Looking at Twitter this week someone asked if people honestly watched musicals for the plot, and whether complaining about a lack of narrative is appropriate since audiences are lying in wait for the dancing anyway. I’ve criticized my fair share of musicals for absent plot before and many musicals capably balance narrative and music at the right tempo. But then you hit on a musical the Tweet could have been about, and you understand; Springtime in the Rockies is that type of musical, one with enough plot to keep things focused, but whose Technicolor whimsy and dance sequences sell the picture.
Vicky Lane (Betty Grable) and Dan Christy (John Payne) are Broadway’s best couple, but Dan’s philandering leaves Vicky fed up. Without a job to his name Dan’s only hope is getting Vicky back on-board for another performance, but she’s up at Lake Louise with her new paramour Victor Prince (Ceasar Romero). Dan’s only hope is to go to the Rockies and woo Vicky back into the show, no matter what!
Springtime in the Rockies is what I expected from The Gang’s All Here (1943): a Technicolor feature with music, dance and a beating heart that shines through its characters. After the opening credits Bewitched stole and slapped their name over, we meet Vicky and Dan – two Broadway hoofers that only exist in movies, whose hatred of each other acts as an aphrodisiac for their endless love. Fred and Ginger could have easily played these characters (if they haven’t already). Dan’s a womanizing cad and Vicky is rightfully irritated at him, ending their relationship, both personal and professional.
In order to prevent the audience from rooting for a total jerk – he jilts Betty Grable, of all people – you need an actor whose imperfections are charming, and I would have never picked John Payne! To me, Payne convinced Natalie Wood to believe in Santa Clause in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), or the average all-American wrapped up in dire circumstances in Kansas City Confidential (1952). Payne’s Dan Christy is a bumbling drunk whose worst decisions come out of the bottle; he has a tendency to hire people to work for him while blotto believing it to be “fate.”
Reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart, Payne’s Dan naturally trips his way through life. We know he has a problem with the ladies, but there’s no malicious grin behind it and any issues after the opening stem from a desire to make Vicky jealous. When he hides behind Vicky’s curtains as she talks to Victor, Dan could turn the audience against him – he makes no bones about smoking a pipe while hiding – but the entire sequence is funny because Dan and Vicky are in this mess together.
Director Irving Cummings, well-regarded for musicals (and the helmer of another Miranda vehicle, Down Argentine Way), creates a musical that involves music but doesn’t overburden the audience, or the film, with it. The musical numbers diagetically work within the narrative frame. So there aren’t moments where the film abruptly stops to sing a number, instead presenting sequences to introduce Vicky and Dan’s routine. This isn’t an Esther Williams movie – no offense, Es – where half the film is just performances, and that’s despite Harry James presence (Grable’s then-husband) and his music makers. And while the musical numbers aren’t as ambitious as those in a Busby Berkeley film – they lack choreography, more costume-ography – they’re ear-catching. And they’d have to be considering that, though this may be titled “Springtime in the Rockies” the only taste of the Rockies we get are the painted background the group dances in front of.
If anything’s shoehorned into the story it’s Carmen Miranda playing a character supposedly uninvolved in the music industry, secretary Rosita Murphy. Miranda, again, proves adept at comedy as Dan’s newly hired secretary – it was “fate!” – and the film enjoys poking fun at her Irish paternity; turns out there are a lot of Pat Murphy’s in the world! Rosita quickly swaps her regular secretarial clothes for her Miranda gear and adapts to performing in front of people…as if she was a performer all along. It makes no sense, but by this point film either has you in its clutches or not. And, regardless, Miranda and Edward Everett Horton are just fantastic, given uncommonly meticulous histories that make their characters more interesting than our leads – Horton’s McTavish is a wealthy heir to a toothpaste fortune who literally “knows everything.”
I mentioned Alice Faye, a replacement for Betty Grable, was wooden during The Gang’s All Here, and I’m far and away a Betty Grable fan. Grable’s face is so unique in itself and was made for Technicolor! She’s effortless, with a warm, honeyed performance attuned to the film she’s making. Watch her play off Romero in the final scene, whispering “I love you” with a mix of fear and possibly shame, and you’ll understand her comedic timing. She’s a more glamorous Jean Arthur, an heiress coming down to our level to tell a funny.
Springtime in the Rockies is far from a work of art, nor is it a technical master in the music department, but for a Fox musical it gets the job done. It cares about how the story and characters are presented and the acting lives up to the film itself.
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