Monday, February 12, 2018

OVP: Lady Be Good (1941)

Film: Lady Be Good (1941)
Stars: Robert Young, Ann Sothern, Eleanor Powell, John Carroll, Red Skelton, Virginia O'Brien, Lionel Barrymore
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Oscar History: 1 nomination/1 win (Best Original Song-"The Last Time I Saw Paris")
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

I think one of the strangest things about the Oscar Viewing Project (and there are a lot of strange things about seeking out truly random films from each year, realizing what the Wonder or Marshall of 1941 is), is that you learn some of the truly bizarre "footnotes" of Oscar history, perhaps one of the stranger ones being Lady Be Good.  A romantic comedy-musical from the early 1940's, it's pretty standard fare, with some truly memorable numbers (including Eleanor Powell's spellbinding "Fascinating Rhythm"), but the film's only claim to fame with Oscar was its song "The Last Time I Saw Paris," a staple of the era that has been recorded by everyone from Dinah Shore to Connie Francis to (inevitably) Tony Bennett.  The problem is, though, it's not an original, and wasn't written with this movie in mind.

(Spoilers Ahead) The song, in fact, was written by Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II, but had become a radio staple circa 1940, with Kate Smith's version being the most popular cover.  However, MGM, smelling a way they could take advantage of a hit song for their new musical, included the movie in the picture, a fitting ode to a movie that regularly praises Kern specifically (the two lead characters Dixie Donegan and Eddie Crane, played by Ann Sothern & Robert Young, respectively, are both songwriters).  Sothern performs the song in tight closeup (unusually tight for a film of the era), and because the rules at the time for the Oscars more mandated that a film use a song, rather than it be original, the film won the Oscar.  Kern so hated that he won for a song that he hadn't originally intended for the picture that we got the very stringent usage rules we have today (which has cost numerous songs, including "Come What May," their chances at the Oscars).

The song itself is hardly special in the film, and while Sothern does a lovely job at it, honestly this is the rare musical film that doesn't really need music (the dancing's the best part, anyway).  The movie follows Dixie & Eddie as they marry and attempt to divorce twice, realizing that the chemistry of their relationship fizzles when they mix marriage with work, but that they clearly love each other.  A kindly judge (Barrymore) overhears much of the story (which is told by Sothern as part of her divorce testimony), and doesn't grant them a divorce at the end because he sees that they clearly belong together.  It's a cute movie, and while it is very predictable, there are some game performances in the film that make it charming.

Sothern, for example, a finely gifted comedienne, is charming and winning in the lead.  Robert Young, whom I have developed an allergy to through the OVP (every era has a few performers I cannot get behind at all, and he's one of them), is mercifully quiet for most of the film, as it's really Sothern's show and he's along for the ride, so he doesn't distract like I suspect he would have otherwise.  Skelton is a genuine supporting part, and great with Virginia O'Brien (whom I want to see a lot more of, fast, as her schtick is quite modern and reminds me of Kristen Schaal in a lot of ways).  Best of all is Eleanor Powell, dynamite as Sothern's best friend (Powell gets top billing for the picture, but she's most definitely a supporting player), who is flirty & deadpan with a hapless John Carroll, and an absolute marvel in two dance numbers, one with a dog (who two-steps along with her!), and a scene that has to be watched to be believed, where she tap dances for four straight minutes alongside a sea of dueling grand pianos.  Powell, who really doesn't get her due these days, has become a favorite of mine in the OVP (a reverse Robert Young), and this may well be my favorite performance of hers yet.

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