This is probably going to sound like a grossly unfair way to start any review, but I've always had a problem getting into most musicals made at 20th Century-Fox around the mid-1940s, perhaps because I generally tend to view them from the afterglow of MGM musicals from this same vintage. That's an unfair comparison - I know - because MGM had the biggest and brightest stars and the most pervasive in-house style acutely attuned and winningly plumbed by producers Arthur Freed and Joe Pasternak. Fox musicals are different from those made at MGM. Or perhaps I'm stating the obvious incorrectly. More to the point, MGM musicals are in a class apart from the rest.
I think for me the problem with most Fox musicals from the 1940s is that they take their story too seriously - not surprising, since studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck was a writer before he became a mogul. Musicals made at Fox are more upwardly mobile than the standardized song and dance extravaganza. They carry more ballast, have a weightier back story and are more aligned to the melodrama, not the classic 'boy meets girl, sings song and gets girl' fluff that frequently remained MGM’s bread and butter.
Irving Cummings’ The Dolly Sisters (1945) tries to trump MGM's zeal for the romanticized bio pic musical (Till The Clouds Roll By, Words and Music, Deep In My Heart) but remains instead pretty par for the course of a typical Fox musical - turgidly scripted, unabashedly lavish and overpowering in its use of gaudy Technicolor. Yet despite striving to be a musical, The Dolly Sisters is a melodrama at its core masquerading as a splashy, sexy Hollywood musical. Betty Grable once astutely pointed out that she had two assets “and I’m standing on both of them!” Grable can handle a song, superficially at least, and knows her way around a tap routine. Yet, despite her status as America’s favorite pin-up girl, she’s very much the wax mannequin in most of her films, The Dolly Sisters included: just a 'pleasant as punch' Suzie Cream Cheese with a golden set of gams that wear out their welcome once you’ve seen more than one of her musicals in totem.
Plot wise, the John Larkin/Marion Spitzer screenplay is dealing with - no kidding - the Dolly Sisters - a real life Vaudeville twins act that became the toast of the town on both sides of the Atlantic at the turn of the last century. Our story begins at the beginning, in Hungary circa 1904. Uncle Latsie (S.Z. Sakall) immigrates to New York City with his two precocious nieces, Jenny (Betty Grable) and Rosie (June Haver) in tow. Hardly impoverished, the family’s fortunes are turned out in short order when the girls develop a cafe dancing act that brings in the money.
Unfortunately for all, Uncle Latsie is unlucky at poker. A crisis of funds forces the girls into Vaudeville where they quickly and easily become celebrated performers. But a wrinkle arises when handsome male singer Harry Fox (studio heartthrob John Payne) meets the girls en route to fame and fortune and vows, then schemes, to secure them an audition with the great Oscar Hammerstein.
Despite Harry’s interference the girls light up the stage like no other act of their generation. Harry develops affections for Rosie. But the girls are inseparable and immediately embark on a whirlwind tour of Europe. Returning home, the burgeoning romance between Rosie and Harry puts a strain of the act and they temporarily separate. Jenny gets a little wild and banged up in an auto accident, effectively ending her career. A few years later, Harry proves instrumental in reuniting the sisters as part of his act, the three at last making peace with their past.
The Dolly Sisters isn't a terrible musical. It's just not an exceptional one and that's a shame, given how much obvious time, effort and money has gone into the production. Bette Grable was a colossal star for Fox during the 1940s. She's at the top of her game here, with a beaming voice and long luscious legs to recommend her. But it must be said, she's not a dramatic star, and proves it with a woefully strained bit of ham acting during the last third when the film takes an unexpected dramatic turn. June Haver was being groomed as the Grable wannabe - a sort of insurance policy Zanuck took out to keep Grable in line. Most of the studios tried this line of intimidation on their big names; dangling the threat of having them replaced if they failed to show up for work or refused to do any movie they were given. Regardless of the initial purpose behind June Haver's arrival at the studio, she and Grable became very good friends on the back lot, perhaps because each wisely recognized that the other was irreplaceable. That genuine warmth between these co-stars is complimentary to their roles as twins in this film.
John Payne is an amiable leading man, good looking and congenial besides. He doesn't play the rogue all that well and was better suited to 'nice guy' parts. But his Harry Fox has to be a bit of a cutthroat, a schemer, and enterprising lady’s man who gets what he wants by any means he deems necessary. As a leading man, you really do have to walk a fine tightrope when portraying such a character, otherwise he either come off too obnoxious to be liked or too likable to be believably devious. Payne teeters more toward the latter interpretation, so we never quite see why Rosie wanting to marry him is such a bad thing.
The Dolly Sisters is justly remembered for its one gargantuan production number, “The Dark Town Strutter’s Ball” a saucy - slightly racist - little number that has white actresses don tan-skinned makeup and parade about a grossly caricatured Harlem backdrop. It's a big and bawdy, sumptuously gaudy spectacle; a tad daring, very garish and utterly ridiculous when viewed today - but in a nuttier than nice sort of way. Ernest Palmer's cinematography sparkles with overpowering hues that at times render even the most modest backdrop cartoon-ish. Again, The Dolly Sisters has all the trademarks of a vintage Fox movie musical; big and rambunctious and with lots to divert the viewer's attention. But in the end, it weighs heavily on the mind rather than the heart and that isn't what movie musicals are supposed to do.
Fox’s DVD transfer is quite impressive though regrettably not pristine; I say, regrettably because the entire film was the benefactor of a Technicolor restoration in the mid-1990s for its laserdisc release and therefore ought to have looked even better on DVD. On occasion, the Technicolor is rather flat. There are also minor mis-registrations of the 3-strip color negative that create soft or blurry halos. of the original three strip color process results in an image that is softly focused and slightly blurry. Overall, colors are lush and vibrant.
As with other Fox films released under their now defunct ‘Marquee Musical’ banner, the audio is offered in its original mono and rechanneled stereo. Extras are limited to an audio commentary that is not terribly engaging and some vintage stills reproduced in a slip sleeve inside the DVD case. Ho-hum extras for a ho-hum movie.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)