scenes together. Clements, in an early Cagney-styled performance, deliberately defies Psychology's posit that "There is no such thing as a bad boy." He lies, he steals, he breaks training, and he makes empty promises only to get Ladd off his back. Ladd, in turn, counters in ways that would embarrass Father Flannigan. The byplay of these two alone is worth the price of admission.
Ladd fans should love this movie. He can be dispassionate and cunning when dealing with his antagonists, yet breezy and engaging in the presence of Russell and her fluttery mother (Spring Byington). For my money, Gail Russell (with the possible exception of Lizabeth Scott) was Alan Ladd's best screen partner. Her unabashed charm and wide-eyed innocence perfectly augmented his hard edge and brought out another dimension in his character: a gentleness and civility that was seldom explored in the many tough-as-nails parts he played in the '40s. She humanized him.
Not that he got too soft. In the scene where he settles the debt with Doc Baxter (Bruce Cabot), you can just feel the temperature drop in the room. This is the cold killer at his best.
SALTY O'ROURKE is a "must see" for Ladd fans and a "must own" for collectors of Alan Ladd movies.
Aloma of the South Seas (1941)
May please Lamour fans, but few others.
ALOMA OF THE SOUTH SEAS is typical of a series of pictures made by Paramount Studios during the late '30s and early '40s, set on some far-off tropical island paradise with a sarong-clad Dorothy Lamour. While these features may have wanted for sophistication and better production values, box office returns clearly indicated that American audiences, weary of a debilitating depression and a demanding war effort, were more than willing to buy tickets to a proxy Polynesia for an hour and a half's escape from reality.
Escape from reality is right, because these movies were as far removed from reality as the Oort Cloud is from the Earth. But they were popular enough to make the unpretentious Miss Lamour one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood at the time. In fact, she is the main reason I purchased a copy of this film from an online source, though more for its historical value than for any erudition one might expect. As a movie collector, I wanted to have at least one Dorothy Lamour sarong picture in which she was not accompanied by Crosby and Hope and this - THE HURRICANE notwithstanding - is the one I liked best.
Not that it is a good movie. It isn't but, to be enjoyed at all, it must be viewed within the context of its time. The plot is almost non-existent. It's the old eternal triangle in which two erstwhile boyhood friends Tanoa (Jon Hall) and Revo (Philip Reed) vie for the hand of Aloma (Lamour). That's it! There is a faint hint of some kind of island revolt but it never materializes, so the only question is who will be left to embrace Aloma at the fadeout. Incredibly, the situation is resolved not through the efforts or ingenuity of any of the principals, but by a convenient geological cataclysm: a spectacular volcanic eruption that's actually worth waiting for (and explains my overly generous rating of 8).
Dorothy Lamour does well enough in her lightweight role as the island maiden, but Jon Hall is too beefy to pass for the virile Polynesian native chieftain in a skimpy wrap-around. He is also betrayed by the script. As a leader of his people who had studied in America (including Harvard, of all places) he has absolutely nothing to do except moon over Miss Lamour (Nice work, if you can get it!). As for the islanders themselves, they come out in droves for the ritualistic dances but, at all other times, are noticeably absent.
Yet, even left as is, ALOMA could have benefited immeasurably from actual outdoor locations, as did the silent 1926 version which was shot in Puerto Rico and Bermuda. By confining filming to a sound stage, Paramount left us with a claustrophobic effect that looks more like the interior of a lush greenhouse than sultry island.
In her autobiography, "My Side of the Road," Dorothy Lamour recalled, with some amusement, a harrowing experience while filming ALOMA. "During the volcanic explosion, I was supposed to swing across a gorge from one ledge to another. I didn't push off enough and was short of my target. Then I couldn't reach the other ledge either. The crew urged me to jump but it looked like too far a drop so I clung to the vine for dear life. As I struggled to stay on, I felt my sarong coming loose and it finally slipped off. Everyone was laughing but I wouldn't dare let go of the vine until I was rescued." The scene was reshot with Lamour clinging to Jon Hall.
ALOMA OF THE SOUTH SEAS is a movie that can be enjoyed, but only if viewed as a diversion; otherwise, it will seem antiquated and silly.
Curtain Call at Cactus Creek (1950)
Deserves another Curtain Call
CURTAIN CALL AT CACTUS CREEK is a western-comedy-musical, typical of those highly entertaining, if not too cerebral, family oriented programmers that Universal International routinely churned out in the late 40s, early 50s. It was directed in workmanlike fashion by Charles Lamont who had originally manned some of the early Mack Sennett comedy shorts and helmed many of the low-brow but highly popular and profitable Ma and Pa Kettle and Abbott and Costello series. The studio did not delude itself into believing it was creating art, but its product could always be depended on to provide fast-pacing, zany situations, and a youthful exuberance from its stars that would satisfy audiences. This movie does exactly that.
The plot here concerns Edward Timmins (Donald O'Connor), a mild-mannered, eager-to-please stage hand of a travelling troupe of thespians who gets himself involved with notorious bank robber, Rimrock Thomas (Walter Brennan), after the latter discovers that his outlaw gang can conduct its business more effectively if the town's citizenry are distracted by simultaneous theatrical performances. Complications arise when Rimrock takes a surrogate fatherly interest in the young man and what follows is a spoof of the old west with its posse chases, shoot-'em-ups, and climactic showdowns.
The genial O'Connor, once again, showcases his vast kit-bag of comedic, musical, and terpsichorean talents, which makes one wonder why his versatility did not translate into more roles of importance (Check out, if you can, the Donald O'Connor Biography on YouTube), such as Singin' in the Rain and There's No Business Like Show Business. Here he plays the loyal company employee, doing anything and everything to make good. His eagerness during an early theatrical performance is hilarious as he scrambles to provide piano accompaniment, arranges the sets, operates the props (from both the stage and the rafters) and supplies the sound effects while the remaining troupe members do little more than mouth their lines. Yet this is nothing compared with the frenzied tap-dance routine he performs for fellow troupe member Tracy Holland in a vain attempt to convince the egoistic ham actor that he has some talent.
The supporting cast fills its roles well. Vincent Price is at once charming and revolting as Tracy Holland, an actor who continually quotes Shakespeare and makes no effort to hide disdain for his perceived inferiors who, in this case, include everyone (the character may have been based on John Barrymore). His comeuppance at the end is truly poetic justice. Eve Arden (most noted for Our Miss Brooks) offers her usual dry wit as the fading actress who has been in the business long enough see through the greasepaint and the glamour. Her song, Waiting at the Church, is perhaps the highlight of the film. And Walter Brennan certainly has the look and credibility of a western old timer. His implied meanness, though, is a stretch except for the scene in which he intends to gun down O'Connor. There, he is so chillingly believable that you have to remind yourself you are watching a comedy.
Of the main leads, it is Gale Storm, O'Connor's love interest, who is shortchanged by the script. Other than a couple of sing-and-dance numbers with O'Connor, the role calls for her to be little else but sweet and nice as, apparently, she was in real life (She once telephoned long distance to express condolences to a fan whose mother had just passed away.). But we needn't feel too sorry for her. Feature films were not her métier. She made it big on television with two series, My Little Margie and Oh Susannah!, and scored on the nation's Hit Parade with I Hear You Knockin' and Dark Moon.
Overall, CURTAIN CALL AT CACTUS CREEK is a fun romp, a good way to pass a rainy afternoon. Sadly, Universal has not gotten around to releasing it yet on DVD. I was able to purchase a copy online and, while not too bad (about 7.5 to 8 rating, as are most of the available transfers I've checked), it's hardly the pristine product you expect from studio editions. Maybe the powers that be aren't aware of the little Donald O'Connor gems they are sitting on.
SPOILER ALERT: The movie includes a Dixieland number performed in blackface that, while such an act was a staple of minstrel shows of the day, may offend some of today's viewers. The good news is that it follows the denouement, so you can safety switch it off without missing much.
Slow and talky, but shouldn't be dismissed
Desiree is, first and foremost, historical romance, not history and, as such, deserves to be cut some slack. Directed by the ever reliable Henry Koster, who one year earlier had helmed the movies' first Cinemascope production, "The Robe", it boasts a widescreen panoply of exquisite costumes, sumptuous sets, and gorgeous scenery guaranteed to give its customers an eyeful.
The screenplay, written by Oscar winner Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity), which follows the title character's infatuation with a young Napoleon Bonaparte from the tail end of the French Revolution to her complete rejection of him after his Moscow defeat, is presented as a series of sporadic vignettes, which move slowly, sometimes tediously, toward its final conclusion. And yet, if you are able to accept the lack of action scenes and concentrate on the characters, the film can be highly enjoyable.
Despite what the star billing implies, Marlon Brando's Napoleon is not the main player here (the story is seen almost exclusively from Desiree's point of view) but he is far and away the most interesting. Eschewing the great French military leader's putative habit of tucking his hand in his vest, he is nevertheless able to capture the essence of the man with true conviction. With low-key, well-articulated diction, he presents his Napoleon as a driven individual with a penetrating brain, tremendous powers of concentration, unflagging energy, and the ability to impose his will whenever it suits his needs. Less specifically, he suggests a man with high standards, noble ideals, a love of France, and a sense of honour. Assuredly a remarkable performance, as far from Stanley Kowalski as you can get.
Desiree, as played by Jean Simmons, has more screen time than Napoleon, and that may be the picture's weakness. Her story, that of a young woman, first introduced as a maid working in the family textile shop, who becomes captivated by a young Napoleon (he initially wants to marry her for her dowry to finance his own military ambitions), is discarded by him, and, on the rebound, marries one of his generals to become queen of Sweden, is not particularly remarkable. Only when her path crosses Bonaparte's does the picture come to life. Yet Simmons, as always, fills her role beautifully with simplicity and charm. She was one of those young actresses of the '50s who could always be relied upon to bring her best to every part she played. Her long list of impressive credits (which includes Hamlet, The Robe, Guys and Dolls, Elmer Gantry and Spartacus) is enough to put today's one-hit-wonder Oscar winners to shame.
The cast is rounded out by Michael Rennie as General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and Merle Oberon as the Empress Josephine. Both add dignity in their small, but decidedly secondary, roles.
Despite the slow pacing, patient viewers will be rewarded with a terrific payoff in the film's final eight minutes. It is the touching, bittersweet scene during which Desiree and Napoleon meet for the last time and, while not historically accurate, it makes for great and moving drama. Napoleon has just recently escaped from Elba and is attempting to mobilize troops for one final effort to regain power in France. By now he is a humbled man, the confidence and swagger he so readily exhibited during his initial rise to prominence eroded. Yet, in retrospect, he is able to justify all his actions (In real life, he was a great administrator as well as a great military leader.), rightly or wrongly, and laments the betrayal of those he considered his closest friends. Though beaten, he still expects strict adherence to military protocol, as when he surrenders his sword ("Please don't hold it like an umbrella."). Desiree, though no longer enraptured by his charms, cannot help but feel a rekindling of admiration for him and a pang of regret.
Marlon Brando reportedly once said that he took on the role of Napoleon for laughs. I very much doubt it. He is just too good. I think he was trying to get back at critics who refused to picture him as anyone other than Stanley Kowalski.
Pony Express (1953)
Forget the History Lesson. Just Sit back and Enjoy...
Just because "Pony Express" is a western and the Indians are characterized as the bad guys, does not mean it is without merit. Certainly viewers who insist that their movies must be politically correct learning experiences or must have educational value like a two hour university lecture will abhor its lighthearted approach and historical inaccuracy. Yet it is precisely this lighthearted approach that makes this movie so much fun.
The four principals, Charlton Heston (Buffalo Bill Cody), Forrest Tucker (Wild Bill Hickok), ravishing Rhonda Fleming, and hoydenish Jan Sterling serve up a potpourri of good-natured banter (and seem to have a lot of fun in doing so) that makes the running time of 101 minutes and incidental plot just whiz by. If nothing else, this movie serves to remind us that most people do have a sense of humor and that life is not all a funeral dirge.
California, led by a group of businessmen, wants to secede from the union and become an independent republic, citing the country's general apathy towards it as the primary reason. Eastern businessmen and politicians, on the other hand, feel that, by improving communications between Washington and California, they can discourage the citizens of that remote state from making such an irrational move. To this end they seek the help from Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok to organize a "pony express" which will deliver mail and news from East to West and visa-versa in double-quick time. In attempting to implement the scheme, the two friends must first overcome violent opposition from the owner of a stagecoach line who stands to lose a cross-country mail contract if the plan succeeds, hostile Indians who see the advent of the white man as yet another encroachment to their way of life, and the California businessmen themselves whose interests extend beyond Californian independence.
Of course, the story is full of historical inaccuracies. Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok, for instance, barely knew each other. Hickok handled a six-gun much better than Buffalo Bill. "Pony Express" riders were mostly teenage orphan boys who had to be "willing to risk their lives every day" (Even in those days, businessmen knew how to protect themselves against lawsuits.). But so what? I first saw this movie when I was eight years old and loved it so much that I immediately went to the library to read up on these historical characters and events. Was I upset when I found that so much of the plot had been fabricated? Not in the least. I was grateful that the story was interesting enough to have piqued my interest in this specific chapter of American history. Any movie that induces you to want to learn something more cannot be a bad movie.
On the plus side, it does have some good action sequences (this was in the days before horses learned to gallop in slow motion), and uses the Indians as enemy only for dramatic effect and not as a source of derision. In fact, the chief, represented by white man, Pat Hogan, is probably the film's most admirable character. "I have never known Yellow Hand to lie or go back on his word," says Cody at one point and it is not without good reason that he shows some remorse after he is forced to kill him.
It also gives us a look at a young Charlton Heston, before he became a staple of the large, big budget biblical epics. At this point in his career, Heston was still experimenting, trying to find himself as actor by taking on such varied roles as a circus boss, President Andrew Jackson, a South American plantation owner, a soldier of fortune, or a surgeon. Just the fact that he doesn't have to deliver each line as if he were speaking from a pulpit makes his work more interesting, if not necessarily better.
Best of all, it was here that I saw Rhonda Fleming for the first time. I fell in love with her immediately and wanted to marry her when I grew up. When I watch this movie today, I still think it was a good idea.
Despite its overall low ratings, I cannot help but like "Pony Express". It has amiable characters, snappy dialogue (which emphasizes just how much modern screenwriters have lost their sense of humor) and a plot that moves briskly to its predictable conclusion. If the movie hearkens back to simpler, more clear-cut times, it is at least nice to see heroes who genuinely like each other and who can get the job done while having some fun doing it, rather than today's friendless, dour-faced loners with chips on their shoulders who spend every waking minute searching for "the truth."
You Don't Have to Like Westerns to Like This
It is almost pity that Alan Ladd made such a lasting impact in "Shane." Certainly "Shane" is his best, but so closely is he identified with the role that many of his other worthy efforts have been undeservedly overlooked.
"Branded" is a case in point. As a western it may not pique everyone's interest, but as a morality play (as most good westerns are), it is an interesting study in personal identity, lost and found.
Ladd plays one of his patented icy gunmen, this time a small-time bandit named "Choya" who "lives by his wits" but is reaching the age where he "figures his luck's running out." He becomes involved in a scheme to bilk a wealthy cattle rancher by posing as the long lost son who was kidnapped by bandits some 25 years earlier. All goes well until he arrives at the Lavery ranch only to meet a loving, trusting family which welcomes him with open arms. It is the kind of love and warmth he has never known and, for the first time in his life, begins to question his motives. Resolving that he cannot go through with the sham, he sets out to find the real son and return him to the family.
The film is a good showcase for Ladd, one of the '40s and early 50s decades' most bankable stars. He appears in almost every scene and dominates it without deliberately bringing attention to himself. But equal credit must go to the supporting players who attack their roles with vigor and enthusiasm. Charles Bickford (who never, it seems, gave a bad performance) dignifies the proceedings with his presence as Lavery, the firm but fair cattle baron. Robert Keith is scornful as Leffingwell, a weasel of a man who knows his limitations but who also knows how to survive through cunning and maleficence. Joseph Calleia excels as Rubriz, the notorious Mexican bandit and the true son's adoptive father, whose character is not entirely reprehensible and whose own plight is worthy of our sympathy. And Mona Freeman is fine as the rancher's naïve but pretty daughter. She looks just angelic enough to lend credibility to Choya's reformation.
In terms of plot and presentation, "Branded" recalls the excellent silent films of William S. Hart whose westerns strove for authenticity and were the first to explore serious adult themes (unlike the formulaic Saturday matinée fare). All the ingredients are there: from the good-badman's colorful nickname to the young woman whose wide-eyed innocence leads him to question his unprincipled ways to the conflict between protagonist and adversary that eventually morphs into mutual respect. The action, primarily provided by a lengthy chase, is plentiful while the gunplay is minimal, serving only to advance the plot.
Directed by one-time cinematographer Rudolph Mate, "Branded" is a beautiful film its colorful, sweeping Arizona landscapes and wide open spaces. Mate made a number of pictures in the '50s, most of them genre-types such as "DOA" (film noir), "The Prince who was a Thief" (adventure), and "When Worlds Collide" (fantasy). Though few became bona-fide classics, all are highly entertaining and a joy to watch. "Branded" is one of his best.
Walking My Baby Back Home (1953)
Who could resist walking Janet back home?
Universal International's "Walking My Baby Back Home" may suffer when compared with the elaborate production values of the great MGM musicals but it is, nonetheless, a very likable piece of entertainment. It does not take itself too seriously and does not try to be anything more than what it is: a fun little movie. Its charm derives mainly from the sunny personalities of its two talented leads.
Donald O'Connor was one of the most versatile young performers in Hollywood during the early '50s. He could sing (passably enough for a musical), he could dance (no qualifiers needed here), he could do comedy (Who else could make pictures with a talking mule without looking ridiculous?) and he could do drama as he proved later in his career. Why he wasn't a bigger star is a mystery. Perhaps it was because he was too good-natured and looked to boyish to be taken seriously. But his role here, as the enthusiastic young bandleader who is looking for that "right" sound and eventually stumbles onto Dixieland-Jazz, suits his persona to a tee.
He is helped in no small part by the very pretty, and equally enthusiastic, Janet Leigh. Leigh, who must surely have had one of the most disarming smiles in cinema history, had begun her career with MGM and, although she had been taught to sing and dance at the studio, she could not make a dent in Arthur Freed's high-powered talent pool. "Walking My Baby Back Home" gave her the rare opportunity to star in a musical and she acquits herself nicely (she would make a bigger impression two years later in Columbia's "My Sister Eileen"). Her "Camptown Races" number, in which she is dressed only in top hat, bow tie, one piece swimsuit, white gloves, and high heels is a treat for the eyes, especially for Janet Leigh fans.
The comedy, provided mostly by O'Connor and Buddy Hackett, is breezy and only adds to the fun. O'Connor's second opera-singing lesson with Madame Grinaldo is a little forced but right in keeping with the lighthearted nature of the film. And the laryngitis scenes, in which O'Connor's facial expressions run the gamut from euphoria to despair, are hilarious. As for Hackett, he is fine as O'Connor's ex-army pal and wannabe musician. I do not find his Chinese waiter routine offensive, merely too long (He is definitely not helped by the man who plays the drunk!).
Again, the musical routines are not in MGM's league, but they are pleasant enough. The film's highlight is the dance number in which O'Connor and Leigh gambol, to the title tune, through a toy-like playground which is set against a backdrop that looks like a child's drawing. It is a nostalgic reminder of the sweetness and innocence of young love.
I once had the delightful experience of meeting Janet Leigh. When I mentioned that "Walking My Baby Back Home" was one of my favorite musicals, her immediate reaction was a bubbly: "Oh, I loved that movie!"
You couldn't ask for a better endorsement than that.