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Yolanda and the Thief (1945)

loR45C3The 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.

Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer in a nightmare sequence

Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer in a nightmare sequence

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.”

"Coffee Time"

“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”

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2015 in Movies

 

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Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933) – A Rodgers and Hart Musical

hallelujah-im-a-bum-movie-poster-1933-1020681090Hallelujah, I’m a Bum is an idiosyncratic musical that manages to be both cynical and sweet. It stars Al Jolson, contains a number of extended rhythmic sections where characters speak in rhyming couplets, places Frank Morgan in a romantic role and celebrates careless irresponsibility in 1933, at the peak of the Depression. Although it’s not as well known as Jolson’s history-making The Jazz Singer, it is often mentioned as his best film, with his most understated and nuanced performance (though I’m not in a position to judge, having only seen him in the later The Rose of Washington Square). It is also possibly his most accessible film (apart from the film’s idiosyncrasies), because he does not perform in his trademark black face. 

Al Jolson is Bumper, a hobo who is called the Mayor of Central Park in New York City, where many hobos hang out. The real mayor of New York City is John Hastings (Frank Morgan), a worldly and dapper man who owes his life to Bumper. Hasting and Bumper are old friends and since Bumper won’t let Hasting get him a job, Hastings frequently passes cash to him.

Among Bumper’s friends are Acorn (Edgar Connor), who travels with him everywhere, Egghead (Harry Langdon), who is actually not a hobo but a socialist who believes in work and has a job picking up papers in the park, and Sunday (Chester Conklin), who drives people in his horse and carriage.

Egghead (Harry Langdon), Bumper (Al Jolson), and Acorn (Edgar Connor)

Egghead (Harry Langdon), Bumper (Al Jolson), and Acorn (Edgar Connor)

Although many films of 1933 dealt with the Depression, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum addresses it in a somewhat unique way: it romanticizes it. Bumper is a carefree and happy guy without strings, worries or fears who lives in good comradeship with all his friends. Of course, the cynic might point out that it’s because he is, as Egghead accuses him, a plutocrat at heart. He’s got a good thing going; deference from his peers and money from Hastings.

In contrast to Bumper is Mayor Hastings, a man of the world who must kiss babies and lay cornerstones to schools, even though he doesn’t care about it, thus satirizing the system that Bumper is successfully avoiding. What Hastings does care for is his mistress, June (Madge Evans). He’s crazy about her, but convinced that she’s having an affair with another man. His jealousy becomes so strong that she tries to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge.

June is rescued by Bumper, but unfortunately she can’t remember anything. Bumper is smitten, determined to take care of her, and she looks to him like a trusting child. But Bumper realizes that she can’t live in the park like he does. He needs to get her an apartment and in order to do that, he needs to get a job (which nearly causes a riot in Central Park when the work-averse hobos hear of it – non-work is a creed with them). But Bumper has fallen hard for her and begins to dream about working and making a home for June, who he calls Angel since he doesn’t know her name.

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Sunday, June and Bumper

He works diligently at a bank (stamping signatures on official letters; Acorn folds towels) and in the evening visits Angel at her apartment, bringing her small presents. She is delighted with him and everything and his only fear is that when she regains her memory, he’ll lose her.

But soon Bumper discovers that Angel is really June, the missing mistress of Hastings, who is grieving and contrite that June left him. When Bumper does discover it, he never hesitates, he simply brings Hastings to June, who recognizes him, regains her memory, but seems to forget all about Bumper and recoils when she sees him.

It is a great performance by Jolson, who simply sits quietly and lets you read the heartbreak on his face, though also gentle, selfless acceptance. Jolson evidently was much more hammy in his other films, though the two I’ve seen him in so far, he’s been relatively restrained, though still charismatic. The actor was apparently anything but gentle in his personal life, but in the film, he plays a really sweet guy underneath the carefree hobo cockiness.

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum surprised me by having more heart than I was expecting. I thought it was going to go pretty hard on the political satire, which it certainly is, but the gentle touch is what really stood out to me, as represented by Bumper. His world as a hobo, outside of civilization, represent a kind of state of nature, though the script is too wise to totally idealize the hobos, who promptly forget about how much they don’t need money to chase Bumper around the park when he discovers a $100 bill that he intends to return. Even Egghead, the socialist, gives chase and  wants a piece of it until Bumper reminds him that he needs to be ideologically consistent.

Frank Morgan and Al Jolson

Frank Morgan and Al Jolson

But when June loses her memory it is like she is reborn from worldly woman to trusting and childlike. Being a bum, not working, makes you outside of the system. Bumper, Acorn and his fellow hobos have an almost philosophical aversion to work, as if even to participate in sordid business taints one. But once Bumper begins to care for June, he can no longer afford to stay outside the system. His freedom comes from being unattached to anyone and when he loses June to Hastings, he regains his freedom.

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum also gives Frank Morgan a completely uncharacteristic role of sophisticated, casually corrupt and dapper romantic lead who wins the woman in the end. It’s the first time I’ve seen him play anything other than variations on his Wizard of Oz persona and he’s quite good at it, much less over-the-top than usual.

The songs were written by the songwriting team Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, whose success occurred primarily on the stage, but they did have a brief Hollywood fling in the early thirties. One musical was Love Me Tonight, with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, and another was Hallelujah, I’m a Bum. Ultimately, they preferred writing for the stage. Their score for Hallelujah, I’m a Bum isn’t quite as full of future standards as Love Me Tonight. It is a bit more cerebral, especially with all the talky/singing/rhyming sections. However, there are two songs that stand out.

One is the title song, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” which Bumper sings celebrating the hobo lifestyle while June is contemplating suicide.

The other is the genuine, though lesser-known standard, “You Are Too Beautiful,” which Bumper sings to June in a very sweet scene.

If you want to hear the full song, Jolson recorded it later.

And here is an example of the rhyming couplets. Bumper has just returned from a trip down South and is being greeted by his fellow hobos, but before they discuss politics Egghead arrives.

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2015 in Movies

 

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