Ok so I’m a college student, right? Which means around this time of year I’ve got papers to write! And tests to take! Therefore I have been a bit lax in my movie-viewing. However, during paper-writing distress I often turn to familiar musicals to help me through such trying times. They’re good to have in the background. So whilst working through my Armenian art research, I had a double feature of Call Me Madam and Wonder Man, both linked by the fabulous Vera-Ellen (above). Also be careful, I got a little crazy with the screencap feature…
First up was Call Me Madam, probably my favourite Donald O’Connor film (I don’t think of Singin’ in the Rain as “his” film). Inspired by the story of Perle Mesta‘s appointment and adapted from the Broadway musical, it’s got Ethel Merman expertly belting and sassing her way through the role of Sally Adams, a beloved rich Washington socialite and widow, famous for her generosity and splashy parties. Through her powerful contacts (including President Harry Truman), she lands the position of ambassador to the fictional grand duchy of Lictenburg, a place she knows nothing about and has no real business being in. She knows only that they are in serious debt and will request a large loan from the US, and that she must turn them down “stern, but diplomatic.” Young news reporter Kenneth Gibson (Donald O’Connor, looking utterly adorable in large red-framed glasses) tags along after proving his usefulness as a knowledgable press attache, general protocol advisor, and awesome guy to pal around with.
After they get to Lichtenburg, of course it becomes a double love story with Sally falling for General Cosmo Constantine (George Sanders) and Kenneth super-falling for Princess Maria (Vera-Ellen). Sally spends her time pissing off chief of protocol Pemberton Maxwell (Billy De Wolfe) and trying to get over her feelings for Cosmo, whom she believes is only wooing her to snag the American loan. Meanwhile Kenneth recklessly pursues the princess, who is in the middle of engagement negotiations with another country’s prince and cannot interact with private citizens. It’s sad! But then love triumphs over all! As does diplomacy! There’s a lot of singing and dancing in there too, thanks to Irving Berlin’s fantastic score and the stars’ incredible talents.
I always find myself surprised by how genuinely funny this movie is. Of course the musical performances are top notch, the dancing superb, the accents varying, and the costumes elaborate, but legitimately comedic? My goodness. Ethel Merman has a lot of great one-liners or side comments, plus I laugh out loud every single time she shouts “Well hello Harry!” when Truman calls her. Donald O’Connor is perfect, as always, in an understated (well, except for that wonderful drunk scene) role that compliments her brashness very well. In fact I think one of my favorite things about this movie isn’t the romantic relationships, but the awesome friendship between Kenneth and Sally. They do one of the best duets ever for “You’re Just In Love“. And obviously Vera-Ellen is dancing and dancing to her heart’s content with flowy skirts and a vaguely Eastern European, prim accent. Adorable.
This is a film I never get tired of, and it pretty much suits every mood. It’s simple and entertaining but not unintelligent. It’s playfully satirical, and though much reference is made to American politics and how the US has to help out poor little Lichtenburg, the fictional country is treated with respect for the most part. They stay strong culturally despite outside influences and even Sally, “the most American American”, realizes her way is not always the best way and that she is pretty ignorant about other cultures. Basically, I guess, just see this movie if you want an extremely enjoyable musical, a radiant cast, or if you just want to see one of the main reasons Donald O’Connor was my first really big celebrity crush (he is still pretty high up there).
Ok so next up was Wonder Man, one of my favorite Danny Kaye vehicles, and also one of his hard-to-find early films with Virginia Mayo. He stars in a duel role as the intellectual (he’s so smart he writes with both hands! Gee whiz!), taciturn Edwin Dingle and his estranged twin, zany nightclub performer Buzzy Bellew. While Edwin is working on a comprehensive anthology work at his local library, he is gradually romanced by the sultry and kind librarian Ellen (Virginia Mayo). His brother is killed after volunteering to serve as a witness against gangster Ten Grand Jackson (Steve Cochran), but he soon appears in spirit form to his twin. Buzzy has mad ghostly powers and uses them to sort of control Edwin, whose body he intends to use to keep on living and land Ten Grand a conviction. Edwin tries to resist him and go back to a confused Ellen, but ends up getting entangled with Buzzy’s nightclub act and his fiancee Midge (a very young, almost unrecognizable Vera-Ellen in her first film role). Wackiness and puzzlement and chases ensue, of course, but finally Edwin is able to stumble his way through Buzzy’s mess, testify against Ten Grand, and maybe even get the girl!
So this movie is basically just a really fun and silly time with a truly excellent performance by Danny Kaye (though nothing is new there). Love the dual role thing. Love Virginia Mayo doing anything, though I mostly know her from the films she did with Kaye. Love “So In Love” with Vera-Ellen rocking her custom shoes that mix point and tap styles so she can still show off her dance skills in a non-musical movie (there are two musical numbers and they are within the nightclub setting). I get pretty uncomfortable during the early dance sequence that relies a lot on condescending fascination with primitive island cultures, but I promise after that it is a laid back, enjoyable movie! It even won an Oscar for its visual effects- cool transparency things happen due to Buzzy’s intangibility, also they do a very good job having Danny Kaye talk to himself. I don’t think it’s on DVD unfortunately (I have a seemingly bootleg copy I got used on Amazon) but it appears the whole movie is on youtube, if you’re interested.