Wednesday, July 9, 2014

SPRINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES (2oth Century-Fox 1942) Fox Cinema Archive

It’s more than a little difficult today to accurately assess the overwhelming popularity of Betty Grable: not because she wasn’t a great star or a formidable talent, but rather because today’s Hollywood no longer cultivates such rarities in their purest form for the movie screen. Worse, today’s pop culture equally hasn’t the time or the interest to invest in anyone who isn’t chronically splashed across the tabloids. Grable’s ascendancy from contract chorine to everybody’s favorite wartime pinup girl (also the title of one of her more popular, glossy Technicolor outings) is the stuff Hollywood dreams used to be made of. Here was a great gal with a great set of gams who could act, sing, dance and do comedy – in short, the all-around entertainer, putting on the dog and the show and commanding an audience by virtue of her name-drawing power alone.
It was a transformation begun only after a series of misfires at Paramount; Grable all but resigning herself to an early retirement when Darryl F. Zanuck signed her to a long-term contract; immediately elevating her from the B-movie into the upper echelons of A-list super stardom. “If that's not luck I don't know what you'd call it!” Grable would later muse, “I'd had contracts with four studios in ten years and each time I was dropped, I stepped into something better.” Grable’s appeal, at least for Zanuck, was two-fold. First, with her platinum tresses, she definitely fit the mold first established by Jean Harlow as the brassy, sassy blonde bombshell. She also fell in line with Zanuck’s personal affinity for cultivating a veritable stable of blondes; beginning with Alice Faye and Shirley Temple. Eventually, Grable’s box office appeal would be eclipsed by the ultimate blonde – Marilyn Monroe; Grable, the old trooper supposedly telling Monroe on the set of How To Marry A Millionaire (1954), “I’ve had mine, kid. Now, go out and get yours!”
But for a time – virtually all of the 1940’s – Betty Grable reigned supreme at 2oth Century-Fox, Zanuck constantly pitting her popularity against Faye’s and also June Haver, frequently using each star as leverage against the other two to get them to do his bidding when they stubbornly refused to acquiesce to his demands on their own. Ironically, it was a project originally slated for Faye – 1940’s Down Argentine Way – that launched Grable’s movie career and would provide the template for her tenure at Fox; perennially cast as the pert and plucky ingénue, smarter than any fella who thought he might just take advantage of her. The formulaic Fox musical was in full swing during the war years, and Grable, its most effervescent champion.
Irving Cummings’ Springtime in the Rockies (1942) is typical Fox fodder from this period: a sumptuously mounted spectacle with insanely beautiful backdrops, a killer cast (this one featuring Carmen Miranda – a gal for which the garish hues of Technicolor were seemingly designed, and, two of the studio’s most popular leading men, John Payne and Cesar Romero), plus a litany of then chart-topping pop tunes performed by swing band leader, Harry James, his Music Makers and frequent songstress under his tutelage, Helen Forrest. For comic relief, Zanuck feathered in Charlotte Greenwood and Edward Everett Horton – old hams of the first magnitude.
Springtime in the Rockies was Betty Grable’s biggest hit to date, confirming for Zanuck his faith in her talents had not been mislaid. Cribbing from a story by Philip Wylie (originally published as ‘Second Honeymoon’ but purchased by Fox under the title ‘Worship the Sun’, screenwriters Walter Bullock and Ken Englund have concocted an effervescent little backstage nothing about feuding and fussing lovers who find new reasons to rekindle their romance against the picturesque backdrop of Canada’s Chateau Lake Louise. Alas, as was customary in Hollywood back then, no one ever left the Fox back lot for this outing; studio-bound to soundstages no less, the sumptuousness of the isolated Canadian Eldorado only briefly glimpsed in a few travelogue establishing shots shot by a second unit, and, used for rear projection process plates, later inserted into the finished film to add an air of authenticity.  
Actually, Springtime in the Rockies is pretty par for the course of the forties Fox musical gristmill. Pragmatically speaking, the story could have taken place just about anywhere and still clicked for audiences; discovering the Portuguese/Brazilian samba-singing Miranda and her ‘brothers’ (her band, the Bando da Lua) performing rhythmic Latin selections in the hotel’s ballroom are about as indigenous to the Canadian outback as elephants and rhinos. Alas, realism doesn’t seem to have been an issue or a concern for art directors, Richard Day and Joseph C. Wright. Their idea of this remote Canadian hideaway for the uber-chic and ultra-wealthy is pure Tin Pan Alley meets Broadway showmanship, with a healthy dosage of Hollywood glitz and escapism thrown in. According to studio PR, both Fred Astaire and Rudy Vallee were originally considered for the male leads. True or just a lot of banana oil?  After all, Astaire was quite content as a freelancer while Vallee’s participation would have necessitated the inclusion of at least a couple extra songs for him to sing.
In retrospect, Springtime in the Rockies is decidedly – and curiously – light on its musical program; director Cummings frequently cutting away from Harry James’ orchestral interludes – even from Grable and Caesar Romero’s silken pas deux – to feature bits of exposition instead. Except for the film’s opening song, ‘Run Little Raindrop, Run’ and the grand finale, ‘Pan American Jubilee’, Grable sings not a note, her talents engaged elsewhere. The focus is decidedly shifted on the ebullient Carmen Miranda, who chirps the mind-boggling tongue twister, O 'Tic-Tac' do Meu Coração and jazzy, Chattanooga Choo Choo (the latter translated into Portuguese).  Carmen Miranda’s fracturing of the English language was, in fact, no joke…at least, at first. Like Grable, her big break came in Down Argentine Way, Zanuck utterly captivated by Miranda’s Broadway appearance in the all-star, Streets of Paris and blindly signing her to a long-term contract before realizing his new star could not speak a word of English.
Cleverly, Zanuck featured Carmen in only two numbers in Down Argentine Way – both in her native tongue and shot on a makeshift soundstage in New York, while she continued to fulfill her commitments to Streets of Paris; before whisking her away to Hollywood on a crash course with one of the studio’s expert dialect coaches. Watching Miranda’s 14 memorable movie romps made at Fox and MGM from 1940 to 1953 one can see a definite progression; her assimilation into more challenging English-speaking parts curiously also leading to a gradual downturn in her overall popularity at the box office. But in Springtime in the Rockies she’s still a very roughhewn diamond; her delicious mangling of tenses and terminology is delightfully fragmented music to our ears. As when she challenges Edward Everett Horton’s bumbling bartender cum gentleman’s valet, McTavish, to explain his sudden attraction to Grable’s assistant, Phoebe Grey (Charlotte Greenwood); Miranda’s Rosita Murphy impatiently asking, “Why you like her? You think she look more gooder?”
Springtime in the Rockies has a cache of riches in store for the viewer, though regrettably too many of them are wasted in the Bullock/Englund screenplay. We get bits and baubles strewn about this musical mélange, but nothing makes an impression for too long. Harry James musical numbers are all bunched together in the first thirty minutes of the film, occurring one after the other before he completely disappears from the story, only to resurface near the end as something of a good friend to Grable’s forlorn Vicky Lane. This after Vicky has once again been double-crossed by her unfaithful lover/fiancée, Dan Christy (John Payne).  In his career at Fox, Payne was frequently the ignoble Caliban and roué of women’s hearts.  It was a persona ironically counterintuitive to Payne’s own; a mostly quiet, some have suggested ‘insecure’ man who narrowly survived being struck down by a car in 1961 and thereafter was never quite the same again.
A musical remake of Walter Lang’s Second Honeymoon (1936, and costarring Tyrone Power and Loretta Young) Springtime in the Rockies has a lot of great talent at its disposal. Yet, rarely does the film give any of them the opportunity to truly shine. Cesar Romero’s swarthy Lothario is barely given the opportunity to speak; his few fleeting moments as Grable’s potential replacement for the cast-off Dan (as Vicky’s former dance partner, Victor Prince, who would like to be more in her bedroom as well) comes off as pure camp. Romero is charming as always, but herein utterly reduced to playing the silly buffoon. He’s in better form in the dance routine with Grable; A Poem Set to Music, though here too he just comes off as something of an appendage to the star instead of a worthy counterpart we could actually believe in as a sincere rival for Vicky’s affections.
The talent that continues to baffle me is Charlotte Greenwood; undeniably, a very funny lady who could really do comedy when given half the chance, but who performs the same leggy dance routine in virtually every movie she appeared in. It’s a one hit wonder once you’ve seen it; the gangly Greenwood able to kick and contort her limbs in all sorts of bizarre maneuvers; bending in half at the waist or raising her ankles to the top of her bleached blonde head. In Springtime in the Rockies she does it again as part of a presumably inebriated dance routine. But we get none of Greenwood’s penchant for hilarity; her limited deadpan retorts to Dan and Victor deadly dull at best. Like Edward Everett Horton, Greenwood gets shafted by the screenplay, her appearance in the film forgettable in the extreme.   
The plot for Springtime in the Rockies is serviceable at best. During their thirty-fourth week of a hit Broadway show, dancer Vicky Lane discovers her fiancée, Dan Christy has been stepping out with Manhattan socialite, Marilyn Crothers (Trudy Marshall barely glimpsed in the first reel). Dan lies to Vicky; that his tardiness is actually the result of last minute shopping for an engagement ring. But Vicky soon finds a perfumed handkerchief with lipstick stains in Dan’s pocket. She’s no fool. Furthermore, she’s been duped and humiliated one too many times. Hence, when her old partner, Victor Prince arrives with a new proposal they work together once more, Vicky dumps Dan both personally and professionally to hightail it to the Chateau Lake Louise for a much needed change, taking her personal assistant, Phoebe along for the trip.
Dan laments Vicky’s departure in typical fashion; he gets soused at an after-hours nightclub, confronted by his buddy, the Commissioner (Jackie Gleason) who is desperate for Dan to win Vicky back, having already lined up prospects for a brand new Broadway review with Messers Bickel (Frank Orth) and Brown (Harry Hayden) ready to foot the bills – but only if Vicky is part of the deal. Sullen and moody, Dan’s not interested in anything except wallowing in self-pity. In his present condition, he’s ill equipped to make any solid decisions. So the Commissioner entrusts the club’s bartender, McTavish with seeing Dan gets on a plane to Canada to woo Vicky back.  Some hours later, Dan awakens in a nice cushy bed in a fashionable hotel suite, shocked to discover he’s somehow made it to Chateau Lake Louise under duress, and having also forgotten he’s hired McTavish as his personal valet; also picked up Rosita Murphy at a flower shop, employing her as his private secretary. Inexplicably, Rosita has also brought along her brothers.
Dan attempts to court Vicky who is now seemingly only interested in Victor, though not really. For better or worse, her heart belongs to Dan, although it will take the better half of the movie’s runtime for everyone to get together as they should. In the meantime, Rosita begins to fall for McTavish whom she discovers is the heir-apparent to a toothpaste dynasty and has spent most of his moneyed youth and middle-age as a professional student under a personal stipend of $10,000 per annum (a considerable sum in 1942 dollars). Hence, when Bickel and Brown decided to drop Dan and his show in the eleventh hour of the screenplay, Rosita turns to her new sweetheart for inspiration and – of course – the necessary blank check needed to satisfy their cash flow problems. When Vicky learns Dan had plans to star her in a new show she assumes this was the only reason for his pursuit of her all along. Complications arise and there’s a tantrum or two. But predictably, we end on a high note, the entire ensemble engaged in the opening night of big and splashy Broadway review featuring star turns from the entire cast.
Springtime in the Rockies is pure corn, refreshingly ripened for maximum sweetness. It’s a hard-hearted cynic who can set aside the effervescent Betty Grable and the tantalizing Carmen Miranda, even if the plot they’re embroiled in is pure Hollywood hokum. Fox musicals from this vintage are not about story or even character development. The personalities cultivated for these glossy, eye-popping and tune-filled extravaganzas are of the ‘plug n’ play’ variety. We know what we’re getting even before going into the theater and can’t wait for the houselights to dim.  Evidently, Springtime in the Rockies proved more than an elixir for the audience; Grable and Harry James finding true romance on the set and marrying one year later. The marriage would last until 1965.
Springtime in the Rockies had, of course, already been filmed once before as the non-musical, Second Honeymoon, and there are studio memos to suggest yet another remake was in the works in 1946, to be rechristened, Autumn in Acapulco. Alas, that version never came about. It’s likely just as well. For Springtime in the Rockies is the sort of bouncy and bright musical burlesque only possible, and literally to guarantee a mega profit during the war years. People often ask why they don’t make them like they used to. Chiefly, the answer is because the caliber of star power just isn’t there anymore. Name me a talent as trend-setting as Betty Grable, or one as indelibly etched into our pop culture as Carmen Miranda.
Also, we have to consider that the center of gravity – ergo, the era of the movie mogul, is sadly a thing of the past. Without a star system and the in-house collaborative personnel on hand to make everything click, it’s virtually impossible to pull together a movie of this magnitude on such short notice. Remember, the studios pumped out anywhere from 35 to 52 pictures like Springtime in the Rockies per annum! Finally, and perhaps most telling of all, the times and tastes have shifted in quite another direction. Hollywood no longer caters to such innocent daydreams. They wouldn’t even know how to begin, and arguably, shouldn’t even try. Thankfully, we have movies like Springtime in the Rockies to remind us of this other time, often referenced as ‘simpler.’  Like hell it was! With half a hemisphere in flames, rationing on the home front, the men fighting abroad to keep the peace, and, the women pulling double duty in the factories and the kitchen - money still tighter than a drum - you better believe movies like Springtime in the Rockies were considered not only a luxury, but also a necessity to keep the morale and sanity alive and thriving during those terribly dark days from the Second World War.
The need for films like Springtime in the Rockies hasn’t entirely gone away since; either because there’s still the older generation who fondly recollect these flicks from their own childhood and youth; also, as a newer generation discovers them for the very first time, often by accident and on TV; quickly finding something appealing – if slightly campy – to warm the heart and energize the mind. If only someone could convince the powers that be at 2oth Century-Fox there is more to their past than the shoddy work being committed to their Cinema Archive collection, then collectors, movie lovers and newbees alike would really have something to crow about. Alas, Springtime in the Rockies on MOD-DVD is about as exciting as watching paint dry.
I’m not going to get into the nuts and bolts of how previous regimes overseeing the studio’s past have squandered the chance to preserve these movies for future generations. You can find a more detailed account in almost any other Fox Archive Review written on this blog. But Fox has taken to slapping out this movie in whatever present day condition it has survived.  As such, the image herein is very soft – on occasion, downright blurry. Colors are fairly robust, and at times attain a fairly pleasing level of saturation that in no way captures the look of vintage 3-strip Technicolor, in part, because what we’re looking at here is a poorly reprinted Eastman color preservation master.
Also, some of the original elements are misaligned. So, we get those nasty and disturbing halos. They’re most prevalent and obvious during the ‘Run Little Raindrop, Run’ number, also later on in the hotel scene where Dan confesses he loves Vicky.  Don’t look for fine details because there aren’t any. The image is weak and poorly contrasted. There are no deep blacks, or any blacks for that matter; everything registering in a slightly washed out murky gray.
Aside: someone at Fox needs to address the issue of their logo preceding the movie. In the mid-1970’s a misguided ‘genius’ decided all previous studio product needed to have a homogenized 2oth Century-Fox logo from the then present day. So we lose the original sherbert-colored art deco Fox logo that ought to have preceded this movie.  Dumb! Silly! Won’t someone fix that?!?
The final insult on this transfer is digital combing; a definite sign these elements have not been properly transferred from progressively mastered source materials. At intervals we get those pesky horizontal lines interrupting any movement on the screen. It’s intermittent, which is rather bizarre. On my 40 inch screen it was annoying, but tolerable. On my 80 inch screen it was frustrating and utterly distracting. Who needs it? Like almost all titles committed to the Cinema Archive I’ve had the misfortune to sample, Springtime in the Rockies lands with a thud.   The audio is adequately rendered - but just that! Again, like all titles in Fox’s ‘archive’ – a word which has been loosely translated as code for this dumping ground of substandard product – this one gets zero in the way of extras. Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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