Oof, Fridays With Yvonne De Carlo is off to a rocky start. Though never an A-list actress, De Carlo is best remembered to legions of television fans as Lily Munster in the 1960s series The Munsters which is the extent of my De Carlo knowledge. Her filmic output was scattered, with De Carlo mostly relegated to Westerns. Her début performance in this Universal programmer sets up De Carlo as little more than an exotic vamp with the ability to dance in gauzy costumes, distracting the audience in the hopes they won’t realize there’s no plot to be had. Salome, Where She Danced is the film equivalent of throwing bologna on the ceiling and betting on which piece sticks.
Anna Marie (De Carlo) is a dancer who finds herself turning spy for a U.S. war correspondent (Rod Cameron). When she’s no longer safe in Vienna, her and the war correspondent travel to America in the hopes of turning Anna Marie into a big star. Dubbed Salome by the local townsfolk, Anna Marie finds her scheming has consequences when a threat from her past arrives.
Salome, Where She Danced was a project racing up the ladder of success before tripping and hitting every rung on the way down. Originally envisioned as a film for director John Ford – yes, My Darling Clementine (1946) John Ford – producer Walter Wanger picked it up in the hopes of creating “an Arabian Nights story in a western setting.” That’s all well and good, but this movie doesn’t exactly situate itself right away as a Western. In fact, over 25 minutes of the film’s 86 is spent with Anna Marie in the Viennese court being recruited by Jim Steed – is he selling beer or a Wild, Wild West evil twin? – to spy on Count Von Bohlen (Albert Dekker).
It’s safe to assume Wanger never read Arabian Nights because outside of De Carlo acting sultry, revealing her bare midriff and wearing harem pants, there’s little of that compendium’s expansive storytelling. Director Charles Lamont was best known for comedy, directing several films starring Abbott and Costello and Ma and Pa Kettle, while screenwriter Laurence Stallings was a Western expert, writing scripts for the likes of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and 3 Godfathers (1948). This mismatched pairing between director and screenwriter might explain why nothing fits together.
The film starts after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865 as our philosophical Robert E. Lee (John Litel) pontificates on the futility of war. This is a classic case of hoping the audience doesn’t know anything about the Civil War, leaving the audience to know any eloquence and sympathy for Lee is wrong….but there’s no context provided to explain why you should or shouldn’t. But, who cares because we segue to Jim Steed traveling to Vienna.
Perfectly fine as Jim Steed, Rod Cameron starts as our lead before seguing into good-time party promoter once everyone moves to the U.S. In many way it’s obvious Lamont anticipated Cameron to be our Clark Gable. The physical resemblance alone would be enough, but Cameron’s charm and, again, ways of promotion lead us to perceive him as the equivalent to Gable’s Rhett Butler. But Cameron’s not the lead, handing over the reins in the 11th hour to this film’s version of Ashley Wilkes, Cleve, played by David Bruce.
Best known for roles in The Sea Hawk (1940) and Sergeant York (1941) – or, if you read the site, as crime novelist Wayne Morgan in Lady on a Train (1945) – Bruce’s Cleve is as engaging as lumpy pancake batter, making dead-eyes with De Carlo every chance he gets. When she dances in front of him, his expression never changes. Is he intrigued? Sad? Dying? It’s all one look! And his character transitions from disillusioned Confederate soldier to brigand. Interrupting Anna Marie’s first performance in the Western town to rob it, Anna Marie slaps him but allows him to keep robbing the audience while she dances?! When the audience starts clapping Cleve reminds them to “keep their hands up.” Immediately after this moment Anna Marie and Cleve go on a date before the next scene shows them wildly in love.
There’s absolutely no continuity, context, or coherence to this story – you know, the three C’s of storytelling! By the time Cleve and Von Bohlen end up sword-fighting – thankfully, a line of dialogue has Cleve reveal a friendship with a French sword master…because THAT’S what needs explaining! – it just rolls off your back. Hey, the movie’s barely 90-minutes after all.
As for De Carlo, it’s obvious the studio had little faith in her and it’s amazing the film did enough business to propel her to stardom. The Canadian actress plays Austrian but her accent is relegated to the first and last syllables of words, leaving her sounding like a Russian in the beginning and American by the end of every line. From an acting standpoint, there’s just nothing for De Carlo to do. Anna Marie plays at being a spy, a singer/dancer, and a professional companion, but like everything else here nothing sticks, leaving De Carlo flitting from scene to scene as nothing more than eye candy.
The praise should go to cinematographers W. Howard Greene and Hal Mohr, who capture De Carlo in such a way as to make her utterly breathtaking (not that she needs much help). Complimented by Vera West’s costumes, the mix of styles – ranging from Arabian to Chinese to standard Western garments – is as disparate as the plot, but De Carlo sells it far better than the rest of the feature.
Since this was De Carlo’s début I can’t fault her too harshly. Things can only go up, right? Salome, Where She Danced is Universal at its laziest. It’s understandable why this hasn’t been released on DVD because there’s absolutely no way to interpret the film. The actors are left searching for something to indicate what type of movie they’re making. In reality, they’re starring in tiny pieces of every genre of film, leading to a shattered series of moments swept up and dumped.