Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The grim divorcee


Directed by Robert Z. Leonard
Written by George Wells and Ruth Brooks Flippen

Spoiler alert: I'd say moderate, some might say high

Marge and Gower Champion did not have the longest nor the most visible screen careers.  Marge's was longer: she began as a live-action model for Walt Disney, most famously modeling Snow White, but also, with some noticeable elaboration, Fantasia's Hyacinth Hippo (this led to a brief and unhappy marriage to animator Art Babbitt).  Gower's film career, however, in its main phase, was slightly bigger, in that he appeared in several small roles without his wife (he was credited for exactly one of them), whereas, without Gower, Marge didn't play a character with a name until more than a decade after their run at Hollywood fame was over, and they were odd roles even thenshe's in The Swimmer, though I wouldn't have noticed this at the time.  And of course Gower was also a hustling screen director, though his most widely-seen work is a goofy and somewhat lame advertising short, "Once Upon a Honeymoon," which prefaced an episode of MST3K.  Plus there are the stage contributions of both, not to mention their very short-lived television show, which I'd really love to see.

Childhood acquaintances, Gower had been a dance student of Marge's father, Ernest Belcher; they met again in the 1940s, and wed in 1947.  They first appeared together, briefly, as themselves in 1950's Mr. Music, but they got a much bigger break when they contracted with MGM the following year, managing to get fitted into the supporting cast of Arthur Freed's remake of Show Boat, and what followed was four years at the studio and at least reasonably credible efforts to make stars out of them.  There were some truly grandiose plans for the Championsremaking Astaire/Rogers vehicles was one abortive idea, though only 1952's Lovely To Look At (a re-do of 1935's Roberta) ever got made, perhaps something of a test for the couple, given that Astaire and Rogers had only been supporting players in the original.  It didn't help that the Champions, uncomfortable with being put so literally in their predecessors' shadows, resisted; though, in fairness, Lovely To Look At is enormously better than Roberta, and since I'm about to make an outrageous claim, best I put it in the middle of a paragraph where your eyes might glide over itif their careers were nothing except their two featured sequences in Lovely To Look At, I'd still call them better than Astaire and Rogers.  Yet for all their talent, and all the enthusiasm, they never really established themselves as box office draws in their own right.

I belabor their histories because I'll never have another opportunity.  They were only ever given headlining roles in two pictures at MGM and, even then, somebody must've had second thoughts, because both were somewhat dashed-off projects, foisted on the second-string units, though the second, 1953's Give a Girl a Break, is the secret treasure of producer Jack Cummings and director Stanley Donen's careers.  As for the first, however, released a year earlier, even using the phrase "second-string" is generous.  Its producer, George Wells, mostly a screenwriter, only spent a few years in that role, basically going from flop to flop.  It was directed by Robert Z. Leonard in the last years of his long career, which stretched so far back that he'd been directing films for over a decade by the time they invented sound; in any event, it had been a long time (and a score of movies I've largely never heard of) since his epic musical biopic The Great Ziegfield in 1935, which might have earned MGM a Best Picture Oscar, but which nobody has given much of a crap about since.  In any event, don't expect a Stanley Donen in mad experimental mode, even if Leonard always does a serviceable and sometimes an inspired jobthough that owes as much to Gower's choreography (which I presume means Gower and Marge's choreography).

Even so, that film, Everything I Have Is Yours, is special.  Not entirely unique, mind you: it was presaged, at least, by another Astaire/Rogers joint, The Barkleys of Broadway, and I'm sure there were other musicals with plots somewhat like it.  But there's a psychological and sociological acuity to Wells and Ruth Brooks Flippen's screenplay (she's credited with "additional dialogue" but appears to have substantially rewritten it) that no other MGM or MGM-style musical I've seen has attempted, though the unfortunate fact is that this is ultimately rejected by the frothy MGM musical formula it's found itself within, so that finally the film simply vomits their screenplay right back up, just in time for an ending that's arguably not quite as psychologically and sociologically acute as an episode of a contemporary sitcom.

Their screenplay, then, goes like this: Chuck and Pamela Hubbard (the Champions) are, you guessed it, a husband and wife dance team.  They've been toiling for years, and when we catch up with them they're right at the cusp of finally making it, cast in the lead roles for a Broadway show produced by their friend Tacksbury (Dennis O'Keefe).  And make it they do!  The opening night's a smash.  The only problem is that Pamela faints dead away almost the instant the curtain falls, and when the doctor arrives he tells them what they probably should have guessed, what with the recent odd cravings, inexplicable aches, and spells of dizzinessplus, you know, the knowledge that two married adults should have about what can happen when a man ejaculates inside a woman (there is even a funny joke to this effect, albeit considerably more demure in its vocabulary).  Yes, Pam is pregnant.  Advised not to dance (perhaps with some actual medical science backing up this opinion, perhaps not, but the movie doesn't happen without it, so let's not bother it), Pam is replaced with her understudy, Monica (Sybil Meriden).  But despite the worries of everyone involved, there is never a crisis.  Chuck's show's a huge hit without her.  Then there's another show.  And another.  And never any crisis at all.

Soon Pam finds herself in a beautiful house out in Connecticut, raising a daughter.  This takes three or four hours a day.  Anything else is handled by the maid that Chuck's success has afforded.  Chuck's not absent, but Pam has literally nothing to do and no one to do it with.  Chuck isn't equipped to believe thisshe has the house, her garden, their daughter, and several other hobbies that, frankly, she's neither really interested in nor good atand moreover he can't imagine why she would even want to return to the stage, let alone why he should let her.  In year four, Pam decides she shouldn't require his permission, and they divorce, interacting mainly across the alley between the Broadway playhouses where they're rehearsing their respective shows.

I mean, it's pitched as more of a dramedyeven at its most severe, it's still identifiably an "MGM musical"but if I took all the dancing stuff out you could think I was describing Sirkian melodrama.  It's genuinely good at being the musical version of it, too, charting the course of a marriage wrecked by a pregnancy (it takes a surprising amount of time in this film made in 1952 before either spouse is anything besides traumatized by its implications, to the extent they can't even properly fake being happy about it), and then slowly poisoned by a husband's ideas about what marriage and motherhood mean.  Let's just out with it: for two-thirds to three-quarters of its runtime, it is actively, ardently feminist.  Not even, really, "feminist for 1952."  It is also deeply in tune with its heroine, and isn't afraid it'll dilute itself by presenting her as a whole and complicated human, bounding up and down with her own emotional journey: from her shellshocked disappointment to find her career's been interrupted, to her earnest domestic happiness when she can still imagine that she's merely on the 50s equivalent of maternity leave, to her desperate isolation, to her righteous anger sublimated in liberating dance.  It understands, also, that she loves Chuckand that Chuck loves her, however poorly.  It's depressed and angry, but bittersweet, and compassionate, and it assembles its portrait of ennui and dislocated emotion out of small moments that convey these four misspent years of Pam's and Chuck's lives, so that if Leonard does nothing else, he does a swell job using the grammar of light musical romantic comedy to make a sad smile out of it.

It's therefore entirely Marge's movie, and Gower is essential mainly because he's just the other Champion, and because their chemistry is beyond reproach.  (Real life casts a pall over their alternate-universe counterparts: the Champions actually did divorce in 1973, though damned if I can uncover why they dissolved their marriage after almost three decades together.)  Well, it works out because Marge was always the better actor qua actoruntil I rewatched Everything, I thought it could just be "I like looking at Marge more," but it's actually trueand there's probably no disputing that this is her best performance, with the brittle quality that was always her best trick ratcheted up till it looks like Pam will simply disintegrate before our eyes, but right when you think she will, she pulls herself together and fights back, sometimes just in the tilt of her gaze.  But, because this is a Champions movie, it's never more apparent than when it's expressed in dance: Everything has extensive choreography, but no dancing better than Marge's solo, which by definition makes it the best scene in the film.  It starts out with one of Chuck's carelessnesses, when he brings a gaggle of showpeople, including Monica, back to Connecticut for a dinner partymuch to the surprise of a filthy Pam digging in her gardenand Monica, openly lusting after Chuck, is also more-or-less openly insulting to his wife.  After dinner, there's the expected entertainment led by Monica, and Chuck may actually have finally noticed Monica is hitting on him, given that even a rock probably would've noticed by now.  Pam is invited to sing and dance a little too, and what begins as just a way to reassert sexual primacy expands pretty rapidly into an unmistakable fuck you to Chuck and the whole last four years, as she blows Monica's doors off and reveals that, in fact, she has not let herself get out of practice, or even lose a single step.

As a work of choreography otherwiseand even Marge's solo, however emotionally astute, is relatively simple (it has some fun business with hats, but it's entirely her reclamation of self driving it)Everything is not quite the Champions' top-tier.  But then, if "top-tier" only means "as good as Lovely To Look At or Give a Girl a Break," then that's not the worst thing.  Indeed, it's excellent when they're together: the film properly begins with a Kellyesque escapade down an even-more-backlotty-than-usual New York street.  The goal is to situate us firmly in the ecstatic happiness of their relationship as it presently stands, Gower striving mightily to impress his wife (and Marge pretending not to be), until, finally, she joins in on the romping.  Meanwhile, the film climaxes, in a way, as Pam's thoughts turn to what she's lost.  She thinks of their song, "Everything I Have is Yours," redone as a dreamy ballet, and her memories of Chuck throw her into a black void where a phantom of her husband keeps beckoning from the darkness; when she goes to him, he offers her a pink abstract netherrealm that tries, unsuccessfully, to be their home.  The visual ideas are very strong here, and though I don't think it quite manages to recapitulate the quiet tumult of their marriage, there's a perfect moment where Marge leaps into her husband's arms and cradles herself in his embrace that conveys Pam's devastation, and reminds us that she's given up one thing she absolutely needed in order to have the other.

Because this is also one more musical about Goddamn showpeople, there's also the fluff, courtesy a grab-bag of composers and lyricists.  The one part of their opening night revue we get to see is "Casablanca," a Band Wagony "Girl Hunt" type of thing about Pam, dressed up like a virgin librarian in a porno if pornos were shot in Technicolor, who wanders off from a tour group in the worst neighborhood in Morocco, whereupon she is accosted by Chuck's gangster in a seedy sailors' bar.  It's good fun as they enact a light BDSM scene and scoff at centripetal force amidst some chintzy (but colorful) design, particularly the vaguely interesting interplay of Marge's striped dress and the slatted shadows of the bar's roof.  As narrative, anyhow, it's a useful echo of their jaunt through New York, played in a much more urgently sexual register, and you can't accuse the Champions of not bringing the heat even if it doesn't quite explain why their show would be popular.  The other bit might explain it even less: being post-pregnancy, this one pairs Gower and Meriden for "17,000 Telephone Poles," plausibly a song written on a dare wherein Wells bet Saul Chaplin he couldn't write a song about fucking telephone poles.  It is, however, a credible go at such a thing, and it's awfully cute in its dorky, kitschy, "what the hell is this shit?" way, and gives Helen Rose a chance to bring out her inner colorblind vaudevillian for one of the most garish pieces of assaultive costume design in Technicolor history (Meriden's dress is so pink it burns, and then there's the green-and-white plaid nonsense on one of the guys).  Which is great.  (It's not a number, but there's also a superlative "woman goes into labor, stays calm while man panics" bit that I half-wonder if Lucy stole from here, though it was probably a half-century old gag already.)

Then there's something that I can't decide whether it's fluff or not, a very charming little notion where Chuck dances with Christmas toys in his living room for his baby's entertainment, which is notable mainly for (sometimes) using a real baby in the shots.  Otherwise, it's nice and its main function is to underline that Chuck hasn't lost the capability for love, just, perhaps, the capability for understanding how.  (Though I approve of the one gag in it where Gower acknowledges that the 1950s sold some downright nightmarish toys for children, and he's visibly repulsed by one of her clown dolls.)

But Everything has a big, built-in problem.  I hope I don't blow your mind by spoiling that this movie about divorce in 1952 finds our erstwhile lovers remarried by the end, because of course it does.  That's not the problem: the problem is that right up until, like, the 80 minute mark of this 92 minute film, Everything is prosecuting an astonishingly sophisticated if sometimes-whimsical program about the pain and glory of an artist and the trials of a woman in a man's world, and then it even sets up their mutual hurt and need in dance.  But it turns out: nope, it's actually all been building up to a zany scheme.  It even uses one of those sophisticated elements to pull that zany scheme off; one of Chuck's less-attractive character traits, established quite early, is his annoying penchant for "sympathizing" with any little ache or pain Pam gets by getting one of his own that's worse, and then overriding her by making whatever was wrong with her about him.  She explicitly remarks that this is annoying, possibly five times.  One doesn't expect this pointed and funny symbol of their relationship to turn out to be a dumbassed plot device*, but it does, and it's deployed for some subterfuge about seeing spots that brings Chuck back to Pam's door.

I am barely overgeneralizing to say that every single mid-century musical romantic comedy is pat, even trite, because, hell, that's the nature of them: typically, they're supposed to be, and you'd be mad if they weren't.  (They often have equally suboptimal ways to get to their foreordained conclusions, too, but that's a distinct issue.)  But this is so close to a different animal entirely that it's shocking to see this kind of behavior in it, and the sheer awkwardness degrades the impact of something that really ought to be heartmelting.  What would be fine and good in a musical about the rocky beginning of a romance doesn't quite work when we've been plopped into the endlessly sad middle of one, let alone after we've seen what looked like a bitter end.  I'd like to say it doesn't know what it's doing, but I don't think that's true.  Instead, let's say it refuses to believe that this reconciliation actually does need to be hard-earned, and the only saving grace (besides, I suppose, the scheme being kindhearted Tacksbury's, rather than Pam's) is that the film refrains from speculating as to whether Chuck and Pam are going back onstage together, or if Pam's just going back to the garden.

But for all that, it's still slightly astounding: besides just the obvious appeals of any Champion project, it remains invaluable for what it attempted in its dayand, for that matter, how extremely close it gets to achieving it, before it decided that either its B-unit runtime or the patriarchy or both were obstacles it wasn't going to be able to just breezily dance its way through.

Score: 8/10

*It is also, I strongly suspect, the result of deciding to adapt the song "Everything I Have Is Yours" into a movie plot.

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