There’s a Western musical number in one of Fred Astaire’s least-known films, Let’s Dance (1950), where a TV set is seen on the wall, showing a cowboy film. Astaire eyes it disbelievingly for a second – then whips out a gun and shoots the screen. A slightly less drastic method of getting rid of the competition is used at the start of another Fifties film musical, Young at Heart (1954.) Here, an elderly Ethel Barrymore is sitting watching a boxing match on television, but the commentary is deliberately drowned out by her musician brother (Robert Keith), until she switches off – and the message is driven home by a wry comment that he “won the fight”.
In real life, however, the fight wasn’t so easy to win.The audience was falling away to television, and the writing was on the wall for big-budget Technicolor musical extravaganzas. When The Band Wagon was released in 1953, MGM’s Arthur Freed unit, which had made so many great films, was facing a struggle for funding, and Astaire’s contract with the studio was coming to an end. It’s hardly surprising that, despite its lavish musical sequences, including Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s romantic Dancing in the Dark, the film at times has a sad, wistful feeling about it compared to the high spirits of Singin’ In The Rain the previous year.
Recently I’ve seen several films starring John Garfield, and been impressed by all of them. After seeing this fine drama where he plays a virtuoso violinist, I’m starting to wonder if he ever made a bad movie.
I was doubly interested by this film because it sees him opposite Joan Crawford, an actress whose work I want to know better. This is said to be one of her finest performances, and she actually gets top billing over Garfield, although he has more screen time, signalling that at heart this is a woman’s emotion picture.
John Garfield and Joan Crawford
Despite the title, which might sound as if this is a comedy, in fact it’s an intense melodrama, with a dark, noirish look about it, wreathed in shadows. However, what sets it apart from other melodramas I’ve seen is the sparklingly witty dialogue by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold, with plenty of lines to remember for later. Director Jean Negulesco, nominated for an Oscar a couple of years later for Johnny Belinda, was at the height of his powers, and, with great classical music on the soundtrack, it all adds up to a winning mixture.