MY GAL SAL: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1946) Twilight Time
Irving Cummings’ My Gal Sal (1942) is a real red herring. Ostensibly, it is either a bio-pic on composer, Paul Dresser, very loosely based on Theodore Dreiser’s biographical essay about his own brother, or the tale of fictional chanteuse, Sally Elliot, a luscious and leggy Broadway star (played with virtuosity to spare by Rita Hayworth – if dubbed by Nan Wynn). Actually, the picture is devoted to neither pursuit, but rather – and mostly – Dresser’s ‘golden oldie’ song catalog from the turn of the century; just another excuse, in glorious Technicolor no less, for 2oth Century-Fox to indulge in its particular brand of rank sentiment and nostalgia. The gay nineties had particular longevity in Fox film musicals of the 1940’s; most, starring the studio’s resident blonde bombshells, Alice Faye, Betty Grable and June Haver. That studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck looked outside his stable for this one is a bit of a curiosity, since only Faye was ever seriously approached for the part. The forthright Faye turned Zanuck down flat. Of the other costars hand-selected by Zanuck to populate this bit of glossy pastiche, only the ill-fated Carole Landis survived the transition from Zanuck’s pipe dream to Cummings’ screen reality. The fancifully plotted ‘boy meets girl’ screenplay, cobbled together by Seton I. Miller, Darrell Ware and Karl Tunberg is pretty run-of-the-mill for movie musicals in general, and Fox’s particular ilk; at $50,000 Zanuck, paying handsomely to produce it as one of his prestige pictures.
Exactly how Rita Hayworth came to be cast has been muddled through time. Studio memos reveal Zanuck approached just about everyone else for this title part, including Irene Dunne (unable to partake due to prior contractual obligations), Mae West (none too keen to join up), and even Landis, doomed to wind up the toss-away carny performer, Mae Collins instead after her screen test failed to catch fire. Zanuck then, presumably, went shopping for outside talent, negotiating a deal with Columbia Pictures’ President, Harry Cohn to borrow Rita Hayworth. Zanuck had been thoroughly impressed with Hayworth ever since she appeared as the devastating destructive vixen in Fox’s Tyrone Power classic, Blood and Sand (1941). Ironically, during this early tenure, Hayworth did her best work outside of Columbia; Cohn, quite unable, as yet, to launch her Teflon-coated super career, re-branding the sultry red-head, as Columbia’s lady (a riff on the torch-bearing trademark preceding every Columbia Pictures release). A fleeting game of tug-o-war persisted, as Cohn tried to convince Zanuck to sell him the rights to My Gal Sal to be produced at Columbia instead. Zanuck eventually won out and Cohn agreed to loan ‘the lady’ for two Fox pictures; this, and the other, Tales of Manhattan (1942).
For the male lead, Zanuck fell on an even more offbeat choice: Victor Mature. True, even Zanuck’s first pick – Fox’s resident musical star, Don Ameche – bore no earthly resemblance to the obscenely overweight Dresser (who wrecked his life with booze and food, dying prematurely in 1906 at age 48). But Victor Mature?!? Lest we forget, Mature’s talent had not been exercised in musical comedy; his hunk du jour screen status, always a little baffling. Infamously, Cecil B. DeMille once joked that Mature exposed more ‘breast tissue’ in Samson and Delilah (1949) than his leading lady, Hedy Lamar. And although Mature did give credible performances in My Darling Clementine (1946) and Kiss of Death (1947), among other notably popular entertainments from this period, his inclusion in more than a handful of movie musicals throughout the mid-forties and fifties is more than passingly curious, since he could not carry a note and, like Hayworth had to be dubbed; in this picture, rather unconvincingly by Ben Gage. Mature is just the wrong type. He is much too ‘big’ – both physically (his beefy barrel-chest and broad-shoulders ‘superman-sized and squeezed’ into a rather gaudy pin-striped suit as a jack-a-dandy of no trade, and, even more uncomfortably, poured into form-fitted tuxedos) and Mature’s gregariousness as the impetuous, if lumbering/sensitive creative genius who wrote such standards in their time as ‘I’se Your Honey If You Wants Me, Liza Jane’, ‘On the Banks of the Wabash’ and, of course the title tune.
It is a genuine pity My Gal Sal cannot even be sincere about its homage to Dresser, padding out the score with some truly hummable ditties, not actually written by Dresser but promoted in the picture as part of his repertoire, including the bouncy, ‘On the Gay White Way’ and ‘Oh, the Pity of It All’ (music by Ralph Rainger/lyrics by Leo Robin). At barely an hour and forty-three minutes, the plot of My Gal Sal is a clothes horse for Zanuck to drape eleven effervescent songs and lavishes his stars in Gwen Wakeling’s stunningly handsome array of wide-brimmed chapeaus and frill-laden gowns. I am still trying to figure out the executive logic in contrasting the epicurean Hayworth’s strawberry blonde and tight-curled tresses with pink taffeta (she wears quite a lot of it throughout the picture). The studio’s affinity for garish – rather than glorious – Technicolor is on full display throughout. Even so, there is a lot to recommend this tune-filled extravaganza. My Gal Sal is immeasurably blessed by Hermes Pan’s choreography. The look-a-like Fred Astaire (who became a life-long Astaire collaborator) appears in a brief pas deux with Hayworth ‘On the Gay White Way’; their footwork, electrifying, yet dreamlike.
My Gal Sal opens with a preamble to Dresser’s unhappy youth; confronted by an austere patriarch (Stanley Andrews) who insists on frugality as his son is bound for the seminary. Paul has other plans. He wants his life to be in music; his future – on Broadway; an obscenity to the pious Mr. Dresser. And so, after a bittersweet and clandestine farewell with his mother (Margaret Moffat), Paul heads off for headier times; first with travelling salesman, Colonel Truckee (Walter Catlett). The old codger uses Paul’s musical skills as a diversion to peddle fake jewelry to some unsuspecting townsfolk. Alas, at least one in the audience is not so easily fooled, testing the merit of Truckee’s claim the necklaces are made of gold by spilling a little vinegar on one of his case samples. Regrettably, by then Truckee has made off with a small fortune, leaving Paul to bear the brunt of their wrath. The mob beats, tars and feathers Paul, leaving him unconscious by the side of the road. Mercifully, Paul is picked up by a travelling carnival, his wounds cared for by the compassionate, Mae Collins.
She introduces Paul to his first real taste of show biz. Paul becomes a successful part of this travelling show until one night, in performance, he becomes distracted by laughter coming from a carriage-full of swells, including the elegant, Sally Elliott and her cultured suitor/manager, Fred Haviland (John Sutton). Paul is incensed. He departs from the program to confront the interlopers. And although marginally apologetic, Sally is haughty to a fault and rather condescending. Haviland is less so, offering Paul and Mae passes to Sally’s next show. As recompense for her snub, Paul and Mae arrive at the theater and laugh all the way through Sally’s opening number. They are booed out of the theater by the other patrons. But no one is laughing when Paul recognizes one of his original compositions stolen by Sally and inserted into her Broadway show. Paul challenges the legitimacy of Sally’s claim she wrote the song, approaching music publisher, Pat Hawley (James Gleason) with his original notations. The wheeling-dealing Hawley wastes no time arriving at the theater during rehearsals, claiming the copyright and marginally threatening a lawsuit for plagiarism. Settling amicably by agreeing to revert the copyright to Hawley for a percentage. This becomes a win-win situation for everyone as Paul continues to write Tin Pan Alley tunes made famous by Sally and sold as sheet music by Hawley for residuals.
Paul is full of himself. But his attempts to squire Sally miserably fail. She has no interest in a romantic relationship with him and actually, comes to despise his rather crude sparking methods, including barging into her hotel suite and taking over the piano to continue composing his music. Predictably, what starts out as a thoroughly adversarial relationship, steadily evolves into love, after a few well-timed musical interludes. Predictably, it all ends with a flourish of made for Technicolor scenery and Dresser’s melodic strains; Hayworth – leggy and luscious – joyously lip-syncing the title tune to close out the show with a resounding clash of symbols. My Gal Sal gives new meaning to the definition of ‘featherweight’. ‘Fluff and nonsense’ is more like it. That Fox could frequently hit their target audience in the proverbial bull’s eye with such adorably obtuse kitsch – and more oft’ than not does precisely as much herein – is a testament to well-oiled studio machinery, all of its pistons firing in unison. It is difficult, if not downright impossible to fault a production so peerless in its groove that to discover even a hair out of place would be an obscenity. So, while the story is pure hokum and the stars never delve into anything deeper beyond an abandoned ‘come hither and kiss me, you fool!’ glance, My Gal Sal rises above the tepidness in its plot on the sheer temerity of gutsy and spell-binding brilliant showmanship. You are in for a treat – pure and simple; candy-sweet and teeming with oodles of high gloss and good cheer. Permit us to give thanks and worship herein from afar.
I find it ever difficult to assess any of Fox’s vintage Technicolor movies that make the leap to Blu-ray for the simple fact none are anything better than a vague approximation of what they once were on 3-strip celluloid. Rumored to have been taken out on a barge and sunk somewhere off the coast of California, what is known about Fox’s archive is some misguided executive toiling on the backlot in the 1970’s, believing too much acreage tied up in the maintenance of ‘asset management’, elected to copy and catalog all 3-strip original elements onto Eastman monopack color film stock; alas, without any foresight to realign these original records to perfection, or, check to see these newly created ‘master’ composites retained their integrity to Technicolor’s original color steadfastness. So much for ‘quality control’. Apparently, it was not Fox’s ‘thing’ in the seventies. So, without much of an afterthought, all original negatives were unceremoniously discarded, preventing virtually any and all future technological advancements later to follow from improving the overall visual integrity of these richly mined, though ultimately very poorly preserved archival records. Such shortsightedness makes me ill.
My Gal Sal is about all that can be hoped for on what can be gleaned from a vintage Fox Technicolor feature today. While newer digital technologies have managed to reverse the ravages of age, omitting nicks, chips, scratches, and color correction has obviously been applied, along with image stabilization and other tools in the restorationist’s digital box of goodies, it all boils down to this: however meticulous their work, they are still cribbing from inferior source materials. The result: the image is not nearly as crisp, refined, or eye-popping brilliant as an original Technicolor master should – and did – look back in its heyday. That said, I was marginally impressed by what I say here; reds, in particular, exhibiting a deeper saturation, as well as bright yellows and velvety blues. Flesh tones are tad weak – frequently adopting a pasty pinkish pallor. In close-ups, we get a lot of fairly impressive texturing and a light smattering of grain. Original Technicolor was a ‘grain-concealing’ process. Transferring to Eastman stock creates grain likely not indigenous in the original 3-strip elements.
For those unaware or uncaring of what real/reel Technicolor should look like, My Gal Sal is bright and marginally colorful. If only Fox had not been known throughout the industry then for its absurdly lush Technicolor features. The absence of its integrity here is a genuine pity. Other pluses in Twilight Time’s newly minted Blu-ray: contrast, mostly excellent. The 1.0 DTS audio also sounds fabulous. There were moments when its spatial separation nearly mimicked stereo. Twilight Time’s release offers no extras outside of their usual isolated score. A word on these ‘scores’. I really do not see the point in providing only the orchestrations minus the vocals. As it is highly unlikely My Gal Sal will ever receive a proper CD soundtrack release, if what is holding up the release of these songs is ASCAP rights’, then perhaps, it is high time someone at TT resolved these rights issues to provide listeners with a comprehensive account of a popular musical entertainment from the 1940’s. This just plays like piecemeal. Bottom line: recommended for content. Quality is passable. The ‘score only’ option deprives us of a better soundtrack still waiting in the wings. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)