The best description I can think of for Yolanda and the Thief is bucolic surrealism. A musical fantasy that was the brainchild of director Vincente Minnelli, it flopped on its release and ruined Lucille Bremer’s career before it was even properly underway. Not even Fred Astaire liked it and retired soon afterwards (though he came back again). Most people consider it a mess with a few who feel it is a hidden gem ahead of its time. I’m somewhere in between. It’s a mess, but it has an odd kind of charm.
In the South American-flavored fictional country of Patria, Yolanda Aquaviva (Lucille Bremer) is the heir to the Aquaviva fortune, a family business so omnipresent that it seems to have a monopoly on the entire national economy. I’m surprised there aren’t any revolutions in Patria. But Yolanda is an innocent child, raised in a convent, who must take up the family business on her eighteenth birthday, much to her dismay and trepidation.
Meanwhile, con artist Johnny Parkson Riggs (Fred Astaire) and his partner in crime, swindler Victor Budlow Trout (Frank Morgan), have come to Patria because they can’t be extradited there. When they hear of Yolanda’s incredible wealth, Johnny determines to steal her money away. He sneaks into her garden and when he hears her praying to her guardian angel for help in managing her estate, has an idea. He’ll pretend to be her guardian angel, come to relieve her of her financial troubles.
Yolanda instantly falls for his ruse (though I thought his idea of how angels should act was original, to say the least – a bit condescending and a bit too smooth an operator; angels shouldn’t be smarmy). He tells her that he will take care of everything if she’ll sign certain papers and gives him power of attorney. But while he and Trout are engaged in this bit of larceny, a mysterious man (Leon Ames) seems to be hanging around and Johnny can’t quite figure out his angle. Adding to his troubles is the fact that he’s fallen in love with Yolanda, which she completely reciprocates, though she feels ashamed, since one is not supposed to fall in love with an angel.
The Techniclor in this film is bonkers! When people say someone is a “flaming redhead” they are describing Lucille Bremer in Yolanda and the Thief. Bremer looks gorgeous, but she’s not very convincing as an innocent fresh from the convent. And she doesn’t dress like an innocent fresh from the convent, either. She looks like she could play a terrific New York socialite, though.
What’s puzzling about this film is that it’s such an odd blend of happy peasants and imaginative combinations of color and sets. There are contented, simple, singing people who cheer as Yolanda arrives at her home as if she were a princess and greet her with flowers. Her family practically has a monopoly on the nation and they throw flowers? I would have thought at least on person would have thrown a brick or two.
Contrasted with this pastoral bucolicism (there is a deer in her garden) is the riotous color palette, an unique nightmare sequence where Johnny works out his conflicting greed and attraction to her (with laundry ladies, sheets, gold, a snooty British racing crowd, treasure in a chest and Yolanda looking like a Greek stature offering him her money and entangling him in her dress).
And I can’t figure out Patria’s religion. It initially looks Catholic, but we only see her praying to her guardian angel. And later we see people paying reverence to a stature of Michael as it is led into a church during a carnival. Do these people worship angels? Just a fanciful question.
Fancy and whimsy personify this movie. What it lacks is a slight edge, something to give it a bit of tension. It also lacks sufficient dancing, something generally essential to the success of a Fred Astaire film. Which I thought was too bad, because Lucille Bremer is actually one of his more skilled and accomplished dance partners. But apart from the nightmare sequence and a brief dance while Johnny plays the harp, there is only one, admittedly fantastic, dance at the end called “Coffee Time.”
The cast is all good playing eccentric characters. Frank Morgan is a bit more subdued than usual. My favorite line of his is when he and Johnny are stopped by the police and deny their identity. When the police say they recognize them, he claims that “we don’t look like this.” Mildred Natwick plays Yolanda’s batty aunt. Since she was in charge of Yolanda’s fortune while she was in school, it’s a wonder the Aquaviva monopoly is doing as well as it is, but perhaps she hides her business acumen under eccentricity as part of a disarming persona? Leon Ames plays, for once, not a father of anyone. He is a mysterious, slightly mischievous stranger who seems to be looking out for Yolanda (most people will guess his real identity from the moment they first see him).
It’s not as bad as its reputation, though it will appeal to very specific tastes: devoted fans of Fred Astaire, musicals, visually imaginative Technicolor and fantasy. It’s somewhat in the genre of Here Comes Mr. Jordan and The Bishop’s Wife, where celestial beings interact with humans, but more whimsical and less realistic. It just doesn’t quite gel.
This trailer does not do the color justice.
A truly fantastic dance: “Coffee Time”