Saturday, August 21, 2021

It's impossible, but it is rather sweet


Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Written by Irving Brecher, Jacques Thery, and Ludwig Bemelans

Spoiler alert: moderate

Yolanda and the Thief
 is simultaneously two things: it is a bold prototype for the way musicals would be made at MGM throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s; it is also dysfunctional and bad.  It was sufficiently bad (and, more importantly, sufficiently unprofitable) that it's perhaps only a lucky accident of MGM's production queue that its particular styles would get another, better chance to capture the favor of the filmgoing public.  It was even bad enough that (however briefly) it helped send Fred Astaire into retirement.  In fairness to it (it's not so bad as to demand exile), Astaire's retirement was so brief and half-hearted that it's most appropriate to treat it as the footnote it turned out to be; if you were just looking at his filmography without access to that little biographical tidbit, you'd at most think he took a small sabbatical if you noticed it at all.  The point remains, though, Yolanda sucks.  Astaire distanced himself from it, and while we've seen other movies that Astaire later revealed he wasn't too keen on, I think this time he was right.  As for its other lead, Lucille Bremer didn't have the same cushion.  It ruined her career, not entirely justifiably; she's not remotely good in it, but nobody is.  (Astaire's fine, but the closest to good is Leon Ames in an important bit role.)  Plus it's not like she wrote or directed the thing, which is where all of its problems lie.  And even Irving Becher's screenplay, from Jacques Thery and Ludwig Bemelans's story, while undercooked and underplayed, isn't itself the biggest issue.

I hate being a hot take person, but if I were asked "who is the most overrated director in American cinema history?", I would reply, without hesitation, "Vincente Minnelli."  And early Minnelli's worse.  In full honesty, I like Yolanda more than his first color musical, 1944's Meet Me In St. Louis.  Even then St. Louis is probably more successful in its aims, for St. Louis pretty much implicitly promises it's going to be boring from the outset.  Yolanda, though, on paper, and going by its insane false-identity premise, seems like it should be bursting with weird energy in pursuit of its crazed farce.  Instead, it's a crazed farce that Minnelli directs right into an early grave.  And while maybe blessed with less facility for silly comedy than, say, Charles Walters, Minnelli's not even always this bad at it: The Pirate, which came only three years later, has an extremely similar basic premise, and finds all the weird energy you could ever ask for between Gene Kelly and Judy Garland; hell, I Dood It, which came two years earlier, and is wholly unacceptable as an MGM-produced musical, nevertheless uses Red Skelton more-or-less well in, yep, another false-pretenses farce.

As for Yolanda, when it does "get fun," it's a pretty strained kind of fun, and when it finally taps into Minnelli's more universally-acknowledged strengthswhich are more along the lines of a musical sequence director, and even something close to his films' full-on uncredited art directorYolanda must represent peak Minnelli in its deployment of revoltingly gaudy color to illustrate his movie's cinematic dance.  So, yeah, it's terrible.  But it's also such small portions.  Even if you are on Minnelli's aesthetic wavelength, and think of him as the great artist of Technicolor, the dancing and music in this dance musical are shockingly infrequent and presented in terms of big, unattractive lumps.  That means if you don't like its two major sequences (really, only one major sequence, but its other, definitely-minor sequences are so cautious and tossed-off that it's hard to say they're being offered up to be liked or disliked), then, sorry, Yolanda leaves you out of luck.

So: Yolanda runs 108 minutes, above-average but hardly an automatic red flag.  The material, however, is stretched thinly enough across those 108 minutes that it feels like it could've been 98 (or 88, or 78) and you'd barely have to adjust the plot.  Mostly, that's thanks to a film-long slackness.  Yet it starts with an entirely unnecessary scene, too, with a teacher we'll never see again (Ludwig Stössel), holding his second-grade class outside as the sun dips below the mountains.  Obviously, this is less for the benefit of his eight year old students who are missing their dinner, and more for ours, as he establishes the setting of our tale, namely a fictional Latin American country, occupying a hazy, approximate space between Bolivia and Brazil, and named "Patria" (I don't know if that's clever or just lazy).  This scene is mainly an excuse for a sunset panorama on an MGM soundstage.  The idea of it prefigures Brigadoon, except Brigadoon actually did interesting things with its artificial vistas.  This is pretty, but also pretty uselessit's not even a framing device that proposes to tell these children (and by extension, us) a story of their nation.  It's just an introduction to some random aspect of the place the movie's going to be about.  The kids start singing the Patrian national anthem, "This Is a Day For Love," and this gives you a taste of the few and not-especially-memorable songs Arthur Freed and Harry Warren wrote for this film.

As "Day For Love" continues, we move on to a convent that runs an orphanage, and this turns out to be an important day for one orphan in particular, namely Yolanda (Bremer).  Yolanda has just turned 18, and that means it's time for her to leave and come into her birthright as the heir to the fortune of the Aquavivas (forget "Patria," this is awful), the Aquavivas being the richest family in the land and effectively Patria's aristocracy, which is why it makes very little sense that Yolanda was ever stuck in an orphanage in the first place.  Still, she returns home to her aunt Amarilla (Mildred Natwick), who's been incompetently running the family manor since her parents' passing, and Yolanda is welcomed with great, albeit mismanaged, fanfareoddly, Amarilla kind of just fades into the background after her introduction, barely a feature of the plot let alone any kind of inconveniencebut despite her aunt serving as proof positive that the Aquaviva empire does not actually require competent stewardship, Yolanda has doubts that she's up to the task she imagines for herself.

Enter Johnny Riggs (Astaire) and his associate Victor Trout (Frank Morgan).  Lately arrived in Patria one step ahead of the law and expressly because Patria has no extradition treaties, the duo are enthusiastic to resume their crimes, and learning of the Aquaviva heiress's inexperience, Johnny determines to somehow swindle her.  He gets his means while casing the Aquaviva estate one night.  Overhearing Yolanda pray to a "guardian angel" for help, Johnny gets his bright idea, and mere minutes later, Yolanda is invited to an audience with a heaven-sent angel, one "Mr. Brown," who promises to alleviate her of the burden of having to look after all that family wealth.  All she has to do is signbut, somewhere along the way, wouldn't you know it, Johnny falls in love.  Victor could've warned him, and, in fact, he did.  Several times.

Like most mid-century musical romantic comedies, it's of course not where it ends up; that is entirely preordained, even with a premise as predatory as this one.  Instead, it's how it gets there.  And man, does Yolanda take its time getting anywhere.  It's fully thirty minutes before it even arrives at that premise, and in the meantime it's spun wheels with creaky comedy about out-of-place Americans and inadequate infrastructure that's allowed to wither in the kind of desiccatingly unfunny sequences that will have one joke and then harp on that joke for two or three minutes straight, so that anything that might've been initially amusing about it evaporates into the void, not that it was that initially amusing, anyway.  Astaire and Morgan get by somewhat on a road-movie kind of rapport, but Bremer's locked inside her unimaginatively-rendered holy idiot and never gets to come out.

Things pick up slightly once Johnny unfurls his evil planthe renovation of a hotel lobby into a throne room for a sub-thrones angel benefits from some snappy cutting and an indulgence of genuine oddness that's absent virtually everywhere else.  Not least, there's a bit where Astaire and Morgan start barking like dogs at each other to dissuade a fellow tenant from hanging around, which, for once, is actually funny; and the whole thing has a kind of crappy con-man charm that even pokes at metacinema when Johnny and Victor start knocking over lamps and rearranging the lighting in order to paint some chintzy "majesty" onto their putative angel.  But this is somehow the high point of the farce, indeed the only sustained sequence where it even feels like farce.  The expected pleasures of itJohnny's presumed need to hide his real identity, keep Yolanda isolated from smarter people (i.e., presumably all other humans), and somehow keep up his threadbare charadeare technically present, but just sort of sit there asking, "well, are you not entertained?"  The romantic phase of it, on the other hand, happens for no apparent reason; I don't know what Johnny's supposed to have seen in Yolanda, but it preys on his subconscious mind, and he comes out of a fitful dream with a lot more qualms and lot more suppressed affection than he had when he fell asleep.  Ultimately, this plays into the film's only actual conflictwhether Yolanda, the dear fool, can ever forgive her tricksterand this winds up buried inside a narrative ellipsis so we never actually see it, only that they come out of the other side of it married.  Even with a twist ending (that I, at least, predicted at roughly the forty-five minute mark, but is still awfully cute), the film's depressingly weak as a comedy and rudderless as anything else.

In the middle, we do get that aforementioned dream, which makes it all the more baffling that Yolanda runs 108 minutes when it transparently exists solely as a delivery device for a ballet shared by Astaire, Bremer, and a chorus.  A year after the rich, understated Technicolor lamplight of St. Louis (and I'm certainly happy to give that movie credit where it's due), this is Minnelli planting his flag in the aesthetic concerns that would preoccupy him for years to come.  But it was not really the first time: prior to Yolanda, Minnelli had also directed Ziegfeld Follies, or rather most of it, as Ziegfeld Follies was an anthology film with several different directors.  Follies was only given its general release after Yolanda, however, which is how Yolanda seizes its place in history as the container for one of cinema's first "dream ballets," a mode that Kelly, Minnelli, and Stanley Donen seized upon as the thing in the late 1940s, and which Minnelli brought to maybe its fullest flowering in 1951 with the finale of An American In Paris.  And yet had Follies not been in the can, to be released to significant success in 1946 and justifying such artsier-fartsier ambitions, Yolanda might have offered the last.  Okay, that's hyperbole: it was an idea that had been percolating for a while (as far back as Broadway Melody of 1936, at least), and the basic notion obviously existed on the stage long before Minnelli ever could have "invented" it, whereas even the formalized "dream ballet" had been made a part of musical theater no later than in Oklahoma! in 1943.  (In point of fact, 20th Century Fox's Stormy Weather had a dream ballet in 1943, too, albeit a dream ballet within a diegetic number.  Starring Bill Robinson and Lena Horne and other folks of roughly the same hue, it often gets left out of the conversation.)  But either way, Yolanda couldn't have helped.

Follies, anyhow, was Astaire and Bremer's true first pairing, and there they'd danced together in its absolute highlight, "This Heart of Mine," whichgood grief!is also about Astaire being a conman who who wants to steal Bremer's stuff.  (Somehow Bremer's nameless character in a dialogue-free sequence essays more personality, too; maybe it just benefits from an understanding that, "good actor" or not, her default state is too intent and focused to pull off "vapid ingenue," and in Yolanda she looks ridiculous trying.)  Unfortunately, Follies also has Astaire and Bremer's "Limehouse Blues," which is a lot closer to Yolanda's generically-titled "Dream Ballet" sequence than "This Heart."  By that I mean it uses color like a child with fingerpaint, though "Limehouse Blues," despite some other weaknesses that you may immediately guess at from the sequence's title, is still better at telling an emotionally moving story.

As for "Dream Ballet," Minnelli called it "surrealistic," though he means "symbolic," so narrative critique remains fair game.  It does start surrealistically, however, with a walk through a dreamscape version of the Patrian capital we saw Astaire trot through earlier, featuring fantasy-tinged echoes of the people in the square (an eight-armed man entreating Johnny for eight cigarettes is certainly memorable), before transferring us by dream teleportation into a stream used by the local washerwomen who begin to accost Astaire with fabric.  So far, so good!  So is Astaire's next leap into a strange beige-and-gray nether-realm where he, in his tan suit, and Bremer, in her tan gown, register against the background more through movement than through differentiated color.  Through its first few minutes, I even kind of love it.

Then the jarring primary colors, and their symbolic portent, bound onto the stage and more-or-less wreck it with a bunch of dumbassed and somewhat embarrassing pantomime on the subject of the high life (e.g., some male chorines pretending to be jockeys riding horses).  Against this is contrasted the extremely nascent promise of a duller but more solidly-founded marriage to Yolanda, a thought expressed openly in the Freed & Warren song, "Will You Marry Me."  ("Surrealism," is it?)  "Dream Ballet" lasts twelve minutes and has its high points (Astaire and Bremer, after all) but they're largely front-loaded, and it only has a few after the primary hues show up.  Even accepting that the violent clash is the whole point, I don't see the use of making it so unpleasant to look at for so long.  Maybe what sticks in my craw, however, is that this very obviously intended to be the film's pinnacle.  Yet it comes at the halfway mark, making everything thereafter an exercise in "what now?", and, perversely, putting it in the middle means the film hasn't done nearly the narrative work it needs to have done for "Dream Ballet" to emotionally land.  Its structural placement ultimately makes it an arguably-pretty (and I have argued it's not) waste of time.

And this isn't anything on the climactic ("climactic") dance routine, "Coffee Time," which uses a stagebound carnivale as a setting for Astaire and Bremer to do a technically-demanding syncopated dance amidst some more chorines with ugly beige-and-primary-colored costumes, atop a Calçada Portuguesa design such as one might find alongside Brazil's Copacabana beach.

This seems like it should be fine (bold splashes of color against this zebra-like pattern are the basis, after all, for Disney's "Aquarela do Brasil"), except there's something about the abrasiveness of the interplay of lighting, costumes, and shiny, polished floor that make it all faintly repulsive.  Irene Sharaff designed the floor along with all these costumes, so it's as easy to blame her as Minnelli, and the film does indeed have elaborate but frequently-bad costumes.  I don't know who to blame, Sharaff or Minnelli, for Yolanda, a superstitious virgin just out of a Catholic prison for children, deciding to meet her guardian angel in the kind of gauzy, see-through black dress that could only have looked appropriate if the movie had been a porno set at a funeral.

I want to like Yolanda and the Thief, but I can't: it's ineffective even when it's at its most intentional and passionate, which isn't even often; the rest of the time, it barely even feels like anyone actually cared.  (Maybe the film's most representative moment is literally the worst rear projection I've ever seen, using framerate manipulation on the rear-projected footage that's so barbaric that it momentarily looks like God has decided to end the whole world as a punishment for Johnny's blasphemy.)  Far more tentative and mistake-prone, it's astonishing that this was somehow Minnelli's follow-up to Ziegfeld Follies.  It's gotten a bit of a rehabilitation as a wild experiment, a laboratory for Minnelli's style going forward; but even on those terms, it's hard to call it anything besides a failure.

Score: 4/10

*Stormy Weather does it earlier,

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