It must be a daunting prospect to step into a role which another actor has already made his own. But Frank Sinatra did it at least twice, in musical remakes of much-loved movies. In High Society he took on the role which had won James Stewart an Oscar in The Philadelphia Story, and a couple of years earlier he stepped into the shoes of another legend, John Garfield. In Young at Heart, starring opposite Doris Day, Sinatra plays the character who turned Garfield into a star – a bitter, mixed-up young musician who believes the fates are out to get him.
I’m a big fan of Garfield and of the original 1938 film, Four Daughters, also starring Priscilla Lane, which I hope to return to here in the New Year, as part of a series about films focused on groups of sisters or female friends. However, I also really like the remake, directed by Gordon Douglas, who worked with Sinatra on several other films. This version keeps a lot of the same witty dialogue by Julius Epstein and Lenore J Coffee – and Sinatra burns up the screen as Barney Sloan. (His name has been changed from Garfield’s Mickey Borden.) Day is also perfectly cast as Laurie Tuttle, the golden girl who tries to break through Barney’s defences, but sadly she doesn’t get any musical numbers to equal the three great torch songs which Sinatra performs in the course of the film. Sitting at the piano nursing a cigarette and wearing a battered Fedora, he looks as if he has materialised from the sleeve of one of his albums of sad songs, such as In the Wee Small Hours, released the following year.
This is my contribution to the Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub. Do check out the other postings, which cover a wide range of artists.
Facing the music and dancing
If there is any one dance number which sums up the appeal of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, perhaps it’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance, as it serves up glamour, romance and laughter in the face of despair. At the start of the number, Astaire plays an elegant gambler on board a ship. He loses all he has left at the tables and is about to shoot himself – but that’s when Rogers appears at the side of the deck, trying to throw herself off. Somehow she indicates with her eyes alone that the reason is a broken love affair. They save each other, as he pulls her back from the brink and she snatches his gun, which he then throws into the sea, followed by his empty wallet. Next Fred starts to sing Irving Berlin’s song, with those opening lines which are almost like an Astaire-Rogers movie in miniature: “There may be trouble ahead/ But while there’s moonlight and music/ And love and romance/ Let’s face the music and dance.”
And theydo dance, of course, fitting into each other’s movements with an apparently effortless perfection that takes your breath away, however many times you’ve seen it. Fred is in his famous tails (after wearing a sailor’s uniform for much of the movie in question, Follow the Fleet) and Ginger wears an evening dress with a fur stole draped around her shoulders. The cruise ship and casino are a world away from most people’s reality – and yet the whole number is informed by the experience of the Great Depression which the audience was still living through in 1936. Dance now, pay later.
Frank Loesser’s amazing score for Guys and Dolls has to be one of the greatest ever written, packed with unforgettable songs, from Fugue for Tinhorns to Luck, Be a Lady and SitDown, You’re Rockin’ the Boat. Michael Kidd’s fast-moving choreography in the colourful street scenes, using Cinemascope to its full effect, adds to the atmosphere, while the dialogue is full of sharp one-liners. However, the film has had much adverse criticism over the years.
So what’s the reason for the widespread lack of enthusiasm? I think it might be mainly that the stage musical is so beloved and frequently revived, with the film coming off second-best by comparison . As with so many adaptations, a few of the songs from the stage show were jettisoned for the film, including such greats as I’ve Never Been in Love Before – Marlon Brando, controversially cast in a singing role, is said to have struggled with some of the notes. However, as compensation, Loesser wrote some new songs for the film, including A Woman in Love for Brando and Sinatra’s show-stopper Adelaide, which, going full circle, is now sometimes included in stage productions.
Don’t be misled by the title – though MGM probably hoped people would be. There is nothing very glitzy about this movie, not all that much pageantry, and the only “king” featured is Fred Astaire in a pasteboard crown for the opening musical number.
For the most part, the royal wedding, of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, is just a backdrop, and the film was released as Wedding Bells in the UK to make it clear the royals didn’t actually feature. The main story is an amusing and occasionally poignant backstager partly based on Astaire’s own early career, when he and sister Adele were famous dancing partners until she retired from the stage to marry a British aristocrat. However, the story is probably secondary to the stunning dance numbers, including the famous one where he dances up the walls and around the ceiling. Jane Powell ‘s beautiful singing voice is another definite plus to this movie, which has songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane and a screenplay by Lerner.