Three Musicals
by Les Phillips

Two musicals that should not have been made, and one that must be made.

Pal Joey (George Sidney, 1957), from the Rodgers and Hart musical, book by John O'Hara, with Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, and Kim Novak. I have read about the original productions of Pal Joey. There was a production here in Boston four or five years ago (Huntington Theatre), substantially reworked from previous versions, I think, and it got raves. I can't tell from those accounts, or from this film, whether Pal Joey can really work as a modern musical. The people who produced this film did not care to answer that question. They wanted Sinatra, near the absolute prime of his recording career, to sing "The Lady Is A Tramp" and a number of other great songs, not all of which were originally in Pal Joey, I think, and the rest could take care of itself. "My Funny Valentine" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" are songs for the female leads, Hayworth and Novak. Somebody dubbed Hayworth's singing, and I can't imagine that the same wasn't done for Novak.

Sinatra was 42 when he made this film. He is supposed to be Hayworth's younger boytoy - without looking it up, I'm sure he's older than Hayworth, and he looks at least her age here. This helps desex the film, as do certain small changes in lyrics (no longing for "the trousers that cling to him" in this film). The nonsinging parts of Sinatra's performance are lazy Rat Pack sleepwalking. He is of course tremendously magnetic when he chooses to be; when he doesn't choose to be, he's just this jugeared forty-two year old person; not unphotographable, but his looks are a bit laughable.

I have never understood Kim Novak except as a Hitchcock ice princess.

Daddy Long Legs
(Jean Negulesco, 1955)

Perhaps not strictly a musical, but there's some balletics and original songs by Johnny Mercer. A whiff of the old fifties "Aren't the French cute?" can be detected (An American in Paris, Gigi, etc.)

Desperately desexed, on the surface. Fred Astaire is a rich middle-aged Manhattan socialite who visits France and by chance observes Leslie Caron, age 17 or so, a poor rural girl. Astaire is taken by Caron's obvious . . . er, intelligence! Her grace and her, uh, maturity. Yes, that's it, her maturity. So, because Astaire is very, very generous and liberal, and because he wants to help the poor, he arranges to pay anonymously for her new life in America, which appears to include four years at Smith, or somesuch. He writes her anonymous letters for four years. He signs them "Daddy Long Legs," with a little drawing of long legs as part of the signature. Long legs?

Eventually they meet. Then, and only then, you understand, does Astaire develop romantic feelings for his young charge.

The plot is embarrassing now, and surely was embarrassing at least subliminally in 1955; an audience of any sophistication would have had to ignore the obvious smutty subtextual implications.

One of those Disneyesque choir of angels keeps singing "Daddy Long-Legs, Daddy Long-Legs," at certain emotional moments. It's meant to be a lighthearted romp. Instead, I kept wondering when the police were going to arrest Fred Astaire. The actors do not make this offbeat, lovable, whimsical May-December relationship at all credible. Egregious Technicolor.

Sunset Boulevard (Fall 2004, starring Barbra Streisand, directed by Barbra Streisand, produced by Barbra Streisand; additional songs by Barbra Streisand)

I'm totally serious. Hollywood is convinced that big movie musicals can't be sold to the public any more unless they're rock music or unless there's some wacky angle, and perhaps they can't make money even then. So Barbra's comeback triumph would occur on many levels - her comeback, Norma's comeback, the comeback of an entire genre of film. Maybe you liked The Prince of Tides or Yentl, or maybe you did not, but I think they proved she can direct a film. (Any other director would have terrible trouble with her, anyway; best not to let anyone rain on her parade). She can act, and the role doesn't exactly make her play against type. God knows she can sing; her recorded versions of two of the songs from this musical (the only two good ones) knock the top of my head off. Could she control her excesses? Possibly not; but is that what you want Norma Desmond to do? Especially in the musical version. And she's a very well preserved almost-sixty.

Babs keeps saying that she just want to hang loose, give some money away, play a little politics, spend some time with her milquetoast husband. So she could hire James Brolin to play Joe Gillis. She'd have to shoot him onstage every night, so maybe the better idea is to cast the humpiest singing twenty-year-old she can find - perhaps Josh Hartnett can be taught to sing (or act) - and then they can hire Brolin to play the chauffeur. He'd probably be pretty good in that role.

OK, so the rest of the casting needs work. But I'm really serious - it would either be one of the most tremendous disasters in film history, or an amazing reactionary triumph. I'd bet on the latter, I really would. But, either way, it wouldn't be boring, and it wouldn't be sexless, either.

©2002 Les Phillips
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