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 5, 2011

Where's Charley?

June 26, 1952   Warners  97 minutes

Where, indeed? Watchful viewers might be lucky enough to chance upon the rarely-seen Call Me Mister on Turner Classics, but here’s one you won’t be able to find anywhere for the time being. I was lucky to get a bootleg copy about four years ago—for I had never seen it before, nor would I have otherwise since. Like the Irving Berlin estate which for many years suppressed old films from its catalog, Frank Loesser’s widow, Jo Sullivan, has locked this one up in a vault. Whatever her objections (she reputedly loathes the film), they cannot be for lack of fidelity to the original Bway show.
Here we have the first film in our survey that preserves an original Bway performance of distinction and repute. From its conception Where’s Charley? was designed as a vehicle for Ray Bolger. The rights to musicalize the oft-revived Charley’s Aunt were, in fact, only granted by the author’s estate on guarantee of his participation. I’ve always found Bolger a curious bird: a somewhat off-putting mixture of Donald O’Connor and Don Knotts, and about as sexual as a eunuch. (Watch The Harvey Girls or April in Paris for examples of his romantic deficiency.) Despite a brilliant resume on Bway under the tutelage of Balanchine (he was the lead in On Your Toes, and introduced the hard-edged “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet) Bolger was really only suited for character roles. Charley’s Aunt seemed to fit the bill, tho producer Cy Feuer quickly realized the impostor “Aunt” wasn’t large enough a role and combined it with college student Charley Wykeham, putting both (and Bolger) at a continuous run. Never mind the 40-something actor was awfully long in tooth to be playing an undergraduate. Apparently it worked, for the show overcame middling reviews, built on word-of-mouth and became Bolger’s greatest stage hit. 

But the show is really at odds with itself. Its central conceit is frankly, well . . . a drag. But drag is the motor and primary fame of Charley’s Aunt, a painfully dated and hoary play that trades laughs on the idea of a masculine figure parading about in a dress. Drag has evolved now in so many forms and nuances that what we get here feels positively antediluvian—as obvious as a Monty Python sketch without the self-awareness or irony. Tho she allegedly hails from Brazil (“where the nuts come from”—a joke I trust was much funnier in its day than now) Charley’s “Aunt” comes dressed as Whistler’s mother, complete with doily collar and widow’s bonnet over a wig of droopy curls—she looks more like a Hasidic priest than a wealthy South American widow. 

Granted this is “1892” (and the plot’s engines are Victorian prudery and propriety), but the charade is so thoroughly sexless; so ignorant of gender awareness or, God forbid, sexual confusion or identity politics, that it seems merely adolescent. Sadly too, Bolger’s acting isn’t his strong suit. From his first number with Allyn McLerie, “Better Get Out of Here,” we become aware that the stars of this movie are dancers, not clowns. Bolger wasn’t a graceful or polished dancer like Kelly or Astaire, but more from the “eccentric” dance idiom of vaudeville—rubber legs division. His signature performance as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz was the perfect blend of character and style with a huge dose of whimsy. But aside from some egregious romping in skirts, what’s striking here is that Bolger’s best—and most iconic—moments, are decidedly out of drag; the solo tap that caps “Better Get Out of Here”; the little jig of petulance that follows “Make a Miracle” in the Oxford yard; the fast spins “At the Red Rose Cotillion”; the extended spree of “Once in Love with Amy.” These are the moments that made Where’s Charley? Bolger’s triumph. Not his drag act. (One can almost see George Abbott’s clueless hand in this drag performance—even tho the film was directed by David Butler, a second-rank Warners director who would score his biggest success the following year with Calamity Jane.) Flouncing about as Dona Lucia, Bogler is nearly unwatchable—was there really a time when people found this hilarious? This is a female impersonation act as an eight-year-old would conceive it; rough, brusque and shallow—and hard to accept that anyone else would swallow it. Worse still this “Aunt” is pursued by two elderly suitors, one of whom (Horace Cooper) is a horrendously hammy actor with a curiously splotchy complexion. A good indication of Warner’s fidelity to the stage show was keeping Cooper’s recitative song “Serenade with Asides” in the movie where two spoken lines would not only have done, but would’ve done much better. I can see why Bolger & McLerie were retained from the Bway production, but why him?

There’s an unendurable segment where Dona Lucia “flirts” with an older suitor, prancing about the Oxford grounds. At one point Bolger flops down on a bench, his legs and skirts flying above his head, exposing not merely his petticoats, but fleetingly his cock and balls. (Who could have imagined back in 1952 that someday anyone and everyone could manipulate film in stop-motion capture, exposing such things that originally may have gone unnoticed. (There’s a similar clip with Joel McCrea in The Palm Beach Story—well, never mind…) Was Bolger merely going commando in the Scottish tradition, or was there a pressing need for ventilation under studio lights? Perhaps running about in skirts gave unconscious impetus for Bolger to show us he really had gonads. How unwittingly subversive in a plot consumed by Victorian prudery. The idea that Ray Bolger was flashing his privates (however briefly) to audiences in Radio City Music Hall way back in 1952 is sort of mind-blowing. I hope no children were damaged for life.
From the film’s opening you might think this was from Britain’s Ealing Studios rather than a Warner Bros. release. A very proper British narrator sets the scene at Oxford, 1892, and that’s about the last British accent we’ll hear for the duration. Several scenes were shot on the actual university grounds—including an opening ensemble for the title tune—but the location scenes don’t have quite the same punch as they did in On the Town. The Hlwd sets are a modest palette of gothic arches and English gardens—scenery that’s heavily detailed, yet somehow often cheap looking. The best by far is a red-painted sunset over a stone cottage by a canal—Bolger’s stage-floor for “Once in Love in Amy,” a song as central to, and as similar in joy as Gene Kelly’s romp thru “Singin’ in the Rain.”  It’s the film’s highlight much as it was on the stage, where an improvised flub turned what was initially a 4 minute song into a 20 minute, audience-participation  festival by the time of  the show’s closing. (The final Bway performance clocked in at 31 minutes, with Bolger brought back twice from his dressing room.) An encore, complete with “audience” (his schoolmates in boats on the canal) is here intact. Bolger had performed “Amy” hundreds of times on stage, so was the movie just a record of the original Balanchine choreography, or did Michael Kidd—who handled the film’s dances—give a polish to the original? Kidd certainly staged the freaky Brazilian ballet, a completely extraneous bit of Latin Americana that replaces the likewise extraneous song “Pernambuco” in the stage show. As “Aunt” Charley invents a tale of her Brazilian romance, the grays of Oxford dissolve to the usual semi-abstracted ballet set, this one with spewing Bolivian volcanoes and dancers in Panama hats and Peruvian blankets—visual accents from all over South America, least of all Brazil. (Interesting too, how Loesser had a similar digression in Guys and Dolls when Sky takes Sarah down to Cuba—a change of scenery, a fiery Michael Kidd dance…) But this isn’t the glamorous amd exotic scenery that Fox was consistently producing during the Carmen Miranda years. This is a knock-off ballet, with Bolger stepping up in toreador pants to jostle with Allyn McLerie, who, poor dear, betrays her efforts by the blackness of her feet—as do all the barefoot dancers. You can be sure that MGM would never have stood for dirty feet. McLerie is a lovely presence and I’m sorry she hadn’t more of a career. She’s memorable in contrast and support to Doris Day in Calamity Jane, and she was both an Anita in West Side Story on Bway, and Gwen Verdon’s standby in Redhead. The gal can dance. I think she would’ve been equally swell as Sister Sarah in Guys and Dolls and Ninotchka in Silk Stockings. (Not entirely implausible as these and Charley were all produced by Feuer & Martin.) As the secondary couple, stuck with the hoariest ballad, “My Darling, My Darling” (which nonetheless was a hit-parade charter for no less than four singers, including Doris Day, Gordan McRae & Jo Stafford.) we find Robert Shackleton & Mary Germaine, two attractive performers who had very short-lived careers.
The one thing that keeps Where’s Charley? alive, even today, is Frank Loesser’s score—his first for Bway, being a refugee from the Hlwd songwriters ghetto, where he was known primarily as a lyricist (tho he also composed a few hits on his own) for composers the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Jule Styne, Burton Lane, & Jimmy McHugh. Originally set only to write lyrics to Harold Arlen’s score for Charley, Loesser begged for the assignment when Arlen withdrew (his house burned down & his wife was having a breakdown). With his next show Loesser would vanquish all his previous credits with one masterstroke, but Charley despite its jejune trappings has a very smart score. Already some of Loesser’s chromatics sound very modern. “Make a Miracle” for example has a melodic structure that looks forward to the '60s sound of How to Succeed. “Once in Love with Amy” is one of those maddeningly deceptive songs that seem like simplicity itself (“Just in Time, “Tea for Two”), but try and write one as catchy and pure. “Better Get Out of Here” has a uniquely Loesser rhythm. It was clear the man had been waiting all his life to find his voice. And finally, on Bway he did. After his next show turned him into Bway royalty, his reunion with Hlwd in 1952 was on a whole new level: Hans Christian Andersen was conceived by Sam Goldwyn as an event, and the serious fidelity accorded Where’s Charley? by Warner Bros is astonishing all the more for it’s not being truly merited.  The film comes in at 97 minutes, but none of the four eliminated songs are missed, and even more could be cut without much argument.

Concurrently, Bolger had a three film contract with Warners. The first was a bio-film about Marilyn Miller called Look for the Silver Lining (no, he did not play Miller, but dancer Jack Donahue). Where’s Charley? came next, opening at Radio City Music Hall on June 26, playing thru a sweltering July. The third was April in Paris, one of Doris Day’s weakest vehicles, and pretty much the end of Bolger’s film career. It arrived on Christmas Eve. By then Where’s Charley? was already fading into obscurity. I’ve been going to revival movie houses since 1970, and for many years in New York too, and never once have I seen this film revived, not even at MOMA. I’m sure my parents didn’t see Charley either, as two days after its opening they were married in Philadelphia.  I was already in the oven.

Next Up: Hans Christian Andersen

Report Card:    Where’s Charley?
Overall Film:    C
Bway Fidelity:  B+
Songs from Bway:  9
Songs Cut from Bway:  4
New Songs:        None
Standout Numbers: “Once in Love with Amy”
                              “Make a Miracle”
                              “Better Get Out of Here”
Worst Omission: “Lovelier Than Ever”
Casting:               Unremarkable  
Cast from Bway:  Ray Bolger, Allyn McLerie
                              Horace Cooper
Standout Cast:  Allyn McLerie
Sourthumb Cast: Horace Cooper
Direction:           OK in song, dreary in sketch
Choreography:  Bright in spots: Michael Kidd
Ballet:                  D   Brazilian suite
Scenic Design:   Oxford locations
Costumes:           Dowdy Victorian
Titles:                  Perfunctory
Standout Set:    Oxford sunset in Garden:
                              “Once in Love with Amy”
Oscar Nominations: None

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