Directed by Mervyn LeRoy and Vincente Minelli
Written by George Wells and Harry Ruby (based on the musical play Roberta by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach based on the novel Gowns by Roberta by Alice Deur Miller)
MGM loved setting their musicals in Paris, with at least five just in the 1950s, and, undoubtedly, I'm undercounting. Most famously, there's 1951's An American In Paris; eventually, there's 1958's Gigi, which was just straight-up made there. Then there's 1952's Lovely To Look At, and of all of the MGM musicals to be set in Paris, it must be the one that least gives a crap. You'd say it's set in Paris mostly out of deference to its various source materials, but since it's deferential in virtually no other respect, it's probably just because, in 1952, the story's requirement of a rube inheriting a world-renowned fashion house would be harder to justify in America. It has little concern for Paris otherwise, mostly just the whispered suggestion of Old World romance—that, by virtue of being foreign, Paris is a place where you can get out of your head, meet new people, and bang them—though almost any city that wasn't New York could've potentially fit the bill, and New York could've worked if its male protagonists weren't already from there. And so its French characters, such as it has them, are played by Americans who almost exclusively speak American-accented English, and the one even marginally-significant character (or actor) who does speak French speaks only French, and she's Zsa Zsa Gabor, a Hungarian making her film debut.
This is entirely observational, not critical. Lovely To Look At doesn't suffer from being insufficiently Fake French; unlike, say, An American In Paris, it has no ambition to capture the rhythms of an expatriate's life in the city as he attempts to do some manner of art. Instead, Lovely hearkens back to old, safe formula, one established for film musicals back in the 1930s. Naturally: Lovely's fundamental ambition is to remake one 1930s film musical in particular, 1935's Roberta. Evidently, this process took most of a decade, until producer Jack Cummings finally put together a movie after losing all the stars originally attached to it (Kelly, Garland, and Sinatra). Well, like Roberta, Lovely is a Gold Diggers riff—fittingly enough, considering that Lovely's director Mervyn LeRoy had, alongside Busby Berkeley, resurrected that series—and if it doesn't have anything like the keen sense of class conflict, it naturally uses the same basic narrative engine to get to the same basic places: poor players who need money to put on a show, what they do to get it, and the crazy show they ultimately put on. Oddly (or not, given LeRoy), it's rather more Gold Diggersy in this regard than the Depression-era original, thanks to a rejiggering of characters that makes its central figure not the rube who falls ass-backwards into an inheritance, but the friend who has schemes to exploit it.
That friend would be Tony Naylor (Howard Keel), the de facto leader of a group of three showmen, the others being Al Marsh (Red Skelton) and Jerry Ralby (Gower Champion), who have an idea for (they claim) the greatest musical show ever, but barely have one red cent between them. Events take a turn, however, when Al receives a telegram informing him of his aunt Roberta's passing; it seems that he's inherited a half-share of her legendary fashion house in Paris. Upon arrival, the trio meet Al's co-owners, with their quarter-share apiece. These are Roberta's adopted daughters (and thereby his cousins only on a technicality), Stephanie (Kathryn Grayson) and Clarisse (Marge Champion). (Lovely is hardly lacking in mid-century sexism, but the bit that could really annoy is the apportionment of Roberta's estate, and the single least realistic thing in a movie where people frequently break into song is that Stephanie and Clarisse warmly welcome Al to their fold, rather than toy with the prospect of murdering the foreign interloper who stole their inheritance.)
Anyway, Tony's plan—for it's always Tony's plans, it seems—is to sell Roberta's off to pay for their show. This runs afoul of the harsh truth of the matter, which is that Roberta's, for all its cachet, is failing and has been for a while, with its creditors on the brink of forcing the business into receivership. Thus Tony switches to plan B: insert himself into the negotiations, with a side of seduction for the lovely Stephanie, and throw enough American bluster at her creditors until they agree to help fund a massive fashion show that will put Roberta's back on the map, and then they can sell it. Apparently not inured to the puffery of loudmouthed entrepreneurs, the creditors accept, and Tony and Stephanie wonder if this is romance while planning out the exhibition—in the meantime, Al falls in love with Stephanie as well, and Jerry and Clarisse, also humans in this movie, likewise pair off. But things hit one snag when Tony's stateside girlfriend, who loaned Tony the money to get to Paris in the first place, one "Bubbles" Cassidy (Ann Miller), arrives to see how her investment's going; they hit another when Tony finds himself before an important impresario, Max Fogelsby (Kurt Kasznar), pitches his original Broadway show, and gets so much funding so quickly that he's immediately back on a plane to New York, leaving all his friends in the lurch.
I expect Lovely is a film that runs more smoothly on rewatch: the screenplay all but cries out, "this guy is a giant dick," but until the second act turn, it's never extreme enough for you to be sure it knows that, or if it's the 1950s, and it simply finds Tony's personality attractive. It leads to a dangerously unstable A-plot for much of its runtime—the relationship between Tony and Al seems even more lopsided, given Keel's sharp performance, and Skelton's luggish harmlessness—but I hope it doesn't count as too serious a spoiler to suggest that the dick protagonist of a lighthearted musical is eventually invited to adjust his attitude. It's not exactly bad, even beforehand. It's more like it expresses Tony's toxicity too well: it seems miscalibrated, at least for the aims of this none-too-serious picture.
Tony represents the biggest change from Roberta, though screenwriters George Wells and Harry Ruby make a host of other renovations, and all of this (even Tony, frankly) is to the good. Nonetheless, Roberta—actually an RKO picture that MGM bought the rights to, evidently mostly for Jerome Kerns and Otto Harbach's music—remains better-known than its remake. Presumably, that's because it's one of the ten collaborations between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It's not even my least favorite, but it's not good, and every change that Lovely makes is for the better, from the precarious status of the fashion house itself to the complete overhaul it makes to its characters. (Roberta isn't even really an Astaire/Rogers movie. They play supporting characters who barely matter, and, whether it was RKO's scenarists, the play's librettist, or the author of the source novel, the best idea it has for giving Randolph Scott's improbably whitebread protagonist a personality is to give him a complex and declare that now that he's in charge of fashion, women shall no longer dress like whores. It does not say this in so many words, but that's the gist, and it's hard to say who Roberta's intended audience was, unless it was made personally for Joseph Breen.) About the only thing Lovely copies directly from Roberta, then, is the use of a broken elevator at the salon for gags, and even those are slightly punchier here, and also more readily explicable, since the business is collapsing and they don't have the money to fix it.
This is not to say that Lovely streamlines things—on the contrary, it embroiders significantly—but, like a lot of musicals, the best stuff is in the redundancies it builds into itself. It's not unpleasant to watch Keel keel at Grayson from a half-dozen mirrors—they both have the kind of overly-pretty delivery styles that were fading fast by the 50s, the kind of vibrato-heavy singing where you can't understand a damn word, such as would work for the duo much better as pompous stage performers in the following year's Kiss Me Kate—but it's still more rewarding to follow Al's doomed crush, or Miller's Manhattan showgirl realizing the limits of Tony's loyalty (she also gets the first dance number, courtesy Hermes Pan's choreography, and naturally crushes it, somewhat literally with its focus on her legs). Thanks to these side characters, it's sprightly and frequently amusing. It's rarely hilarious, and one hopes not all of Skelton's comedy routines were as dubious as the one he does here, something the movie stops itself cold to allow to occur; but while the routine's cross-eyed Irish character is offensive (conceivably) or irritating (definitely), I still admire Lovely's willingness to get messy within reason for the sake of our entertainment. Without that impulse, I don't know if it would ever have hit the highs it does, and those highs are out of this world.
Obviously, I mean the Champions, whose characters don't even really "need" to be here at all—they occupy a subplot that hardly perturbs its surroundings—and you could cut them and still have the exact same story, except about fifteen minutes shorter and so bereft of its best parts that I wouldn't be writing this review. I don't want to completely dismiss the rest of the film: there's some very fine work in Cedric Gibbons's production design, particularly in the musical sequences, but also for Roberta's salon itself, rendered as an elegant, empty gray box, very much like a mausoleum and about as easily inhabited by the women who call it home. LeRoy arranges it all very well, too, managing alongside editor John McSweeney some surprisingly abstruse connections that still work out, including a downright strange pair of mirrored shots across a conference table full of creditors that violates the 30 degree rule, getting across Stephanie's sense of dislocation in the face of an egoistic American. But as there'd be little here to adore without Marge and Gower Champion, it is largely to them that Lovely To Look At leaps from "okay" to "fucking masterpiece" frequetly enough that I'm very happy thinking of it as potentially the most underrated of all MGM's musicals, insofar as the only reason I even know it exists was that I noticed it during the Warners Archive sale and thought it looked cute.
The Champions accomplish this with just two featured numbers, the first being "I Won't Dance." In Roberta, it was a tossed-off diegetic performance, nothing to do with anything. Here, they flip the genders of the lyrics, making it into the come-on song I expect it was always meant to be, and it's a nice, bouncy, very earwormy little tune, presently instigated by Jerry cornering Clarisse in the sewing room and asking her, over and over, to dance, which she (as you likely guessed) will not do. I am not selling it. Here's what I think makes it glorious: Marge and Gower were (gosh, you're good at guessing) married, and you can see every little bit of how that could've happened, because their chemistry is unimpeachable, sweetly sexy with an onscreen rapport you practically never see from anybody.
Well, LeRoy and McSweeney assemble it out of just five shots, with an effort toward making them invisible—they're continuity cuts to new shot scales, not brand new angles, and I would not be surprised if the routine itself was performed in just one take with multiple cameras—and they're composed with some thought toward making the camera a "dancing partner," but, mostly, to cleanly capture the innumerable small gestures that make up the rich complexity of what seems like (and is!) pure frivolity. Marge plays Clarisse's reluctance as a put-on, which is one reason it manages to be so charming, and she remains the pivot of every composition—inevitably, really, given that her lavender dress and blonde hair are the most vibrant colors in a gray room, and she's being pursued by a man in a gray suit. Gower burns a lot of calories to impress her, spins her around on a stool to the point that anybody but a trained ballerina would barf, and finally begins to dance with wireframe mannequins as stand-ins for other women who might be happy to have him, making her jealous and finally melting her heart—at least for the duration of the dance—whereupon she becomes the more active partner, joining him in a shotgun medley of dance styles, only to reject him at the end anyway with a coquettish brush-off that's very blatantly an invitation to try again. I don't know: if I wanted to show somebody just one sequence to demonstrate dancing as not just an expressive art, but an indispensable component of a narrative, "I Won't Dance" might be the first I'd think of, though of course it's expressive all over the place, and my favorite things about it are the small ones: the way Marge (more than "Clarisse") indulgently laughs at the corniness of her husband's woo, or the implication of bondage with a measuring tape, or the delicate shrug of a mannequin's left shoulder that Marge incorporates as her own motif, a signal that she's not that impressed, though she could be talked into seeing more.
The Champions' second number is vastly more straightforward, and maybe the most famous part of a semi-obscure title (it was homaged with computers in La La Land). It's also heartbreakingly romantic. Again, Jerry practically physically shoves Clarisse onto the dance floor, which turns out to be what she wanted in a good old-fashioned confirmation of mid-century norms, then the restaurant they were in just... disappears. Not even in a cut: the camera pushes in on the couple kissing before a window, and when it comes back out, they've been transported into the starry night beyond, and now they're dancing across an airbrushed soundstage universe. Gibbons's most vital contribution to the film, it's exceptionally well-done for what it is, but the best part might be the tiny shining "stars" hung from the rafters—such a seemingly insignificant thing, it gives just enough illusion of three-dimensionality to sell the wild conceit of dancing across galactic space. (The transition is great, too, if, like me, you enjoy seeing the seams in old movies; I kind of love that you can see the shadow of the set move on the back of Gower's head.) The dance itself is perfect, abandoning the ideas of challenge and response that drove "I Won't Dance" for beautiful synchrony. It remains a palpably erotic idea of two souls coming together—whatever else, it'd be difficult to watch this film and come to any conclusion besides "the Champions had outstanding sex"—but this metaphorical tryst is infinitely sweet and tender, too.
With two of the best sequences in any Golden Age musical (and possibly the best pas de deux), it may seem that Lovely will not top itself for its finale. Lo, it does not, though its finale is a worthy one. Directed by Vincente Minnelli rather than LeRoy (the latter seems to have called out sick), there's a noticeable difference in styles, mainly in that I don't think Minnelli had a lot of time to impose much style on it, except perhaps to emphasize the garishness already inherent in the concept. (Which, in fairness, is the Minnelli style, and there are a few ideas here that showed up first in Ziegfeld Follies.) Above all, the goal of the fashion show that closes out our story is to show off the costumes designed by Adrian Greenburg, marking his triumphant return to MGM, for whom he had served as designer for some 200 films. He'd left in 1941 partly due to his desire to create his own New York fashion house, and he'd achieved success that had continued even after the Nazi occupation of his French competitors had ended, though his salon would close in 1952 due to his declining health and unwillingness to bequeath the "Adrian" brand to any successor. So Lovely is very much his swan song (it was his last film work), with a lot of very interesting Technicolor creations arrayed across dozens of women. Some of them would not even be entirely humiliating to wear out in public. Obviously, some (like the swimsuit with a bustle) could never be worn outside of the confines of an artistic exhibition without somebody busting out laughing.
Gibbons's backdrops are as phantasmagoric as the costumes, shifting to suit the collections. The least successful involves the Champions' denouement, a dance that tells the story of a French thief (or something), and since the searing reds and kinda-ugly greens of the lighting were deemed inadequate, we also get visions of actual hell in the form of demons with elk skulls for heads; it's where Lovely's finale loses me a bit, because it's a little too narrative, and I just don't comprehend what story the Champions are trying to convey. The very last phase gets back on track with metallics and crisp black-and-whites representing aristocratic fashions—this also involves nightmares, in the form of giant candlestick cybermen, and they are arguably more unnerving than the demons—but this is more abstracted and easier to grip, plus I absolutely adore how the film just slams its non-conclusion down on all our principal characters, decked out in the most baroque of Adrian's costumes, with the implied assurance that they'll all live happily ever after. Minnelli does not do much more than show off the finale's imagery: there is never the sense that we're watching anything beyond an edited version of the fashion show itself. This is fine, although it's so over-the-top that you keep expecting some cinematic elaboration to take hold, and it doesn't. It's a good ending, anyway—Gibbons and Adrian's work is compelling enough to earn a showcase, even if showcasing it is all Minnelli does—and so if Lovely To Look At is perhaps not always great, it's surely great enough, often enough, that it deserves a much higher profile than it has.