The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: The Last Five Years

Monday, February 21, 2011

New Faces

February 19, 1954   Fox   98 minutes

With the rising prestige of the musical film, care was taken to enhance the quality of deserving properties with new technologies. 3-D came and went, but CinemaScope was more than a passing fad; it was a declaration of importance, privilege, superiority! And so the first Bway musical to be accorded this laurel was (drum roll please.)….New Faces. Whaaa? Yes, a stage revue filmed on flimsy sets was given the first wide-screen treatment—a film without so much as a single outdoor scene, or even a bust like Jane Russell’s to justify the concept. Go figure. It begins with a conductor starting the overture (a trope already used by Fox in their unnecessarily formal prelude to How to Marry a Millionaire a scant few months before.) Backstage, the cast prepares for the show and a feeble “story” is added that is as superfluous as it is soporific. Shortly the show itself begins, and here’s our wide-screen shot: a wall of living portraits, the actors in cameo frames with their names blazoned above. “You’ve never seen us before...” they proclaim, but hope we will again. And so we have—fifty plus years on—at least a few of them…
New Faces and Top Banana opened on the same winter day in New York, and both of them reflected the sudden prominence of television—the latter as setting for its story, the former as TV’s new dominant format. By 1954 the Bway revue had been appropriated almost entirely by the new free medium—and with weekly fresh editions headed by Berle, Caesar, Coca, Gleason, and dozens of lesser lights what chance had the genre to survive on Bway? Revues are mostly pot luck; a meal of many plates, ranging in quality and taste with no discernible continuity. The better ones have a theme, or a star or two to feature in carefully tailored material. Two recent attempts: Two on the Aisle with Bert Lahr & Dolores Gray; and Two’s Company with Bette Davis (both bolstered with superior writing talent) attested to the format’s fading popularity—at least at orchestra prices. New Faces of 1952 gave brief hope for its revival, but it proved the last hit revue on Bway (except for the one-of-a-kind French lunacy, La Plume de Ma Tante, at the end of the ‘50s) until the songwriter anthology came into vogue decades later. New Faces was considered the last of Bway’s “great revues,” a tradition that saw peaks of brilliance in the ‘30s & ‘40s, mostly thru the contributions of America’s best tunesmiths: the Gershwins, Arlen, Berlin, Dietz & Schwartz. Arriving at the lowest point of the musical drought on Bway in May 1952, the show played a year in New York, then over half a year in Chicago. At which point the company shipped out to Hlwd and filmed the movie in a quick 3 weeks, before hitting the road for another 18 (half of them in San Francisco) prior to closing shop. 

There’s a lot of faces in the filmed New Faces but only a handful get a chance to leave an impression: Eartha Kitt, Robert Clary, Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley, June Carroll & Ronny Graham. The other 14 players are relegated to bits and chorus roles. Carol Lawrence shows up in dance numbers and demonstrates enuf talent to catch Jerome Robbins’ eye a few years later. But truth to tell would I have thought as much of her if I didn’t know who she was? Since the show’s debut in ‘52, the biggest breakout was Eartha Kitt, who was quickly making  records on her own. Fox made sure to capitalize on that, inserting 3 of her recent hits into the film that had never been part of the show. The first comes almost immediately, “C’est si Bon,” establishing la Kitt’s French pretensions. The second was a Turkish folk tune, “Uska Dara”—your guess is as good as mine. And the third was her signature song, “Santa, Baby” which in the previous year became a Christmas sensation and her calling card to most of the general public. I still can’t put my finger on it, but I’ve never been seduced by this so-called feline seductress. I’ve always found her slightly creepy (too big a head? too petite?) and here when she sings her biggest hit from the show itself, “Monotonous” the way her arms fly above and about her seem no less exaggerated than the extremes Lypsinka makes hilarious in her drag breakdowns.  And what’s with the Material Girl thread? Here she’s bored with the world thrown at her feet; in “Santa” she asks for little trinkets like diamond mines! Kitt’s voice, in its husky, guttural “purr” recalls Piaf, which I’ve found to be an equally acquired taste. The other Frenchman in the show—the real one: Robert Clary—is a pint-sized singer, in the Joel Grey manner. Known mostly in later years from “Hogan’s Heroes,” here he bellows each song in the Gallic music-hall manner, which means you will like him depending on your tolerance for such a foghorn style. He also gets one new number, the traditional “Aloutette” (just to prove to us he’s French?) which feels like a preview of La Plume de Ma Tante. But the best of his lot, tho admittedly hammy, is something called “Raining Memories,” sung in a field of open umbrellas—which in its simplicity is a visual highlight.

Paul Lynde and Alice Ghostley certainly had the most prolific careers afterward, being in demand for comic character parts. But Alice had solid dramatic chops too, and later won a Tony for a Lorraine Hansberry play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.  She had a fair enuf singing voice, tho she’s mostly used in sketches here, she has one well-remembered comic   lament,  “Boston  Beguine,” in which Porter-esque memories of tropical splendor are transposed to a buttoned-down Yankee fervor. I fear the song, written by a Sheldon Harnick yet to meet Jerry Bock, was a good deal funnier 50 years ago. (Does anyone still think of Boston as a bastion of Puritan morality?) Here in his mid-20s, Paul Lynde is already the middle-aged curmudgeon we all know. After this you’d think he would have been as ubiquitous as Tony Randall in the 1950s--only he wasn’t. It took Bye Bye Birdie to catapult him into the niche of broad Hlwd comedies and frequent TV guest and game spots that made him a household name. Here he is already fully Lynde: at a garden party, swathed in bandages, recalling a fatal trip to Africa. And the best sketch of all: a parody of Arthur Miller written by a very young Mel(vin) Brooks, “Of Father’s & Sons,” wherein an aging thief bemoans his son’s respectable aspirations. There’s real energy in this bit, with Lynde and Ghostley in peak form—and Graham in loony assist. Ronny Graham, who suggests an earlier-age Jim Carrey also plays a “hipster” (1952 style), and does a weak caricature of Truman Capote—introduced as Mr. Kaput (in 1952!—which shows how early Tru’s celebrity began. There’s a telling bit of editorial comment by the disapproving glances from two chorus members standing by as part of the scenery.) Graham wrote a great deal of material for the show, including a number of songs, few of which he himself got to sing.  But he did save one of the best for himself: the lyric musical parody, “Lizzie Borden”

        Cause you can’t chop your Mama up in
        Not even if you’re tired of her cuisine
        No you can’t chop your Mama up in
        You know it’s almost sure to cause a scene

These were the days when the serious turn of musical theatre (and the R&H revolution) was often satirized: What unlikely subject or story could they turn into a musical now? (Little did they know!) Virginia DeLuce plays an often interrupted showgirl, who towers over beau Clary, and frets over her father’s approval—which constitutes the entire “plot.”

And that leaves us with June Carroll. Being the sister of Leonard Sillman, the Bway producer of the New Faces series (of which there were 7 editions between ’34 & ’68) goes a long way in explaining her presence here. She’s an odd duck. I don’t know what to make of a curiosity called “Penny Candy,” in which, dressed as matron wearing diamonds & mink stole, and entering before a wall of inexplicable (and rudimentary) circus posters, she yearns for a simpler past:

          I wish I could bounce a red ball
          On the brick of a tenement wall
          And never ask for more at all

It’s rather creepy. On Bway she did a verse of the show’s hoped-for “big” ballad: “Love is a Simple Thing” as a Chas Addams character—convincingly sold without special makeup or costume. Even with all the musical additions, only 3 songs were cut: “Don’t Fall Asleep,” an anniversary wish sung by light soprano, Rosemary O’Reilly who virtually disappears in the film; a Scottish something-or-other called “Nanty Puts Her Hair Up” that featured Alice Ghostley; and another of June Carroll’s solos: “Guess Who I Saw Today?,” which some sources claim is in the film. It’s not in the DVD release from 2006. The song (by Murray Grand & Elisse Boyd) became a jazz favorite for singers like Carmen McRae, Eydie Gorme and Nancy Wilson (whose 1960 recording is the one I’m most familiar with.) On Bway the show featured 13 sketches, but only 6 made it to the screen. Among those cut was a parody of restoration comedy; a satire of Laurence Olivier & Vivien Leigh; and a grand opera spoof (which had just been done in Two on the Aisle as a new forum for vaudeville performers.)

Mercifully, New Faces doesn’t make the mistake of playing to a silent audience as Top Banana did. The scenes are unmistakably stagey, but at least they feel performed for us “faces in the dark,” as Norma Desmond would say. It’s obvious that each segment was filmed separately, with the expectation and result of being shuffled about (the order of sequence differs greatly from the Bway show), so there’s no real sense of flow It’s pot luck. As an artifact from a forgotten age this is a great document, but as a timeless piece of entertainment: the milk in this carton has mostly turned.

Next Up: Hazel Flagg

Report Card:    New Faces
Overall Film:    C
Bway Fidelity:  A- (songs) C (sketches) 
Songs from Bway:  13
Songs Cut from Bway:  3
New Songs:    4;  (3 Eartha Kitt hits)
Standout Numbers: “Lizzie Borden”
               “Raining Memories”
               “Of Fathers & Songs” (sketch)
Worst Omission: “Guess Who I Saw Today?”
Worst Additions: “C’est si Bon” “Alouette”
Casting:                 None by Hlwd
Cast from Bway:  All
Standout Cast: Lynde, Ghostley
                              Kitt, Clary (for those inclined)
Direction:          From time remembered
Choreography:     Generic
Ballet:                 None
Scenic Design:  Sets from the show
Costumes:          Bargain basement
Standout Set:    A field of umbrellas
Titles:                  End credits, basic
Oscar Noms: Not even For Your Consideration
Weird Hall of Fame: “Penny Candy”

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