Crazy and Crazier, Part 4
The 1960s were, in a literal if not a figurative sense, a golden age for movie musicals; they made more money (a total of over $250 million, real money back then) and won more awards (four best picture Oscars, plus a more-than-respectable smattering of acting awards) than they ever had before or would again. There were West Side Story, Gypsy, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Funny Girl, Oliver!…
But there were also Star!; Doctor Dolittle; Camelot; Hello, Dolly!; Paint Your Wagon…huge (even bloated), expensive productions that contributed to that quarter-billion box office, but not enough to turn a profit for themselves.
There were other signs that, literal golden age or not, the figurative Golden Age (the real one) had passed. The industry had spent the entire 1950s staggering from the double blows of the advent of television and the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust suit that broke up Hollywood’s efficient production/distribution/exhibition system. Desperate to balance the books, studios sharply curtailed or even eliminated the infrastructure that made musicals (always an expensive proposition) at least viable on a regular basis: music departments, rosters of contract players, in-house writers, orchestrators and dance directors. At MGM, for example, the Arthur Freed, Jack Cummings and Joe Pasternak units all withered on the vine. Freed produced his last musical, Bells Are Ringing, in 1960, and it barely broke even; after two more pictures (The Subterraneans and Light in the Piazza) he had pretty much retired. (He nursed a forlorn hope through the late ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s of producing Say It With Music, an epic biopic of Irving Berlin’s life and songs, to no avail.)
Tastes in popular music had also changed, and Hollywood’s old guard, though game to try, was ill-equipped to cope. In a metaphorical but very real sense, Hollywood was torn between West Side Story and The Sound of Music on one hand, and Jailhouse Rock and A Hard Day’s Night on the other.
First of all, there was what we shall charitably call the movie’s “creative team”. They were, almost to a man, a gaggle of second-rate hacks — from producer Sam Katzman through director Alvin Ganzer and writer Robert E. Kent to musical director Fred Karger. Katzman has a handful of memorable “B” titles (It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), some low-camp legends (Rock Around the Clock, Cha-Cha-Cha Boom!) and a couple of lesser Elvis Presley vehicles on his shoddy resume, but by and large, we’re slumming even to mention his name. Ganzer directed only two features besides this one — The Girls of Pleasure Island (’53) and Three Bites of the Apple (’67) — in a career devoted almost exclusively to undistinguished piecework on this or that TV series.
In addition to the mediocrity of the men in charge — and perhaps because of it — When the Boys Meet the Girls has the air of a movie that simply doesn’t know why it is being made, who its target audience is, or even what it is selling. For example, compare the three posters with which I began my post on each Girl Crazy picture:
The poster for Girl Crazy (1932)
knows exactly what it’s selling:
For better or for worse (and it
seemed like a good idea at the
time) the big draw is Wheeler
and Woolsey; their faces and
names dominate the graphics
It’s the same with Girl Crazy
(1943): Mickey Rooney, Judy
Garland, and a bonus plug for
Tommy Dorsey and his band,
with a cartoon bucking cow
(a cow??) offering the
promise of a barrel of
Now When the Boys Meet
the Girls. I’ve reproduced
each poster small, deliberately,
to show that for the ’32 and
’43 posters the main idea still
comes through. But with this
one you can barely even make
out the title.
Now give your eyes a break and scroll back up to the larger version of the When the Boys poster. Can you even guess what that poster is selling? Herman’s Hermits? Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs? Or what? Connie and Harve get top billing under the title, and two figures meant to represent them dominate the poster, more or less, but only in closed-off profiles that barely resemble them; Presnell’s image doesn’t look like him at all.
And say, how about that lineup of featured acts? Did you ever imagine you’d see them all together in one place? Besides Connie and Harve to carry the boy-meets-wins-loses-and-wins-girl-back plot, you have…
…Herman’s Hermits, with special “Also Starring” billing, no less. Here they’re singing “Listen, People”, which was one of their hits, and the only hit to come out of the movie that wasn’t already a Gershwin standard. Peter Noone (“Herman”) even had a few lines of dialogue, and the Hermits also delivered “Bidin’ My Time”. But more on that later; for now, back to the lineup…
Seriously, can’t you just smell the sweaty desperation behind this kind of programming? This isn’t a vaudeville or a variety show, it’s Sam Katzman and his henchmen throwing everything they can think of at the screen, all the while hoping to God someting will stick.
Does any of it stick? Well, Liberace is a hoot, for starters. But there are other rewards on hand. Both Harve Presnell and Connie Francis have a quite creditable go at “Embraceable You” — starting with Harve, on the occasion of Danny Churchill first setting eyes on the winsome Ginger…
Later still, after the inevitable misunderstanding — prompted this time by the arrival of Danny’s gold-digging ex-girlfriend Tess Raleigh (Sue Ane Langdon) — Harve and Connie do very nicely indeed on “But Not for Me”. It’s a sort of separate duet with each taking a verse, first Ginger in her bedroom, then Danny in his, then the two together, joined by a split screen — the movie’s one creative use of the Panavision frame. True, Connie Francis and Harve Presnell don’t measure up to Judy Garland on either of these songs, but there’s no shame in that — nobody could. On both numbers, Connie and Harve are in their element and entirely at ease; as a result, their performances of the songs are simple, heartfelt and effective. Liberace’s number may be the most fun in When the Boys Meet the Girls, but “Embraceable You” and “But Not for Me” are the most Gershwin. If you saw only the clips of these two songs, you would come away with the impression that When the Boys Meet the Girls is a lot better than it really is.
Things are a little rockier on “I Got Rhythm”, here as in 1932, the movie’s one major production number. Once again, they sing “I’ve Got Rhythm” — an annoyance, but a recurring one where this song is concerned. More troublesome this time is the pace and style of the number, a laid-back, casual approach that tries for a kind of ring-a-ding hipster cool, like Frank Sinatra in his finger-snapping-loose-collar-narrow-tie-sportcoat-slung-over-the-shoulder phase. No disrespect to Old Blue Eyes, but it doesn’t exactly make for an energetic musical delivery:
“I’ve [beat! beat!] got rhy-(beat!)-thm (beat! beat!)…”
So naturally the boys…
This lackadaisical rendition of “I Got Rhythm” brings us to the man who was probably the most resolutely second-rate personage involved with When the Boys Meet the Girls. His name was Fred Karger, and his on-screen credit is “Music Scored and Conducted By”. Karger had spent years in the music department at Columbia Pictures making hardly a ripple; his biggest coup to date had been writing the tune for “Gidget”. On When the Boys Meet the Girls, besides scoring and conducting, he wrote the song “Mail Call” (with Ben Weisman and Sid Wayne), which did not add to Connie Francis’s string of hits.
It’s safe to assume that Sam the Sham, Louis Armstrong and Liberace all handled their own music without any interference, so Karger’s work here probably boils down to the treatment of the five Gershwin songs. He neither helped nor hindered Connie and Harve with his arrangements of “Embraceable You” and “But Not for Me”, and his pointless rewriting of “Treat Me Rough” didn’t keep Sue Ane Langdon from squeezing a little fun out of it with her kitten-with-a-whip delivery. Otherwise, Karger was careless, even downright sloppy.
I’ve already mentioned Karger’s mushy, low-watt arrangement of “I Got Rhythm”, which offered scant inspiration to choreographer Earl Barton and his dancers. Karger was also careless with Ira Gershwin’s lyrics, beyond the addition of that “ve” to the title of “I Got Rhythm”; he fiddled with almost every line Ira wrote, either killing the rhyme (“There’s no regrettin’/When I’m set-ting“) or killing the sense (changing “Although I can’t dismiss” to “And yet I can’t dismiss” in “But Not for Me”) time and time again — then repeating the mistake, as if to prove he did it on purpose.
But one of Karger’s bright ideas really goes beyond the pale, and that’s in his treatment of “Bidin’ My Time”. The number is given to Herman’s Hermits, sitting on and around a flatbed truck while the rest of the young cast gets busy building Ginger’s dude ranch. At first things seem to go well with the song: it’s an almost witty idea, handing this lazy cowboy lullaby to these slightly nerdy lads from Manchester. Peter Noone’s wispy tenor voice slides nicely into the verse, then the refrain moves into a ricky-ticky soft-samba rhythm similar to the Beatles’ version of “Till There Was You”. Then, trouble. Now as just about everybody but Fred Karger and Peter Noone knew by 1965, the song is supposed to go like this:
“I’m bidin’ my ti–ime
‘Cause that’s the kinda guy I–I’m…”
But no. Instead we get:
“I’m biding my ti–ime
‘Cause that’s the kind of guy I…am…”
If there is such a thing as lyrical tone-deafness, this is surely it. It not only kills the rhyme, it kills the whole joke of the song. It’s like that old comedy routine of the clueless singer tackling the Gershwins’ “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” for the first time: “You say ee-ther, and I say ee-ther / You say nee-ther, and I say nee-ther…” Only here it is, so to speak, with a straight face. After that clunker, nothing Herman or the Hermits can do will save the song; we just have to cringe our way through to the end. Fred Karger was about as far from Roger Edens and Georgie Stoll as anyone could get and still be able to read music; this proves it.
On that sour note I’ll close this look at When the Boys Meet the Girls. As I said, the picture’s not a total loss, thanks to the talents of Connie Francis and Harve Presnell, plus a certain amount of blind monkeys-and-typewriters luck. Twenty years earlier, both Connie and Harve might have left a stronger legacy. Especially Connie; with the guidance of a Roger Edens, and with more directors like Henry Levin and Richard Thorpe (on her first two pictures) and fewer like Alvin Ganzer (on this one), she might have had the nurturing that Doris Day got over at Warner Bros., and might have made more than the four movies she did (When the Boys Meet the Girls was her last). Harve would still have had to contend with Howard Keel, but there was room for a deep talent pool at MGM in the ’40s and early ’50s. By the time Harve showed up in 1964, or even Connie in 1960, the support system just wasn’t there.
* * *
Well, friends, there you have it, just as I promised at the beginning of this series — the full arc of the Golden Age of the Hollywood Musical, encapsulated in the fortunes of one legendary Broadway show:
Girl Crazy (1932) was the product of a time when musicals looked passe, so the deathless Gershwin score was shouldered aside to make room for a brand of verbal comedy that looked like the coming thing. But the musical was poised on the cusp of a Great Revival; the talent was present and in good working order, though it hadn’t found its footing yet, and the techniques that would make the Hollywood musical something distinctly different from its Broadway cousin were still being discovered and developed.
A scant third-of-a-century later came When the Boys Meet the Girls — a movie not without talent, but with a vacuum at the top occupied by humdrum nonentities who simply didn’t know what they were doing — and at mighty MGM, no less. It was as if Arthur Freed, Roger Edens, Jack Cummings and Joe Pasternak had cleaned out their offices, tucking the studio’s only copies of How to Make a Movie Musical into their briefcases before turning out the lights.
But in between those two — that was a whole other story. The stars (in every sense of the word) were perfectly aligned, and the final product could hardly miss because it was designed not to miss. Designed by producer Arthur Freed, who had come to movies with sound and stretched his producer’s muscles first on The Wizard of Oz; designed by Roger Edens and Georgie Stoll, who had been with the show on Broadway and knew in their bones and fingertips the vitality of the Gershwin score; designed by Busby Berkeley, who had jump-started the Golden Age and still knew a trick or two, whether Roger Edens liked it or not. And it was designed for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, just about the most talented individuals who ever faced a camera. Girl Crazy (1943) was what happened when the factory’s mechanisms were all in place and well-tended: the vehicle came off the line humming like a top, and if it had to fly, it soared.
It was, in fact, June Ritchie; and she was just about the only fine thing in the piece. There was some other fun stuff, like a real train and a real carriage pulled by a real horse through an impressive burning of Atlanta. Beyond that, I can't recall a single song or performance. And you're right…Harve never had a chance.
Thanks, Jean! Thanks too for the report on that benighted musical version of Gone With the Wind. That whole thing struck me as a fool's errand even at the time; now, looking back, it seems doubly so for poor Harve, trying to be a singing Clark Gable. I have no doubt he was just as you say, but really, could anybody have pulled it off? (The same goes for whoever played Scarlett — wasn't it Leslie Ann Warren?)