Saturday, December 10, 2016

BEST FOOT FORWARD (MGM 1943) Warner Home Video

Before becoming TV’s devilish madcap, Lucille Ball was an auburn-haired glamour girl, dubbed Technicolor Tessie in the trades; more famous for her gams, gloss and sex appeal in A-list musicals and B-budgeted noir thrillers than for her comedic timing. This too would be later mined for its untapped richness on everybody’s favorite sitcom, I Love Lucy (1951-57). That the sultry/savvy screen persona Ball had cultivated in her movies was lost in translation to television is indeed a shame, since she could dish the dirt with the best of them, often portraying a hard-knock, clear-eyed sex bomb better than most. In the shadow of I Love Lucy, it occasionally takes a moment or two to warm up to the ‘other’ Lucille Ball; the evolution most palpable in Edward Buzell’s Best Foot Forward (1943); a rambunctious college musical, casting Lucy as herself – or rather, a variation on the public image concocted by MGM. In hindsight, Best Foot Forward is Ball in transition; given the full glamour treatment, immaculately quaffed and sheathed in some of Irene Sharaff’s most elegant gowns, but with Ball’s yen for razor-sharp comedy shining through. Yet it is her impeccable timing that caps off some fairly bitter and oft risqué barbs, each elevated to good clean humor, even if the sentiment behind them could incinerate.

Ironically, Lucy is not ‘the star’ of our show. That honor belongs to Tommy Dix, the unlikely pint-sized baritone powerhouse, imported from Broadway by producer, Arthur Freed (along with a sizable chunk of the original show’s cast). Extraordinarily gifted, Dix’s reputation, unjustly, has been allowed to fade into obscurity for far too long. At the age of twelve, he already possessed the singing pipes of a full grown man thrice his age. He became a regular on a religious radio program built around his formidable talent and airing in New York throughout the 1930's. As luck would have it, the network was owned by Loews Incorporated, the parent company of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Dix, who had begun his career as Bobby Brittain, scored a minor coup in Broadway’s The Corn is Green (1940), while quietly trying out for George Abbott’s new musical, Best Foot Forward (1941); a light-hearted, revue-styled show about a love-struck boy attending a Pennsylvanian prep school and the havoc caused when his mash note to a big Hollywood star causes her to arrive on site for a publicity stunt gone wrong. Broadway folklore has it the show was shaping up to be a dud until the curtain rose on the second act and Dix opened his mouth to belt out the school’s fight song, ‘Buckle Down Winsocki’. In good ole fashion terms, Dix stopped the show.

As the Broadway run neared its end, Arthur Freed, who generally made two trips to New York per annum scouting new properties, caught a matinee performance of Best Foot Forward and was immediately enchanted. At $150,000, Freed outbid Columbia Studio president, Harry Cohn for the rights to produce it. For that money, he also secured the services of songwriters, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, actors Gil Stratton (who had actually played the male lead on Broadway), June Allyson, Nancy Walker, Kenny Bowers, Tommy Dix and, an as yet unknown quantity; contract dancer, Stanley Donen who, by the late 1940's would prove his pluck as Gene Kelly’s mainstay choreographer/collaborator, and eventually, would go on to become one of the industry’s most respected directors.  Donen is barely glimpsed in several of Best Foot Forward’s lavishly appointed production numbers, hoisting June Allyson up by the ankles for ‘Wish I May, Wish I Might’ and accompanying Allyson again in the sprite and athletic Barrel Hop segment from ‘The Three B’s’. Freed padded out his cast with some studio homegrown talent: Virginia Weidler – all grown up, as the long-suffering, gawky school girl, Helen Schlesinger (affectionately referred to as Helen ‘Smack-in-the-puss’); Chill Wills, as the thoroughly obtuse photog, Chester Short (‘mighty long for a man named ‘Short’); William Gaxton, Ball’s misguided press agent, Jack O’Riley (who, if he had his life to do all over again was sincerely encouraged by Ball’s sharp shooter to reconsider), and finally, Harry James and His Music Makers to jazz up the Martin/Blane mega hits.

Best Foot Forward continues to resonate and sparkle with fresh-faced innocence, meticulously mapped out by Arthur Freed, employing his usual gift for assembling top-tier talent behind the scenes. The show is given all the gloss and gigantism Metro usually afforded its musicals, tricked out in sumptuous 3-strip Technicolor, slickly rewritten by scenarists, Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe to iron out some of the stage’s minor narrative kinks. The boy’s prep school – Winsocki - was remade as a military academy preparing young men for West Point; timely fluff, considering there was a war on. From the outset, Freed’s faith in the project was unabated, enough to convince L.B. Mayer to green-light Best Foot Forward in color (always expensive). To illustrate this point, of the 289 features produced in Hollywood in 1943, only ten were photographed in Technicolor, four for MGM alone. As it turned out, Freed made a fortuitous decision early on when he elected to cast Tommy Dix. On Broadway, Dix had played second fiddle to Gil Stratton. Ultimately, Stratton would not appear in the movie at all. Although he arrived with the rest of the company as per Freed’s lock, stock and barrel wholesale purchase of the show. Instead, Stratton would be spirited away in support of Mickey Rooney in another Freed musical simultaneously shooting, Girl Crazy (also made in 1943), after original costar, Ray MacDonald was drafted into the army.

L.B. Mayer loved musicals almost as much as Arthur Freed, primarily because they fit his idea of wholesome ‘family’ entertainment. Moreover, he implicitly trusted Freed’s judgment and impeccable good taste. And Best Foot Forward never disappoints on that score, even if the film was out-grossed at the box office by the aforementioned Girl Crazy. In retrospect, Best Foot Forward remains one of MGM’s most magical offspring with an academic theme; the entire production shot on sound stages and the back lot, taking full advantage of the Williamsburg-styled ‘Girl’s Dormitory’ set originally built for 1940’s Forty Little Mothers at a then respectable cost of $10,000, and featured in countless movies thereafter; substituting as schools, museums, a mental asylum and finally, a Washington in ruins for Logan’s Run (1976). One of the most extraordinary aspects about Best Foot Forward is the longevity of its cast. Many went on to have very lucrative careers. June Allyson, as example, became Metro’s most popular musical sweetheart throughout the mid-1940's and early 50's, attaining the apex of her screen popularity, opposite Peter Lawford in another college-bound musical, Good News (1949). Originally told her voice would never record, Allyson was informed her ‘laryngitis’ could be fixed by MGM’s resident doctor. Overhearing the conversation, heartthrob, Van Johnson is rumored to have replied, “Oh no, boys. That’s a million dollar case of laryngitis!” Like Allyson, Gloria DeHaven and Nancy Walker received studio contracts, memorably featured, usually as campy seductress and comic relief respectively. Kenny Bowers, whose distinct upturned nose and ragamuffin charm made him a beloved, almost elfin-like personality as Dutch Miller, infrequently made movies thereafter, turning his attentions instead to a singing and stage career. In Best Foot Forward however, he is, quite simply, the most joyous of comic foils for Tommy Dix and Lucille Ball.

The film crackles with a rapid fire delivery of some very witty dialogue. An ongoing gag about Helen – whose last name no one can seem to recall at a moment’s notice, is invariably referred to as ‘Miss Slassenger’, ‘Smack-in-puss’, and ‘Schlesin-heimer’ is cute without ever becoming strained. The repartee between cadets, Bud Hooper (Dix) and his roommates, Dutch Miller and Hunk Hoyt (Jack Jordan) is genial and competitive; the threesome vying for time with Lucille Ball on the dance floor at their senior prom; the even bigger gag – no one at the prom seems to realize who Lucy is until her dress is torn off during a climactic cat fight, with fans struggling to own a souvenir. “Miss Ball, you really send me,” Hunk suggests, “Only I’m too smart to go.” A short while later, Bud inadvertently adds insult to injury when he suggests, “It’s not their fault they didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.”  Yet, perhaps because the greatest asset the movie has, at least in hindsight, is Lucy’s glittery movie star, Best Foot Forward invariably becomes her show – a veritable showcase for her myriad of talents, of which, alas, singing is not one of them; contract ‘dubber’, Gloria Grafton, subbing in for Ball’s big song, the poignantly realized ‘You’re Lucky’ in which Lucy’s super star encourages her diminutive Lochinvar not to be so eager as to sacrifice the joys of childhood by growing up too quickly. It is a precious moment, unimpeded by the usual artifice or treacle one might expect, the silent exchange of smiles as the song concludes firmly cementing its tenderness.

The plot of Best Foot Forward is simplistic to a fault; a college-bound cadet writes a famous movie star a mash letter, inviting her to be his date at his senior prom. No self-respecting glamour queen would think to reply. Except that Lucy’s last few pictures haven’t exactly been smash hits, and in a last ditch effort to resurrect for sagging career, her agent, Jack O’Riley has misguidedly accepted Bud’s invitation on his client’s behalf, hiring ‘one-bulb’ Chester Short to capture the tabloid-worthy stunt for posterity. Almost immediately, things go awry; Chester pitching an absurd idea for a screenplay he has written to Lucy and Jack, reenacting its pivotal love scene by taking her in his arms and declaring, “Oh, my darling. You are the quintessence of feminine loveliness. I long to gaze into your sapphire eyes and sip from your ruby lips the sweet nectar of the gods…” before tossing her aside to inquire from O’Riley, “Have you got an aspirin? This scene always gets me!”

Meanwhile, Bud is in a dilemma. He has received a telegram from O’Riley, reportedly touting Lucy’s overwhelming enthusiasm to be his date for the prom. However, at the same instance, Bud learns his mainstay, Helen Schlesinger, is arriving on the noonday bus with the rest of the girls from a nearby school, eager to attend the prom. Having received a letter from Bud, claiming he is ill with the grip, she has nevertheless come to nurse him back to health as a devoted gal pal. Hunk and Dutch promise to keep Helen at bay. But what they are really planning is a three-way split of Lucy’s time on the dance floor, with the more prominent portions going to themselves. Helen quickly figures out the ruse. She is nobody’s fool, although very much the jealous type. The situation is complicated too by the arrival of Hunk and Dutch’s dates; Minerva (Gloria Grahame) and Ethel (June Allyson). The pair has come with their school’s chaperone, Miss Talbert (Sarah Haden). Also on the bus is Nancy (Nancy Walker); a butch wallflower with precious little opportunity to land herself an escort from the ‘plum pick’ of amiable cadets. Eventually, she settles for ‘Killer’ (Darwood ‘Waldo’ Kaye) a scrawny underling; Ethel objectionably declaring, “But he’s thirteen” to which Nancy replies, “By eighteen he’ll get used to me.”

In hindsight, Nancy Walker turns in one of the most hilarious performances in the picture. Her one-liners are all self-deprecating zingers. When Minerva suggests ‘beauty is only skin deep’, Nancy comes back with “Maybe I should get skinned.” When Miss Talbert sternly observes, “Do you think it very ladylike to be dropping handkerchiefs in front of the stag line?”, Nancy glibly swats back with piss elegance, “No…that’s why I use Kleenex!” Walker is also given a great solo in the middle act of ‘The Three B’s’ in which she warbles ‘The Boogie-Woogie Beat’, with all the deadpan magnificence of a Virginia O’Brien, claiming ‘it’s as slick and hard to take as Veronica Lake – woo-woo-woo-woo!’ – simultaneously, delicious and amusing. Finally, she is given her own specialty number, ‘Alive n’ Kickin’ – desperately attempting to woo band leader, Harry James with a buck n’ wing, but winding up toppling over and smashing his big bass drum instead. The mileage Walker gets from these moments is impressive, yet, oddly enough, never entirely distracting from the central narrative, despite the fact she has very little – if anything – to do with it.

But back to Bud and Lucy, and particularly, Helen, who is so shocked, wounded and disappointed in Bud for having thrown her over for a glamor queen she sincerely vows to never again speak to him. Lucy would like to help, but actually she has bigger fish to fry. Ushered around the dance floor by her trio of escorts, her presence is eventually exposed to the graduating class (both figuratively and literally) when Helen – in a last ditch effort to prove her love for Bud – confronts him and Lucy on the dance floor during The Ring Waltz, preceded by the eloquent ballad, ‘My First Promise’, sung to perfection by Beverly Tyler. Revealing Lucy as the interloper, Helen tears at her dress, declaring, “Look, I’ve got a souvenir!” This incites a riot, the graduating class ripping Lucy’s ball gown to shreds and leaving her in her petticoats. A short while later, Bud is contemplating his future; confronted by Hunk and Dutch who inevitably drag Ethel, Nancy and Minerva into his dormitory bedroom. Big no-no, here. No coed rooms at Winsocki, you see. In a scene directly ripped from the Marx Bros. classic, A Night At The Opera (1932), the modest dorm begins to fill with all manner of students, attempting to hide out from Winsocki’s formidable disciplinarian, Capt. Bradd (Donald McBride). In the penultimate reveal, Bradd winds up locked in the closet with Nancy, who escapes detection by covering her head with Harry James’ punctured bass drum.

The next day, Bud apologizes to Lucy in her hotel suite. She is empathetic. After all, Bud is a good kid. She asks if everything has been squared away at Winsocki and Bud lies to her to keep the peace. Lucy sends him off with a song; another poignant Martin/Blane ballad, ‘You’re Lucky’ (her vocals awkwardly dubbed by Gloria Grafton). But only moments later, Lucy and Jack learn from Helen, who has been hiding in the hallway, Bud will not be graduating. It seems Capt. Bradd is holding him personally responsible for the disgraceful display at the prom. Taking matters into her own hands, Lucy confronts Bradd, also his superior officer, Major Reeber (Henry O’Neill). Smoothing the situation, by pretending the entire incident was deliberately staged by Mr. O’Riley, purely as a publicity stunt, Lucy ingratiates herself to both men, who easily become enamored of her beauty and charm. They agree to allow Bud to graduate. Everyone rushes off to observe the commencement exercises; Bud, closing the show with a rousing reprise of the stage’s megahit, ‘Buckle Down Winsocki’.
On the surface, Best Foot Forward seems so effortlessly charming and unassumingly good-natured, it is easy to forget the well-oiled Metro machinery hard at work behind the scenes to pull together this extraordinarily effervescent entertainment. All the pistons are firing as only MGM in its heyday could manage. Yes, we have all seen these sets before; the whole picture concocted to take full advantage of the studio’s formidable array of free-standing assets. The gymnasium, as example, would be used over and over again in films as diverse as A Date With Judy (1948) and Good News(1949); the campus, a veritable mainstay for any picture set in academia; Bathing Beauty (1944),Cynthia (1947), The Cobweb (1955) and Tea and Sympathy (1956) among them.  It is a hallmark from this period, all MGM movies had a consistent look of quality about them; the grounds impeccably manicured, the extras and stars set before them afforded no less consideration. In some ways, I would have this polished look to movies again; the total creation of a world not to be found in nature, but rather existing in a sort of artistically ‘perfect’ vacuum where not one hedge remains un-pruned, and not a single hair is out of place on anyone’s head. Today, such attention to detail is oft criticized as ‘artificial glamour’. Personally, I disagree. It’s the sort of artifice that is so intoxicating and beautiful to behold, all one can do is sit back and bask in the staggering scrupulousness of its visual exercise. Add to this, Lenny Hayton’s lush orchestrations to augment the Martin/Blane score with tenderness and bombast when and where propriety demands, and, Leonard Smith’s vibrant cinematography, revealing the varied, bright and breezy richness of glorious Technicolor, and you have a supremely satisfying entertainment with a capital ‘E’.

It all looks utterly gorgeous, radiating equally portions of luminosity and cleanliness for which Metro was justly regarded back then. The musical truly lost its most consummate in-house stylist when MGM ceased its operations in the mid-1970's; arguably, even early with the government-enforced disbanding of its galvanic star system in the late 1950's. At a final cost of $1,125,502, Best Foot Forward’s gross of $2,704,000 – while putting its receipts in the black – was a tad disappointing, considering Girl Crazy (shot more efficiently in B&W, and, on a similar budget of $1,410,850) made a tidy profit of $3,771,000.  In retrospect, Best Foot Forward is a painful reminder of that creative loss, not only at MGM, but in the ‘new’ Hollywood that has replaced those golden years under the ‘studio system’. It is also, a very fond daydream remembered from a distinctly more innocent time in picture-making when chic good taste and pictorial quality prevailed above all else. And it is a memorable romp too, and a joyous spree, delicately balanced and moving with considerable agility through Metro’s storied past. In 1974, in praise of the theatrical release of the musical anthology film, That’s Entertainment!, Variety suggested “while many may ponder the future of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, certainly no one can deny it’s had one hell of a past!” Best Foot Forward is a glorious addendum to this historical record.  It is bouncy, plush and tune-filled surefire box office dynamite. “Buckle down, Winsocki, buckle down!”

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer of this engaging musical is reason enough to stand up and cheer, although I would suggest it is about time the Warner Archive (WAC) came around to remastering Best Foot Forward for a Blu-ray release. Until then, what we have here is near pristine; actually, a stunning transfer from original 3-strip Technicolor negatives that belies the source material is well over 60 years old. Colors are beautifully rendered. Reds are blood red. Whites clean, without blooming. Lucy’s henna hair simply glows off the screen. Harry James’ powder-puff tux and the navy blue ensembles worn by his Music Makers are strikingly rendered. Flesh tones are bang on perfect. Contrast is exceptional with rich, solid black levels. Fine detail is naturally reproduced. Of note: there is one very brief instance, as Lucy first meets Bud in her hotel room, where the image suddenly becomes inexplicably soft, with several glaring age-related artifacts coming into view. But this brief instance is hardly worth quibbling over. The audio has been remixed to Dolby stereo and is very well represented, particularly the musical sequences. Only three brief short subjects accompany the main feature, none actually directly related to it – a genuine shame – but one easily overlooked, considering what treasures are on tap. Bottom line: Very highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)



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