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: Into the Woods

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Living It Up (Hazel Flagg)

July 23, 1954   Paramount

Martin & Lewis in a Bway musical movie? You betcha. No, it’s not Guys & Dolls, which could’ve happened if Paramount had nabbed the rights—can you imagine? It’s a musical you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re a real cultist or historian: Hazel Flagg—Jule Styne’s third book show and the first musical to open on Bway in my lifetime. Hazel Flagg, as far as I’ve been able to determine, (and I’ll stand corrected) has the distinction of being the first Hlwd film adapted into a Bway musical., and not the other way around. Nowadays that’s practically the norm but the cinema was much younger then. The original film from 1937, Nothing   Sacred, starred Carole Lombard & Fredric March; was written by Ben Hecht, and is remembered as one of the better screwball comedies of the ‘30s. But much as I enjoy the genre, I really dislike the picture, which surprises me given its lofty reputation. (Am I the only one who finds Carole Lombard shrill?) At a compact 77 minutes Nothing Sacred leaves plenty of room for songs. And thus a new trend begins: Hlwd goes Bway. Which is pretty much Jule Styne’s story, too.
Having established himself on Bway, Styne branched into the producing arena as well as composing. We have him to thank as much as anyone for resuscitating R&Hart’s Pal Joey into classic status, and pushing the show toward Hlwd and R&Hammerstein-size fame. Styne also produced Hazel Flagg, after his first two hits and the disappointing revue, Two on the Aisle. Ben Hecht, in ill-health, was recruited to adapt his screenplay, and for the starring role Styne plucked a girl who had been on his radar for sometime, working her way up from the chorus of High Button Shoes, thru parts in Make a Wish and Pal Joey (both produced by Styne)—even winning a Tony for the latter. Poor Helen Gallagher! Hazel was supposed to make her a star—look what happened Mabel, er—Nanette Fabray and Carol Channing in Styne’s first two musicals! The time was ripe: Bway didn’t have a dancing star in 1952. So did Gallagher fail as Hazel, or the show fail her? At any rate the window soon closed; in 3 months Gwen Verdon took over the town, and ruled thereafter, with Carol Haney and Chita Rivera quick on her heels. Gallagher was doomed to replacement and supporting roles (or fast flops) until her one last hurrah in No, No, Nanette in 1971. Hazel Flagg eked out a six month run with no further interest but for the original film rights somehow tied up at Paramount. “I’ve got it!,” you can imagine studio producer Paul Jones jumping up from his chair, “We’ll turn it into a Martin & Lewis picture!” The history of re-casting talented and legendary Bway performers with Hlwd replacements, is long and often egregious, but few examples match the chutzpah and pain of changing Hazel Flagg into Jerry Lewis!

I was too young to be witness to the Martin & Lewis phenomenon (They were the #2 box office draw in films that year—behind John Wayne--and in the top ten every year of their screen partnership 1951-56) But I grew up during Jerry’s solo heyday, and even as a child I wasn’t much of a fan. Lacking siblings and living mostly in the company of adults, I wasn’t drawn to the juvenile antics of a Jerry Lewis. Give me Gleason, Kovacs, Winters. Now I realize, at least in this film, Lewis isn’t so much spastic, retarded or stupid, but just acting the id of an unbridled five year old child—albeit creepily in a grown man’s body. With that as new perspective (for me) I could see more ingenuity and purity in his character—tho he does often tread the edge of tolerance, and his singing voice can be a little too annoying. He doesn’t sing much here, and you’re glad he doesn’t. Eliminating most of Hazel Flagg’s score leaves plenty of room for his slapstick routines, starting with a wholly invented backstory explaining how Homer Flagg gets “radiation poisoning,” by writers Jack Rose & Mel Shavelson—contract scribes at Paramount, and authors of many Bob Hope pictures. Their wholesale rewrite incorporates typical Lewis schtick. The most indulgent is a quick-change routine with Jerry mimicking French, German & (most offensively) Chinese doctors—it’s interminable.

Dean Martin plays the world’s most laid back doctor. When Homer enters, despairing his doomed plight, Doc is in no hurry to tell him the news that he’s perfectly healthy, instead he strums his guitar and begins a song, “Kiss Me, Baby” that feels rather weird in the circumstances—tho we see Martin sing to a photo of Audrey Hepburn (Paramount’s newest discovery). Even after the tune, he takes his time getting around to the news. From the Bway show, Dean gets the tuneful ballad, “How Do You Speak to an Angel,” to sing to Janet Leigh on a nightclub dance floor in a light rumba beat. It’s a nice little gem, but like most every song in this movie, nearly a throwaway. Jerry sings the reprise to a picture of Janet (why he has framed photos of her and Dean in his NY hotel suite is a question best left unexplored.)

Obviously the show wasn’t a hit on Bway, or they wouldn’t have stripped it down to the bone. There’s little of Styne’s score here (there wasn’t much in Blondes either) but what’s here is pick of the liter. Another four tunes (throwaways really) don’t scan with anything from Bway, and no credit is given anywhere for them. These don’t sound much like Styne aside from possibly “Money Burns a Hole in Pocket”—which really sounds more like Irving Berlin. Or is that just because the scene takes place in a hotel gift shop, and reminds me of Call Me Madam’s charming “It’s a Lovely Day Today?” At any rate it’s a nifty little tune that’s given only casual respect here. Janet Leigh gets even less respect in the musical department--nada. Too bad—the show’s “I Feel Like I’m Going to Live Forever” would have made a nice concession to her. But it’s clear what they consider the show and film’s signature tune; “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York”—sung over the credits, and performed late in the movie by Martin & Lewis in top hat and tails, apropos of nothing in story or logic, just shoehorned in but a highlight nonetheless. The number in three sections, begins on an obvious soundstage streetfront meant to represent NY by its diversity of nitery-spots: The Purple Parrot beside the Buccaneer, next to Chalet Fifi, and so on: Tahiti Terrace (with it’s “Top South Sea Show”), The Back Door, Bamboo Gardens, and “Nicki Castle’s,” which sounds like a in-joke for the film’s choreographer: Nick Castle. A police spotlight follows the boys as they climb the façade singing the first verse. The next section finds them running into the park to rouse a bunch of sleeping park-bench bums, and gather them up in a handsome cab to ride up to their “Park Ritz Hotel.” This middle part somehow feels unsavory to me. The final section is the best, with the boys strolling thru the hotel lobby in true vaudeville finish. Even Lewis can’t ruin this. As the only carryover from Bway, Sheree North, who appears to have been launched with this performance, does a mean jitterbug in a beaded dress—it’s so epileptic, in fact, I can’t think of anything other than Ann-Margret’s go-go conniption fits in Viva Las Vegas that comes close to equaling it. Lewis is her frantic partner, but I’ll be damned if you can look at anything else but her, until he tosses her aside for a moment to let us breathe. Don’t worry, she’s soon back to top herself in jerks and poses for the songs end. Paramount knew what they had—check out her poses on the bottom of the movie ad. North was quickly tapped to fill the burgeoning faux-Marilyn industry in Hlwd. Her next step to stardom was Fox’s How to Be Very Very Popular, co-starring with Betty Grable (in her final film) as a gal named—ironically or intentionally?—Curly Flagg. Grable played a broad called Stormy Tornado.  Wacka wacka doodle.

Norman Taurog, who directed 105 movies before he won an Oscar in 1931, and another 50 afterward coming up to Living it Up, was a longtime MGM stalwart, mainly of minor programmers. He had recently transferred to Paramount where he’d spend the rest of his career, eventually helming a number of the better Elvis Presley pictures. Yes, there are better ones. Here it seems he came by for a paycheck, nothing more. But I suppose the only thing to do with Martin & Lewis was stand back and get out of their way. The proof was in the revenue. Living it Up played for 2 months at the Criterion in Times Square in the middle of summer.  It was the 2nd highest grossing Martin & Lewis film in their career together and the #13 film in 1954—indicative of how a box office hit can be utterly, and justifiably forgotten in future generations.

Strolling thru midtown that July you could also see The Caine Mutiny and On the Waterfront, or 7 Brides for 7 Bros at Radio City Music Hall. On Bway the biggest hit was the just-opened Pajama Game, which propelled Carol Haney from a specialty dancer in MGM’s Kiss Me Kate to Bway’s new darling—and whose role, and unlucky accident, brought forth Shirley MacLaine to Hlwd’s immediate attention and fast-tracked stardom—and fodder for another Martin & Lewis programmer: Artists & Models. Elsewhere, the Arabian nights fantasy, Kismet, with Alfred Drake, was also drawing them in. Both were destined for Hlwd treatment. Meanwhile, Jule Styne (with Comden & Green) was summoned to San Francisco to buttress a weak score for Jerome Robbins’ new Peter Pan musical, starring Mary Martin. Apparently they added the magic touch. But things were heating up all over. Bway was about to see an explosion of talented artists working at peak form, and the films made of these new classic shows would be themselves reinvented, expanded, energized, and yes, eventually overinflated. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Tho I’ve never seen Living It Up until now, I’m sure I as a child I would have easily identified with Homer’s dying wish to see New York. As I grew aware of the world around me, NY was my Emerald City, the center of the universe, and of course the backdrop to Bway. It didn’t hurt that my grandmother also lived there (on West 23rd Street), or that she spoke of it as the grandest place on earth and had an almost lunatic pride in being one its huddled masses. Not her beleaguered son, my father, who spoke of it only with loathing, having run from it (and her) at his first opportunity. But the New York in Living It Up is of the soundstage variety. In a story about an awestruck tourist we don’t even get the obligatory postcard sightseeing montage; it’s all Hlwd sets but for some process shots. Every street’s a boulevard in ol’ New York, but every boulevard’s a cul-de-sac in 50s Hlwd—the studios could never approximate NY’s gridwork canyons.  But at least the opening titles give us genuine footage of 1953 Manhattan—looking oh so innocent and humble. When can we start time traveling?

Next Up: Brigadoon
Report Card:    Living It Up  (Hazel Flagg)
Overall Film:    C--
Bway Fidelity:  D
Songs from Bway:  3
Songs Cut from Bway:  12
New Songs:       4 (by unknown hands)
Standout Number: “Every Street’s a Blvd”
Worst Omission:  “I Feel Like I’m Gonna Live Forever”
Worst Addition: “Kiss Me, Baby”
Casting:     None by Hlwd
Cast from Bway:  Sheree North
Standout Cast: Sheree North
Direction:     Phoned in
Choreography:    Lively jitterbug
Ballet:     None
Scenic Design:  Soundstage New York
Costumes:  Nice Edith Head designs for Leigh
Standout Set:  Street front: “Every Street’s a Blvd
Titles:              Real NY street scenes
Oscar Noms:    Sorry, did you say something?
Weird Hall of Fame: Sheree North’s Jitterbug:
             “You’re Gonna Dance with Me, Baby” 

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