Begun with lofty aspirations and high artistic sentiment, Vincente Minnelli's Yolanda and the Thief (1945) is at once a breathtaking escapist romp through some reconstituted Hispano-American Technicolor utopia, and an unreservedly bizarre fantasia that, at least in part, is too grounded by its many misfires along the way to fulfill our daydreams satisfactorily. Even as an artifact of pure Minnellian artistry, Yolanda and the Thief fails to bewitch - and this, despite some of Minnelli's most inventive staging. The screenplay by Irving Brecher is saddled by frightfully maudlin source material from Jacques Thery and Ludwig Bemelmans; fobbed off as a short story first published in Town and Country magazine. The tale is of an heiress who, having spent her formative years inside a convent, is foisted onto the unsuspecting world without first being able to fully comprehend its awful, wicked ways.
As scripted, Yolanda Aquaviva (Lucille Bremer) leaves her cloistered school to assume control of her family's financial empire. It seems Yolanda's native country, Patria is a principality governed by one family - hers. It is a warm and sunny - yet oddly sterile oligarchy, managed in Yolanda's absence by her obtuse Aunt Amarilla (Mildred Natwick) - who cannot even remember where the west wing of the house is, much less yield the necessary force or intelligence required to wisely preside over an entire country for the last eighteen years. But now, it is Yolanda's turn to manage this vast estate. Regrettably, the nuns at the convent have not prepared her for business, and more to the point, to recognize the conniving entrapment of a money-hungry swindler like Johnny Parkson Riggs (Fred Astaire). Johnny and Victor Trout (Frank Morgan), his inept partner in crime, are travelling incognito to avoid arrest for their spurious dealings states side. As Victor astutely points out, Patria has no extradition laws. Ergo, it is the perfect hideaway. Furthermore, the relative isolation of this quaint hamlet makes it ideal for Victor and Johnny to go to work on new corruptions that will fatten their wallets.
Yolanda is an obvious pigeon, dulcet and naive, convinced by Johnny that he is the earthly incarnation of her very own guardian angel. Without much contradiction, or even intervention from anyone else for that matter, Johnny relieves Yolanda of her fortunes by getting her to sign away her power of attorney. Unexpectedly, she develops a sycophantic attachment to Johnny that is more lost, desperate child in search of a father figure, rather than blossoming young woman in love with a man. Johnny is unscrupulous to the core - his repeated manipulations of this imbecilic adolescent making him a wholly unsympathetic character, all the more patronizing and tiresome as the story progresses.
In the lobby of their hotel, Johnny and Victor verbally spar with Mr. Candle (Leon Ames); a man they misperceive to be even more enterprising than themselves. Candle goads Johnny onward - though not necessarily to the destiny he has planned for himself. That evening, Johnny suffers a nightmare, and, Vincente Minnelli has his dream sequence in which our...uh...hero?... must confront his fears of wedlock and his growing, almost hypnotic attraction to the fair Yolanda. One can see shades of Minnelli's good taste scattered throughout this lengthy, misshapen ballet. Yet, at every turn the director seems unable to fully flesh out, or even reconcile Johnny's dilemma through this disjointed clap-trap of images haphazardly flung together.
If anything, the ballet illustrates Minnelli's glaring weakness; given carte blanche he is quite incapable of reigning in his own self-indulgences to compliment this simple story. Inexplicably, the ballet is interrupted midway with 'Will You Marry Me?' - one of the worst (if not, the worst) songs Arthur Freed has ever written. The lyric is trite and thoroughly out of context with the rest of the rhythmic Latin beats. Johnny awakens in a cold sweat, but is virtually unchanged in his motives. After signing away her family's fortunes to him, Yolanda finagles 'a date' with Johnny for the carnival. Very reluctantly, he agrees and then quickly finds himself embroiled in a pseudo-theologian discussion about Michael, the arch angel; Yolanda's superficial understanding of the Bible and Johnny's utter lack of knowledge making for some pretty silly conversation.
Mr. Candle oversees the couple as they segue into 'Coffee Time'; a repurposed Arthur Freed song that is more firmly rooted in Tin Pan Alley than genuine Hispanic culture, but is nevertheless the singular musical highlight in the film. Set against a very glossy monochromatic floor, Minnelli fills the vertical plain with a panacea of garishly colored dancers, before clearing the arena for Yolanda - in her sunshine yellow ensemble - and Johnny - in his soft pastel blue suit - performing a very energetic pas deux. Afterward, Johnny and Victor make for the last train out of Patria. They are informed by Candle that if the train crosses the border both will be arrested. Johnny has only one choice - to go legit, return to Patria and marry Yolanda. Only as her husband can he satisfy his own earthly lust for money and Yolanda's more connubial yearning to mate with the man she has thus far misperceived to be her ever-loyal spirit guide.
Yet, even as this plan is laid out by Candle, Johnny's selfishness cannot grasp its importance beyond pleasing himself. Johnny and Yolanda are married in a lavish ceremony at the convent and Candle finally reveals to them both that he has always been their guardian angel. Yolanda and the Thief was to have been Lucille Bremer's big MGM musical debut, following her brief appearance as Rose Smith in Minnelli's Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) and later, that same year, as the silent - but sultry - dance partner for Fred Astaire in two dramatic dance sequences from Ziegfeld Follies.
That Yolanda and the Thief marked the end, rather than the beginning, of Bremer's all too brief stint in Hollywood, came as something of a mild letdown to Minnelli, who had invested a great deal of his own visionary craftsmanship in practically every last detail. And, it must be stated that from a purely visual perspective, Yolanda and the Thief is a mesmerizing feast for the eyes, with Charles Rosher's gorgeous cinematography hauntingly surreal, yet strangely evocative of some forgotten Latino paradise. Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith's set design further enhances this intoxicating subtropical luxe.
Tragically, the characters that populate the exotic landscape are marred by a paganized view of Catholicism. Astaire is too wicked to redeem himself at the end of the film; Bremer still too much the misguided innocent unaware of Johnny's loveless intensions towards her. There is no romance here - merely the incongruous mating of two unhappy and emotionally challenged people, arguably, doomed to grow more distant and bored with one another almost immediately after the last handful of rice has been pitched. The dream sequence, an even more disturbing nocturnal hallucination than the rest of this probing exercise into romantic fantasy, is grossly overinflated. It intrudes on the story rather than augmenting it, and it makes NO sense at all - fantastical or otherwise - not even within the fanciful context of the film.
And then there is the score. This being a musical - and one of MGM's most expensively mounted to date - we expect another superlative grouping of memorable ballads and dance sequences that MGM was well known for by this time. Furthermore, the casting of Fred Astaire seems to warrant lavish production numbers in glorious Technicolor. But no. Yolanda and The Thief is sparse, almost cruelly, on its musical program. The film opens with Patria's National Anthem - an insipid sing-song trilled by a boy's soprano choral. From this rather innocuous beginning we wait nearly twenty minutes for the next interlude, 'Angel'; a perversely sexual beguine warbled by Bremer as she bathes and is then dressed by a small army of ladies in waiting.
Given that the veneer of Johnny's deception is never entirely shattered in our protagonist's mind, Astaire's performance of 'Yolanda' is strangely lighthearted, yet lustful at the same time. Regrettably, apart from the aforementioned 'Coffee Time' and an all too brief tap routine tacked onto the end of 'Yolanda', Astaire keeps his feet firmly on the ground. Even the ballet provides too few opportunities. Astaire spends most of it scurrying about a paper mache rock formation, observing Yolanda and her courtiers from a respectful distance. In all, Yolanda and The Thief's score is arguably the weakest of any Arthur Freed Unit musical - save, maybe, I Dood It (1943). Worse, the songs are eclipsed by Minnelli's overpowering visual style that tends to clutter up the screen. At any rate, Yolanda and the Thief was a costly gamble - a $2,443,704.00 grand experiment that, in hindsight, seems to have reaffirmed MGM's blind faith in their wunderkind director's ability to pull things together.
Unfortunately, the film's dull plot and cavalcade of wholly unlikable characters proved too great a hurdle for even Minnelli's artistry to conquer. Critical reaction to the picture was mixed. But audiences turned a cold shoulder to Yolanda and The Thief. It became the first unqualified financial bomb for both Freed and Minnelli. Still Minnelli did not learn his lesson. It would take the commercial flop of another musical experiment - The Pirate (1948) to convince him that his particular brand of back lot magic was perhaps a tad too sublime and too ultra-sophisticated for the general public's more standardized tastes.
Yolanda and the Thief is a Warner Archive MOD DVD release, and although not advertised as 'restored' or 'remastered' the print is in very fine shape. Age related artifacts are the biggest complaint, but even these are fairly rare. We get a lovely Technicolor image that glows richly from the screen. Surprisingly too, the visuals are crisp without appearing digitally harsh and there are no instances of color negative mis-registration. The audio is mono and in very good shape. The only extra is a badly worn theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)