Monday, June 9, 2014

GOOD NEWS (MGM 1947) Warner Home Video

At war’s end, MGM’s net profits equaled those of all the other major studios combined. On the surface, at least, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was still the envy of Hollywood; L.B. Mayer – the highest paid executive in America with many of his employees ranking at the top percentage of wage earners in their demographic. It all looked rather good on paper. But scratching the surface a little deeper aptly revealed a growing malignancy on this seemingly unstoppable and enchanted movie empire. 

Indeed, under Mayer’s reign MGM had segued from the lavishly appointed melodramas and literary masterworks the late V.P. Irving Grant Thalberg valued and had once considered Metro’s bread and butter. Part of the studio’s streamlining was due to war-time rationing. Mayer’s kingdom would not be populated by middle-aged actors of questionable temperament; rather the promise of tomorrow’s generation: a younger class of star more easily manipulated by Mayer to do his bidding without ever questioning his edicts. Intimidation was the number one factor at Mayer’s disposal, and he wielded absolute authority over this lavish movie kingdom he regarded as personally his.
Alas, in retrospect, Mayer’s cost-cutting measures and his insatiable desire to pump out 52 pictures a year led to a sort of homogenized look to MGM’s product. All the studios had what was then considered an ‘in-house’ style. But increasingly, Metro’s began to take on a pre-fab - almost embalming quality, perhaps, comforting to war-time audiences, but soon to be dismissed by the post-war generation seeking more realism from their popular entertainments. For some time, Mayer had entrusted MGM’s success to his ‘college of cardinals’ (a top-heavy producer system meant to replace Thalberg’s autonomy without relinquishing control of his autocracy). But by 1945 he had also begun to slacken the reigns; partly to satisfy his growing verve for horse-racing, also to court Hollywood socialite, Lorena Danker who would later become his second wife.
Mayer believed in maintaining the status quo at Metro. He had, after all, managed competent care of the studio’s assets, despite his frequent absences. Alas, the klieg lights had already begun to dim in Hollywood in general and at MGM in particular; the studio’s life blood slowly syphoned by an insidious run of bad luck, also by the winds of change and Mayer’s inability to steer clear of the coming storm clouds on the horizon. Worse it seems, was MGM’s complete powerlessness to procure a single Oscar in any of the major categories between 1945 and 1947, the year Charles Walters’ remake of Good News (1947) had its debut. Money is one thing; prestige, quite another. Arguably, Mayer valued the latter commodity over the former.
Today’s cinema landscape is so inundated with remakes we tend to forget how readily Hollywood fed off itself during the golden era. Good News was actually a smash Broadway show from 1927, first transposed onto the silver screen back in 1930. An early talkie, Good News had been a big hit for Metro. Now, as Metro struggled to find its creative niche once more, it was believed a glossy Technicolor remake would revive the studio’s fortunes. To Walters’ credit, Good News did just that; packing audiences in at Radio City to become one of the rare bright spots in MGM’s 1947 output.
Good News marks the beginning of Chuck Walters’ directorial career. He would prove equal to the task, although initially his star, June Allyson didn’t quite think so. In fact, Allyson went to Arthur Freed’s office to ask Walters be replaced on the picture; fearing her own rising star would suffer from his lack of experience. Freed cordially assured Allyson he would keep close watch over Walters as shooting progressed. Indeed, for Freed, Good News almost seemed like a holiday after the rich set of debacles on the set of Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate. But Freed was a gambling man with a mostly lucky streak. He also immediately knew talent when he saw it. 

And Freed had been instrumental in elevating Walters from staff choreographer to A-list director with a wave of his hand. Freed was also behind the decision to hire Betty Comden and Adolph Green to rewrite the screenplay. Comden and Green are, of course, legends in Hollywood today. But in 1946, they had yet to break into the big time; their successes on Broadway – including On the Town (a groundbreaking stage musical) ironically not enough of a calling card to get them past the front gate of any studio. Freed, however, had become an overnight devotee after seeing On The Town on Broadway.
Arriving at Metro, Comden and Green were rather taken aback by their first assignment – Good News; regarding it as something of a creaky dinosaur. The original stage show had, in fact, not aged particularly well. It had several good songs, to be sure. But its pencil thin plot about a college football hero, who may not be able to play in the pivotal final game because he is failing algebra, left the writers cold. Freed suggested Comden and Green explore the possibilities as they saw fit; a carte blanche that helped to reinvigorate their verve for the project and, in retrospect, would prove the remake’s salvation. For 1947’s Good News bears little resemblance to its 1930 counterpart – or even the Broadway original, for that matter. This is all to the good; Comden and Green infusing the rather pedestrian story with their sumptuous gifts for writing meatier parts that teem with melodrama and comedy; the characters becoming varied and dimensional, and thus wholly satisfying.
Behind the scenes, there was some minor angst and bruised feelings to contend with. Gloria DeHaven had been promised the part of Connie Laine by producer, Joe Pasternak before Arthur Freed replaced Pasternak in the producer’s chair. Freed preferred June Allyson who, despite a disastrous screen test at 2oth Century-Fox, had made a smashing success of her, then fledgling tenure at MGM. This, of course, left DeHaven with her nose out of joint: a disappointment unabated when Freed offered her the conciliation prize of playing Pat McClellan, the movie’s siren, instead. Refusing the part meant temporary suspension. But DeHaven was adamant and took her lumps, the part reassigned to Patricia Marshall, who fairly chews up the scenery as the devious glam-bam flapper destined to lose her man in the end.
Initial casting choices for the part of all-American Tommy Marlowe veered in all directions; from beefy Van Johnson to pint-sized Mickey Rooney. For one reason or another neither came to pass, leaving Freed to cast British newcomer, Peter Lawford; a decision that surprised virtually everyone and utterly shocked Lawford, who was as nervous as a cat. Lawford was certain audiences would never accept him as the varsity letterman/Lochinvar, partly because of his inimitable British accent; also because he could barely sing a note. Good News would change Lawford’s career for the better however; also Lawford’s opinion of his talents. Indeed, when Comden and Green altered the plot so Marlowe is failing French instead of astronomy, they were unaware of the fact Lawford spoke it perfectly. But this alteration resulted in a spectacular spoken ‘song’ – The French Lesson – in which Allyson’s winsome librarian, Connie Laine gives Lawford’s handsome playboy a crash course in the romance language.
In retrospect, Good News is a clever patchwork of ingeniously scripted scenarios, borrowed bits of business and songs seamlessly interwoven. Arthur Freed appropriated ‘Pass That Peace Pipe’, a cast-off from his own Ziegfeld Follies (1945) for Good News, instructing Comden and Green to spruce it up as a specialty number for Joan McCracken, cast as the irrepressible Babe Doolittle. Comden and Green also rewrote a fair percentage of Good News’ three showstoppers, the title number, ‘Be A Ladies Man’ and ‘The Varsity Drag’ – mainly to update the lyrics, while remaining faithful to the twenties milieu.  After the first day’s shoot, Chuck Walters suffered an acute attack of nerves. His fears were laid to rest by Freed’s faith in him; also Bill Ryan and Robert Alton whom Walters had asked to be assigned to the picture to stage the two big production numbers; ‘Pass That Peace Pipe’ and ‘The Varsity Drag’.
Alton’s imaginative choreography transforms each moment into a plat du jour. Of the two, ‘Pass That Peace Pipe’ really doesn’t make any sense within the context of 1920’s mise en scène; a gregarious and innocently misguided desecration of Native American culture, reconstituted all teepees and wigwams, McCracken giving out with a boisterous ‘woo-woo-woo!’ midway through and otherwise allowing herself to be thrown about the malt shop set by an energetic troop of Metro’s male contract dancers; loosely accompanied by Ray McDonald as her scrawny love interest, Bobby Turner.
What spares the number from degenerating into abject silliness is Alton’s exuberant intricacies; the pubescent mixed chorine performing some truly complex maneuvers as Charles Schoenbaum’s camera effortlessly glides in between them. One can almost forget how cumbersome three strip Technicolor cameras were; heavy, box-shaped and bulky, loaded onto rubber wheeled dollies or booms to be manipulated by a small army of behind the scenes crew.  While every other musical offering in Good News advances the story line in some way, Pass That Peace Pipe does not. And yet, it remains an irresistible showstopper.
But Alton tops even this with the film’s extravagant finale; ‘The Varsity Drag’ – nearly five minutes of mind-blowing spectacle; the graduating class bedecked in shimmery spangles and jet black tuxedos, incorporating choreographic elements from the Charleston, shimmy and tango.  The number begins with Allyson’s Connie forgiving her wayward Lothario his fickle heart, ordering him ‘down on his heels’ and ‘up on his toes’. Confused, Lawford’s Tommy Marlowe complies before being told by his colleagues he has just been inducted into ‘The Varsity Drag’. Allyson breaks into the song, demonstrating the dance for Lawford, who is apparently a quick study. From here, the number bursts forth with MGM’s typical aplomb for grand and glossy entertainment; the dancers filling the auditorium set to maximum capacity, everyone performing the same time-step with Allyson and Lawford the center of attention.
It’s a mesmerizing sequence to behold, one that completely immerses the audience and brings both our story and the movie to its successful close. Alton has his dancers separate into staggered rows - male and female - each momentarily ducking behind the other to create a startling contrast of silhouettes before rising in unison in a clutched embrace as they recap the story for the audience; ‘The boy – garcon; the girl - la fille; that’s good – c’est bon; the show – fini. The moral to this tale is to learn to parlez-vous’…and, it is, as the camera dollies in on Tommy and Connie; Lawford tilting Allyson’s chin to him with his index finger. The couple briefly kisses, discovering the pleasure in it and returning for a second, more sustained lip lock, the scene fading to black as the final credits roll.
Good News is, of course a charming comedy of errors, begun almost immediately after Walters’ pre-credit vamp and main titles. Interestingly, we are introduced to our secondary characters first; the deliciously oversexed Babe Doolittle, pinned to hunky, but cranially vacant football jock, stereotypically named, Beef (Loren Tindall).  Babe is playing Beef for a sucker – a dangerous game, indeed – while lusting after the anemic, Bobby Turner. Meanwhile, varsity letterman, Tommy Marlowe’s head has been turned by the arrival of new sorority pledge, Patricia McClellan; a girl who knows what she wants - and it isn’t a wealth of culture. Pat’s out to hook a big fish. Money first, looks second: brains, optional. Pat is, at first, repulsed by Tommy’s insistence to procure a date with her. He may be the most popular boy on campus, but he doesn’t appear to be all that well off. Moreover, Tommy’s down to earth, something Pat is decidedly not. So, Pat gravitates to Peter Van Dyne III (Robert Strickland); a real drip who obviously hails from a moneyed background.
Meanwhile, dormitory wallflower, Connie Lane secretly pines for Tommy to take her in his arms.   Coach Johnson (Donald McBride) is eager for Tommy to play football. But Tommy’s grades aren’t exactly stellar – particularly his French. So the coach, together with his second, Pooch (Tom Dugan) engages Connie (an A+ student) to reinvigorate Tommy’s scholastic interests. Connie and Tommy hit things off. He feels sorry for her because she has to work her way through college. Yet, as Connie points out, “There are so many kinds of riches and only one of them is gold…worthwhile things cannot be bought or sold – the best things in life are free.”  Tommy has already begun to realize Connie is quite a girl. In fact, he’s all but asked her to go to the prom. Things are going exactly according to plan…well…sort of.
A tug-o-war persists after Pat inadvertently learns from Babe that not only is Tommy the most eligible male on campus; he also comes from a very rich family. Connie loves Tommy. But the feeling doesn’t appear to be mutual, as Tommy has promised to take Pat to the prom instead, but only if he passes his French exam and is able to play in the big football game. Wounded by this discovery, but also determined to win Tommy’s heart, Pat encourages the sorority’s cook, Cora (Connie Gilchrist) to engage in a little role-playing conversation, deliberately staged to be overheard by Pat; feigning a false discovery that Tommy’s family has lost their fortune, leaving Tommy penniless.  
The ruse works. But Connie isn’t quite ready to forgive Tommy his indiscretions; that is, until she learns from Professor Kenyon (Clinton Sunberg) Tommy deliberately failed his French exam so he couldn’t play in the football game and therefore cannot escort Pat to the prom. Explaining the situation to the professor changes everything. Since nobler intentions were at the heart of Tommy’s faked exam failure, Kenyon decides to pass him anyway. Thus, Tommy will play in the game. Regardless, Pat has ditched Tommy for none other than Beef – who, it seems, also comes from a wealthy clan. Honestly, is anybody in MGM’s musical la-la land ever poor, much less middle class? Tommy is, of course now free to pursue Connie – if she’ll let him. True to MGM’s chronic ‘happily ever after’ Connie forgives her man, the two engaging the graduating class in a spirited dance to celebrate their reunion with Babe now off the hook to fall in love with Bobby.
Good News is infectiously effervescent; frothy and tune-filled – a delectable flambé of good-natured merriment and mirth. Given Peter Lawford’s white-knuckled apprehensions in accepting the part, his performance remains a minor revelation; Lawford immersing himself in the merrymaker’s pursuit of having a very good time and taking the audience along for the ride. True, no one could ever confuse his accent as American. But the movie doesn’t make much of it either, the concept of the ‘exchange student’ still some years away from being considered mainstream; especially within the context of the film’s 1920’s ambiance. And Lawford’s singing voice is…well…thin to practically nonexistent. But the score never overtaxes his limited capabilities. He talks on pitch through most of it (a stylistic approach exploited by Rex Harrison decades later in My Fair Lady). And Lawford’s appeal herein really is as the hunk du jour; athletic, congenial and forthright. Part, if not all of Lawford’s charm emanates from his devilish handsomeness; eye candy for the female movie goer.
Better in performance is June Allyson – arguably, better than she’s ever been elsewhere. Billed as ‘America’s most popular musical sweetheart’; Allyson’s on-screen persona was as ‘the girl next door’; the ingénue any man would feel safe taking home to meet his mother. Interestingly, Allyson’s niche was not immediately discovered at MGM; Mayer sending his new find down to see the studio’s doctor, who promptly declared she had laryngitis.  Luckily, contract player, Van Johnson was in the next chair next, telling Allyson “Don’t let them change you, honey. You’ve got a million dollar case of laryngitis!” Indeed, Allyson’s dutiful ‘good woman’ carried the weight of her career for several decades yet to follow. In Good News she’s young enough to play the wide-eyed wholesome kid, yet strangely old enough to know her own heart and mind. And Allyson acquits herself nicely of both ‘The Varsity Drag’ and ‘The Best Things In Life Are Free’; the latter a heartfelt ballad rendered with genuine poignancy. She’s also quite effective and affecting – though never maudlin – warbling the lovelorn ‘Just Imagine’.
The other standout here is Joan McCracken, a superb raconteur, comedian and dancer, brought to MGM’s attention after her stunning stage debut in Oklahoma!, then Billion Dollar Baby; the latter co-written by Comden and Green. McCracken was an exuberant star, full of brass, pluck and that rarified fire and music all truly great stars possess. She’s given the plum support in Good News, equally at home high-stepping through ‘Pass that Peace Pipe’ as she is able to dish the dirt with the rest of the girls (her cleverly timed, barbed smack downs of Patricia Marshall’s uppity airs are hilarious); somehow coming out sassier than ever and always on top. Ill health (three heart attacks and a bout of crippling pneumonia in the mid-1950s) put a period to her stellar abilities as a dancer. And although McCracken forged on, neither she nor her career were ever the same again. She left us far too early in 1961, from diabetic complications at the tender age of 43; a monumental tragedy and a decided loss to both the stage and screen.
Finally, we tip our hats to Mel Torme – given precious little to do outside of a pair of songs – neither, his solo. Torme partakes as the third wheel in ‘Ladies Man’; an invigorating bit of testosterone-driven madness in which Peter Lawford and Torme’s Danny attempt to educate the wimpy, Bobby Turner on how to play the field and come off the epitomized sheik a la Valentino. Mel also gets a few line in the ensemble number, ‘Lucky in Love’; strumming a ukulele. Perhaps Metro was testing the waters with Torme on this outing. But his movie career never quite took off at MGM thereafter.   
Good News will likely remain the quintessential college musical for all time. They just don’t make pictures like this anymore; about young people from respectable homes, who feel deeply and are empathetic toward others; thus making themselves worth knowing on their own terms.  To be sure, Good News was neither the first, nor the last, musical to bask in this fictitious collegiate atmosphere. Arguably, however, it remains the very best. Welcome to Tate College, everybody. Megaphones and pompoms optional. ‘Goodie, good, good!’
There’s great news for Good News on DVD. Warner Home Video initially released the film as a properly minted DVD. They have since reissued it as part of their Warner Archive MOD program. Both editions deliver a very solid video presentation. The original film elements underwent a photochemical restoration back in the mid-1990s and the image herein looks fabulous. Still, I’m going to champion that WB’s Archive get busy on a new Blu-ray. There can’t be much to do to get the image up to snuff for hi-def. And besides, it would look utterly stunning in 1080p. On the DVD, the Technicolor positively glows rich, bold, vibrant hues. There’s also an impressive sharpness without appearing to have been digitally enhanced. Wow, indeed! Age related artifacts are not an issue. There are no digital anomalies either. This transfer is incredibly smooth. The audio is mono but fairly impressive. Extras include a few musical excerpts from the original Good News and this film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended…for now.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS

2

No comments: