I was ambivalent prior to watching On the Riviera considering I called Danny Kaye a discount Donald O’Connor when I reviewed White Christmas. While this feature isn’t perceived as one of Kaye’s greatest, it gave me a better view of his work, and an ability to understand why he’s such an enduring screen icon. The movie is zany in the extreme, and the plot loses ground leading into the third act, but overall it’s a pleasant diversion for a weekend viewing, and 20th Century Fox‘s Blu-ray release is top-notch, as always.
Jack Martin (Kaye) is an American singer working in France. An uncanny resemblance to Henri Duran, the man who recently broke Linderberg’s long-distance record, gives Jack a new gimmick to continue performing. However, when Duran gets into some trouble with his airline business, Jack becomes involved as Duran’s double leading to complications with Duran’s wife, Lili (Gene Tierney) and Jack’s long-suffering girlfriend, Collete (Corinne Calvet).
The premise for the film has been done several times previously, with Maurice Chevalier and Don Ameche playing the titled role. As a stand-alone premise, On the Riviera is frivolous and fancy-free with little depth required or expected. A makeshift Prince and the Pauper story begins with Martin and Duran noticing the resemblance between them, and Martin utilizing this as part of a new act wherein he pokes fun at Duran’s constant womanizing. Nowadays, I think that’s enough to get you slapped with a libel suit. Eventually, the two swap places in a plot never as fun as the initial gimmick.
Kaye in dual roles is the root of the picture, and he plays both the straight-man and the uptight European lover. His French accent sounds flawless – no Pepi Le Peu exaggerations – and Kaye never falls into endless mugging or showing off; the exception is the musical numbers, particularly the big television broadcast, but even then there’s a necessary explanation for the pandering. Neither Jack nor Henri is a compelling character – they’re both broad stereotypes where if you’ve watched one incarnation it fits everywhere else – but Kaye is sufficiently gregarious and outgoing.
He’s complimented by two different leading ladies, that are underwritten but provide enough emotion to keep them from falling into the pit of stock characterization. Corinne Calvet is the French girl next door. Upon hearing her French accent I feared she’d be another Jeanmaire from Anything Goes, but Calvet is sweet as Collette. I was surprised she doesn’t sing in the movie outside of the a few bars in the final number. To provide added elegance is the exquisite Gene Tierney playing another stable, loving rich girl like she did in Heaven Can Wait; she’s Laura but without the mystery and murder. Tierney plays Henri’s cuckolded wife, Lili, and she’s beautiful standing around wearing pretty dresses, which is sadly the majority of the runtime. The third act revolves around her possibly having an encounter with Jack impersonating Henri, that could have been funny if it wasn’t meant to have the audience make fun of her character.
The problem with the third act is we already understand Henri is a cad who constantly cheats on his wife…humorously. Towards the end, Jack disappears and the focus shifts to Henri entirely – bizarre considering he wasn’t the protagonist in the beginning, and he’s a jerk – who decides to lie to his wife in order to have her believe she’s cheated on him (or been molested by a man who’s not her husband). As she scrambles to figure out who she was with, Jack arrives and through a ribald bit of miscommunication leads her to believe they were together. You truly feel bad for Tierney, and this is the sole sequence where her character is given anything of substance to do, but at the same time you have to wonder who you’re supposed to root for; it wasn’t Henri, and the third act suffers by exclusively following him.
The movie isn’t a Technicolor production, but who cares because it still looks great on Blu-ray. 20th Century Fox continues to surprise me with their transfers, and while the Riviera isn’t in startling bright colors, the ocean is rich and jumps off the screen. The movie itself isn’t big on wide shots of the area, leading me to believe they weren’t actually in the locations for 90% of the shoot, but everything looks refreshed. There’s three featurettes which the disc: “The Riviera Story: A Remarkable Impersonation” is my favorite because it takes all three incarnations of the film and actually plays specific scenes from all three to show you the differences. I am interested in checking out the Ameche version because of it. “A Portrait of Danny Kaye” 25-minute crash course in Kaye’s life, which had a lot of repetitive information from the David Koenig biography I read. If you’re hoping for any additional depth to his life you’ll want to read a Kaye biography proper. The final featurette, “Jack of Clubs: Choreographer Jack Cole” looks at the film’s choreographer, who also worked with Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe. It’s a fun little look at Kaye’s dancing here, specifically with Broadway impresario Gwen Verdon of Damn Yankees fame.
Overall, On the Riviera is a fun movie with beautiful scenery, whether it’s the locales or the gorgeous leading ladies. Danny Kaye is comfortable in dual roles, and while the hijinks get a bit hard to swallow in the third act, the rest of the movie is entertaining.
On the Riviera hits store shelves this Tuesday!
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