Monday, June 16, 2014

My Gal Sal

We often think of Golden Age movie stars living a life of ease, making movies during the day and then going to nightclubs like Ciro's or The Brown Derby in the evening. But Golden Age movie stardom was hard work. When not making the actual movies, actors and actresses spent their days in endless publicity photo poses or learned new skills such as horseback riding, fencing or dancing the minuet for an upcoming movie. Such skills didn't come overnight and often required endless hours of rehearsal for a scene that may only last a minute or two on-screen.

That occurred to me while watching MY GAL SAL (1942), an above average entry in the period musical genre so favored by 20th Century Fox.

In one scene, Victor Mature plays two pianos at the same time during a medicine show. He swivels on his stool and continues to play the pianos behind him while facing the audience. I'm no expert on piano techniques, but Mature's fingering looks pretty spot-on to me. I don't know if Mature was musically inclined in real life, but if not, I can only imagine the hours of rehearsal he went through to make it look so convincing.

Fox had a penchant for celebrating obscure songwriters of the nineteenth and early 20th centuries, such as Fred Fisher in OH YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL (1949), Joe Howard in I WONDER WHO'S KISSING HER NOW (1947) and Ernest Ball in IRISH EYES ARE SMILING (1944).

In MY GAL SAL, it's Paul Dresser's turn. Dresser's most famous song is probably “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away”, written in 1897 and, according to Wikipedia, it became the second best-selling song – in sheet music sales – in the nineteenth century. Hoosiers liked it enough to make it the official state song of Indiana in 1913.

Much of what we know about Dresser comes courtesy of his brother, novelist Theodore Dreiser, author of “An American Tragedy”, which was made into a movie of the same name in 1931 with Sylvia Sidney and most famously in A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951). MY GAL SAL was adopted from his story “My Brother Paul.”(Paul Dreiser changed his name to Dresser when he was 20 years old).

Still, even blessed with a novelist's imagination, I doubt Theodore would recognize elements of Paul Dresser's life in the wildly imaginative MY GAL SAL. But that's OK- truth belongs to documentaries, and MY GAL SAL is a most entertaining, Technicolor-drenched show.

An indelible part of the film's appeal is Rita Hayworth, who plays the film's title role. She's Sally Elliott, big theatrical star, who earns Dresser's enmity when she and some friends laugh at Dresser's music act at a medicine show. When he sees her perform, Dresser realizes that he's only been slumming in the medicine shows and is determined to make it to the big time.

Rita Hayworth and Technicolor are made for each other, with her red hair and peaches and cream complexion beautifully captured by the Technicolor cameras.
If MY GAL SAL is not the equal of the musicals she made with Astaire or Kelly, it's still very enjoyable, though admittedly formulaic.

As is typical of these films, the two leads fall in love, fall out of love, and there's a misunderstanding or two until all is resolved. In the meantime we are treated to a series of musical numbers, some songs courtesy the pen of Dresser with others from the songwriting team of Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger.

(I've always been amused by the number of composer biographies that include new song numbers penned by studio songwriters.)

The interpolated songs are good ones, especially “Oh, the Pity of It All” charmingly sung by Mature (dubbed by Ben Gage, later Esther Williams' husband) and Hayworth (dubbed by Nan Wynn). I also liked “Me and My Fella and a Big Umbrella”, a charming number with Rita wearing a most fetching 1890s-style bathing suit.

The new ballad, “Here You Are” is a nice song but sounds exactly like it was written in 1942. It doesn't sound like anything from the 1890's. But I don't think Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck concerned himself very much with such matters.
Speaking of Zanuck, he could be very petty with actresses who didn't bend to his will. The Sally Elliott role was first offered to Carole Landis, but she refused to dye her blond hair red. Rita Hayworth was borrowed from Columbia for the role and Landis was given a nothing role as the gal in the medicine show who nurses Dresser back to health after he is tarred and feathered by an angry mob after the medicine show's elixir proves to be not so healthy. It's a demeaning role for one of Fox's most promising ladies, and proof one did not get on Zanuck's bad side.

I like Mature a lot in this too. His Dresser is brash, not particularly classy and a braggart. He sees a party thrown in Sally's honor as a party for him celebrating his first song hit. (Hayworth's reaction to this is priceless). But he brings some real vigor to the role and despite his coarseness, I couldn't help rooting for him. Rita and Victor dated in the early 1940s and their chemistry together is undeniable.

The film's choreographer Hermes Pan shows up as Rita's dance partner in “On the Gay White Way”, a terrific number that showcases Rita at her dancing best. The supporting cast can't be beat. Any movie with James Gleason and Frank Orth is worth cherishing.

Director is Irving Cummings, an old hand at material like this. He also directed one of Betty Grable's best period musicals, SWEET ROSIE O'GRADY (1943). If there's nothing particularly distinguished about these films, they at least move and are entertaining.

I've always liked Victor Mature. In the 1950s, my mom worked at a company and her boss served with him in World War II in the Coast Guard. He said he was a great guy who didn't take himself too seriously.

My favorite Victor Mature anecdote has to do with THE ROBE (1953). I don't want a horde of Richard Burton or Jean Simmons fans descending on me, but I think Mature gives the best performance in the film. Burton agreed and thought that he (Burton) gave a terrible performance. Burton liked telling the story of watching the scene where he is being bewitched by the power of The Robe, screaming, grimacing and making facial contortions, while Mature, in the background, has a beatific look on his face as he gazes heavenward.

Burton told him there he is on the screen making a complete idiot of himself while Mature stole the whole scene from him by standing there with that exalted look on his face. He asked Mature what he was thinking when they were doing that scene.

Mature told him, “ I was thinking of all the money Fox was paying me to stand here and look up at the ceiling.”

How can you not like that guy?


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Great post. I like Victor Mature too. Good observations about all the extra-curricular work it took to be a film actor back in the day.

Caftan Woman said...

"Any movie with James Gleason and Frank Orth is worth cherishing." I must have that made into a needlepoint.

My ideas about show business, and fondness for old time songs came from watching these Fox musicals in my youth. I never felt stinted on the entertainment nor betrayed by the lack of an accurate history lesson. There's a lot of joy in them there pictures!

Kevin Deany said...

CW, I love those Fox musicals as well. Great songs, arrangements and lavish staging. And most of them in Technicolor. What's not to like?

Jacqueline, I'd rather watch Victor Mature than a lot of so-called "respectable" actors. The man definitely had star quality.