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: Nine

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Can-Can

March 9, 1960   Fox   131 minutes
From the beginning Can-Can was a musical in search of a story. Producers Feuer & Martin, looking to follow up their smash hit, Guys & Dolls, came up with an enticing idea: 1890s Paris + Cole Porter + the can-can. But this was the era of story, not loose fragments hanging on a theme or atmosphere. Two attempts at a libretto were discarded before Abe Burrows carved out a script that reached Bway, where it was tepidly received. No matter, the show was a smash anyway: Porter worked his magic (tho few critics would acknowledge it); but most sensationally, Michael Kidd brought the show to life with his dances, introducing a hitherto obscure talent: Gwen Verdon—the biggest Bway Star-Is-Born moment since Mary Martin’s debut in another Porter show 15 years earlier. The problem was, like Martin, Verdon played a supporting role, and the show’s nominal Star, Lilo, was an authentic French chanteuse (in the Sophie Tucker style, who come to think of it, was the fading star of Martin’s debut vehicle, Leave it to Me.) Her thunder stolen (this never happened to Merman) Lilo never had further success in America. Verdon became legend. Her role as nightclub dancer and part-time laundress, Claudine, was central to a secondary plot by Burrows about Montmartre artists leeching off their working girlfriends. But the show’s thru-line was about censorship (something Porter was well acquainted with), played out between a café owner and a smitten judge.

Film rights to the musical were originally tied up in Porter’s contract with MGM, but later sold to Fox in May ‘58. As Can-Can’s libretto was of little importance or contribution to its success, Fox thought nothing of discarding it entirely—which seemed to be the standard fate of Porter’s musicals in Hlwd. (Kiss Me Kate and Silk Stockings the only exceptions) Another refugee from MGM, producer Jack Cummings was given the prime assignment of shepherding the story-challenged show to the screen. Initially, Fox intended to fashion a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, which signaled their intention for a total rewrite. As a co-star Sinatra was drawn in. Because of his abrupt withdrawl from Carousel he owed the studio another picture—why not this? A few Porter songs, a match up with Monroe—(tho hard to imagine how they would ever have worked together, he of the two-take max, and she of the countless re-dos.) But then Fox assigned Monroe to George Cukor for Let’s Make Love, which had songs by Sammy Cahn & James Van Heusen (frequent suppliers to the Sinatra catalog), but without Frank. Tho he was the top choice for nearly every Bway property that wound up in Hlwd, and curiously suitable for most of them, Can-Can (even in a role written to accommodate him) is not one of them. It gets loonier when you consider Cukor then gave Monroe a genuine French co-star: Yves Montand—absurdly playing a billionaire posing as an Off-Bway actor. Logic would have dictated Montand and Sinatra switch roles, but Fox wanted to maximize the commercial assets of their expensive Bway purchase, and that meant Sinatra. With all the casualness of his stature, he then used his muscle to recruit his Rat Pack gal pal, and previous co-star, Shirley MacLaine; which set the tone of the project on a second skewed trajectory.
Of all the screen goddesses who formed my world view (Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Shirley Jones, Leslie Caron) the one who stole my heart above all others was Shirley MacLaine. Whether it was her unique dimpled smile or the twinkle in her eyes or simply her goofball personality, I was completely taken in from the moment I first encountered her. She forged a new archetype in Hlwd: the lovable kook—built on the template of Pajama Game’s Gladys—her accidental ticket to fame and fortune. The trajectory of her peripatetic life was breathtaking. Within five years she was at the top of Hlwd’s A-list, and working with directors like Hitchcock, Minnelli, Wyler, Wise and Billy Wilder (who this same year would mold her into Fran Kubelik in The Apartment; the most iconic hapless working girl of mid-century American film—and perhaps my greatest cinematic love.) But MacLaine and Can-Can do each other no favors. She’s not a blonde, for one thing, and looks wrong in her strawberry wigs. Nor does she convey, even remotely, any sense of being a Parisienne. Neither she nor Frank bother with losing their Mid-Atlantic accents; even more transparent next to Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan and South African dancer, Juliet Prowse—who ladles on the ooh-la-la’s like a Latin Quarter native. Sinatra and MacLaine inhabit their own movie; playing scenes as if ad-libbing at a midnight Vegas lounge show. They make convincing great pals, but there’s absolutely no sexual chemistry running between them. They appear so platonic it seems shocking when she starts pressing him for marriage. (What?—He isn’t just her lawyer?) The argument recalls the same dynamic the two had in Some Came Running, and you don’t have to look hard to notice Shirl playing Ginnie Moorehead in French dress—which, unfortunately comes across shrill here. But then what to make of this character? By combining Lilo and Verdon’s roles, the part makes absolutely no sense: an uneducated, lower-class, 25 year old café dancer, running her own thriving nightclub—by herself—in 19th century Paris? “Simone Pistache” sings songs of confidence and experience; she should exude maturity and hard-earned fortitude. Someone like Simone Signoret fits that bill. Or, if you’re going to chuck any and all Gallic pretense, at least a woman who’s been around the block, like a Judy Garland (can’t you hear her sing “Ce’st Magnifique,” or “I Love Paris”?) or a Lena Horne (as if they’d go that far…) No, MacLaine makes sense here only as an appeasement to Sinatra, and the expanded, if nonsensical, role of Simone is an appeasement to MacLaine. Sometimes stars have all the muscle, tho in the era of Golden Age musicals this is becoming much less so.

For his part, Sinatra virtually sleepwalks thru the pic—which is all the more disappointing in retrospect, for being his last screen musical (but for three numbers in the Rat Pack tuner, Robin & the 7 Hoods in ’64). He had his pick of virtually any Bway hit that wound its way to Hlwd in the ‘50s, and would continue to be tempted with offers for another decade, but after Can-Can he confined his singing to TV and concerts. The concept of Sinatra singing Porter under Nelson Riddle’s baton sounds a great deal better than the result. They gave him Simone’s song, “C’est Magnifique,” which is fine, if tamely executed—and whets our appetite for more. But aside from a cursory opening with Chevalier (“Montmartre”) and a duet with MacLaine, he has but one number: “It’s All Right with Me”—one of Porter’s late great swinging ballads. But this arrangement is shockingly lethargic. Ol’ Blue Eyes sings it to Juliet Prowse (who would soon be a brief fiancée) in his Only the Lonely mood. But the song concludes the first act and  brings us  to intermission—so a little energy would seem to be in order. Not as big, perhaps, as a tug boat in New York harbor, but at least some rhythmic kick, some visual spark. The song can grow from quiet meditation to a frustrated howl. All we get is a pulled-back crane shot as Frank slowly walks out of the saloon--hardly a first act finish. Bizarrely, the musical’s biggest hit song, “I Love Paris,” was cut from the movie—tho it remained on the soundtrack, sung by Sinatra & Chevalier. The film only retains a studio chorus over the film’s credits, and a quick 8 bars in the final reel. (Sinatra recorded another version under Riddle’s arrangement a month after the film’s release.) At least none of the cast is dubbed for a change—an increasing rarity in musicals as they come to Hlwd. As no Porter musical ever escapes interpolating other songs from his catalog (even Kiss Me Kate added “From This Moment On”), a trio of standards were added here for popular consumption: “You Do Something to Me” given to Jourdan; “Just One of Those Things” to Chevalier; and “Let’s Do It,” performed by Frank & Shirley ala Live at the Sands—a song whose inclusion is arbitrary at best. After putting off her plea for marriage (it’s Nathan & Adelaide again), why would they sing, “Let’s do it, let’s fall in love”? Aren’t they way past that? For those who might wonder what MacLaine would have been like as The Unsinkable Molly Brown (for which she was first contracted), look no further than her rendition here of “Come Along With Me.” Drunkenly performed for Jourdan’s demimonde, the scene could be virtually transposed onto Molly’s Denver society debut, complete with raucous kicks and rolls on the floor in a voluminous satin gown. She’d have been better in that role.

The surprise here is Louis Jourdan. Handsome to a fault, he’s often stiff; a little boring—as his Gaston in Gigi dictated: walking ennui. He still has his rigid spine here, but there’s a lively bit of devilishness about him as a judge without snobbery. His scenes with MacLaine have some real zing to them; in contrast to Shirley’s playacting with Frank. She becomes something closer to a character; their cat-and-mouse courtship brings the screenplay to life as no other scenes do. So much so, that it’s a real disappointment when Jourdan loses her to Sinatra in the end. And this after setting up a “tell;” Simone’s Prince Charming would be the one to close her stuck window. When Jourdan effortlessly executes this he’s cinched the deal—you would think. But then Sinatra never did play by the rules. And so both acts of the film leave us disappointed. But Jourdan even holds his own in song. His uptempo reprise of “It’s All Right With Me,” is more welcome than Sinatra’s soporific take.

As for Chevalier, he’s more palatable as a Parisian judge than a boulevard goat, and a good deal less creepy. His duet with Jourdan, “Live & Let Live,” is a far more entertaining sentiment than “It’s a Bore.” For those who enjoy the gent I suppose his “Just One of Those Things,” stands among his best screen numbers. It’s certainly performed on a lovely terrace set. The film’s discovery, plucked from a Parisian night club, was Juliet Prowse—who aside from a few dances is given very little to do. She plays decoration to Sinatra in two of his numbers, but leads the opening chorus in a floorshow, “Maidens Typical of France,” that jettisons period flavor for very obvious contemporary orchestrations. The movie successfully launched Prowse in America. MacLaine got the bulk of Verdon’s dances including the Apache, which serves as her opening number—when without warning she’s grabbed from gabbing tableside with Jourdan, and slapped around by five men in that quaint trope of pimp & whore violence.  It isn’t helped by the circus clown garb that Shirley is wearing, nor the cloth dummy that gets tossed about in effigy; it’s neither serious nor comical enuf to be memorable.

Still, for all the commercial ingredients poured into Fox’s Can-Can, the only genuine pleasure is in the dances. Michael Kidd staged the numbers on Bway, but Hermes Pan got the assignment in Hlwd. Kidd was known to be more vigorous as well as cartoonish. But the can-can is the can-can, and if done right is always going to be an exuberant joy. We get a slice of it at the top; and then as the inevitable, and welcome finale—skirts swirling in furious rhythm as the ladies rush about the stage. “Ban it?” snorts the previously adamant dowager, now a convert, “I want to learn it!” And leave it to Cole Porter to write a tune that needn’t apologize to Offenbach. Ironically, the song goes unsung—Porter’s racy lyrics silenced once again, even in a fable about censorship. A “dream” ballet was now so ubiquitous in Bway musicals (and their screen incarnations) that I felt jaded as the curtain rose on the Garden of Eden Ballet. But this one is shockingly good. It’s got everything; a thru-line, an instinct for brevity, a mood-shift, and beautiful melody played in luscious variations—the otherwise neglected “I Love Paris,” which the movie hungers for. (Here’s another example of Porter’s genius—no matter how cliché the sentiment, he could still produce a knockout song.) The ballet’s set is an art-nouveau wire garden; and the enchanting costumes, by Irene Sharaff, are a cross between Beatrix Potter and Cecil Beaton’s Ascot look. MacLaine dances the role of Eve as Verdon did, but Prowse steals the number, first as a rooster, awakening the Peaceable Kingdom. MacLaine’s Eve descends on the wings of an iron butterfly, rousing the bronzed, curly-blonde and bearded Adam (dancer Marc Wilder) into paradise. Prowse soon reappears as the proverbial  Snake (deliciously slithering down a skeletal tree) and the pastoral pas de deux turns into a heated trio, then a stage full of all creatures great & small, after the fall. It’s a nifty little piece that gets a jazzy jolt at the end. (I love the bouncing apples rolling among the flock.) Tho she was discovered in a musical, MacLaine’s musical talents weren’t much recognized in Hlwd, or imposed upon—another reason she jumped at Frank’s invite to Can-Can. Here she gets to record the fruits of her many years of dance lessons. She has the technique in the ballet segments, but not the lightness; she’s better when ballet shifts into jazz—there’s more connection, more fun. But all in all, the Eden Ballet is so impeccably lit, so cleanly staged, so beautifully photographed—that it recalls nothing so much as the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” from The King & I in its execution. The common thread between the two is director Walter Lang, coming off an Oscar nomination for the previous effort. Here he’s obviously hampered by Dorothy Kingsley’s screenplay (finished by Charles Lederer) tailored to stars who had no real business with the material. The musical purposefully avoids any mention of the Moulin Rouge—tho its famous windmill is seen on the studio street in the distance. This was likely in deference to John Huston’s recent film Moulin Rouge, which used the milieu to tell the story of Toulouse-Lautrec. The script pokes fun at the diminutive artist twice, first with Sinatra quipping, as they pass by, “you’ll never make it’” and later MacLaine ripping up a canvas of Lautrec’s as worthless payment for his bar tab—rather cheap gags, both. There’s little subtlety here; does Simone really need to kick her leg above her head each time to signal the start of the can-can? Does Sinatra’s “Ring-a-Ding-Ding” catchphrase need to tag “C’est Magnifique”? And be echoed later by Jourdan as well? The film is rather short on comedy. But it is another in that long line of musicals whose stories wind up in court—if only life’s disputes could all be settled so easily. This one almost begins in court as well—but that’s only to be expected when the characters are lawyers and judges. But for such tame entertainment, the musical had a remarkable facility for finding controversy.

Fox got a priceless coup de publicite’ while the film was still in production. The Soviet Premier, Nikita Khruschev (Stalin’s successor and Cold War America’s visceral embodiment of evil), outraged at being denied entrance to Disneyland (for security concerns), was given a consolation tour of 20th Century Fox, and a special visit to the Can-Can set, with a command performance of the title dance. Khruschev acted like a kid in a candy store (photos of the event went global), but in an interview the next day, the Soviet Premier condemned the dance as immoral. “The face of humanity is more beautiful than its backside,” he said, making international headlines, and turning an already commercial prospect into a box-office stampede at the film’s opening the following spring. It premiered on March 9, 1960 at the Rivoli Theater—in the now obligatory, “theatrical,” reserved-seat, Roadshow engagement. It stayed put for 33 weeks—longer than most Bway shows run; and apparently did such successful business in similar exclusive venues around the country, that tho the film only earned $3,000,000 in rentals by the end of the year, Variety was estimating the tally would reach $10,000,000 after playing out the local houses. They were far off the mark. Once out of the urban markets (and word of mouth got around) the film maxed out at $4,200,000—a huge disappointment for Fox considering their expectations. There wasn’t much love from the Academy either. (The studio’s arthouse hit, Sons & Lovers stole all the thunder). Can-Can earned only two nominations: Irene Sharaff (deservedly) for costumes, and Nelson Riddle (reflexively) for scoring. But unlike Andre Previn’s work on Gigi, Riddle’s arrangements are often so contemporary they’re wildly anachronistic—but then Can-Can seemed to be about 1960 as much as 1896. The soundtrack album was no slouch, charting for 68 weeks in Billboard, but that was par for the course with Sinatra’s name, combined with Porter’s material.
I saw the movie on its network broadcast debut, December 29, 1968. It was significant only for being the last new musical I would add to my glass menagerie in Canoga Park. (And by correlation, the end of my youth.) Within a month we were relocated up north to the Bay Area, and a newly built home in Cupertino—jerking me out of high school, with all my hard-earned friendships on the cusp of my senior year. I had much affection for our house on Schoolcraft Street, as well, with its view of Francis Lederer’s home and mission stable beyond the straw fields across the ditch behind our yard. This, improbably, was where the acorn took root and grew into the giant oak of my passion for Bway. In latter years (’66-’69) I was glued to a radio program that spun a different Bway show each evening—playing each record in entirety. (There was an audience for that then). It was especially exciting to hear the new shows, the minute they were released. I was taking in Zorba and Promises, Promises for the first time during the week I saw Can-Can. The film felt plodding, but peppered with commercials, it was bloated and disjointed, and despite my devotion to MacLaine, not a picture I felt compelled to revisit--and didn’t for another quarter century. No more impressed then, I let another eighteen years pass before this reassessment. Whatever my qualms, I found this an easy environment in which to dwell. As much as Fox wanted this to be the next Gigi, it’s closer in spirit to the overblown Guys & Dolls—all Hlwd gloss in Todd A-O. And they don’t make them like that anymore.

With few exceptions, key to securing a place in the canon of Bway perennials was a Hlwd film—whether it accurately reflected the original show or not. Increasingly it did—sometimes even improved upon it; later incorporating Hlwd’s tweaks back into stage revivals. But Can-Can ditched a forgettable libretto for a nonsensical screenplay, which in effect made it a dramaturgical orphan. The musical is left with an evocative title, a dandy score, and a colorful milieu to explore. Exactly back where Cy Feuer started when that lightbulb clicked over his head.

Next Up: Bells Are Ringing

Report Card:    Can-Can
Overall Film:    C
Bway Fidelity:  D+   total rewrite
Songs from Bway:  8 
Songs Cut from Bway:  6
New Songs:  3 (from Cole’s catalog)
Standout Numbers:  “Can-Can”
               “Garden of Eden Ballet”
Casting:  Commercial & Irrational
Standout Cast:   Louis Jourdan
Sorethumb Cast:   Sinatra, MacLaine
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction:  Not much
Choreography: Good where it needs to be
Ballet: A  “Garden of Eden Ballet”
           C+  “Apache Dance”          
Scenic Design:  Mostly plush interiors
Costumes:  Excellent for dances;
               Mixed for MacLaine
Standout Sets:  MacLaine’s boudoir, Chevalier’s terrace
Titles:  Faux French illustrations by Tom Keogh
            (Livelier than titles for Gigi)
Oscar Noms:  2:  costumes, scoring
Weird Hall of Fame:  “Come Along With Me”
               (MacLaine as Unsinkable Molly Brown)

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