Thursday, July 31, 2014

Life Upon the Wicked Stage - Ann Blyth Plays Summer Theatre



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Ann Blyth spent more than three decades in summer theatre.  Despite the minor footnote this may appear in Internet bios, if included at all, it was a huge part of her résumé and her life, and the world where a great number of fans came to enjoy her work.

Summer theatre is a special world, to be savored while it is experienced, and the memory of which to be treasured most especially because it is a world of the moment.  Once the curtain comes down, it’s gone forever, leaving the longing ache to see it again ever unfulfilled.  Summer theatre, however, rarely ends with the drawing of an actual curtain, for these productions are usually in a barn, or tent, or some ramshackle building where we trod well-worn wooden floors, or climb up temporarily constructed seating in-the-round style that will be disassembled come September.  We walk to our cars in the loveliness of a warm summer night, or perhaps step carefully through a mud-sodden field in the rain.  The slap of the wooden screen door at the theater entrance, a moth or two flying around inside, caught in the pale blue beam of a Fresnel, or the sound of raindrops on the tent are all part of the experience and the memory.

The stars are quite close to us in summer theatre.  We don’t go to big cities to see them.  They come to our towns.  The stage may be only a few feet away, or if in-the-round, the star may brush our shoulder with her sleeve as she trots down the aisle to make her entrance.  They leave the same way we do, through the same doors.  The next morning, we may see them at the coffee shop or grocery store, as for a week or two, our town becomes theirs.  Summer theatre is intimate, and heartfelt.  There is very little Hollywood gloss.  Summer stock can’t afford gloss.

Today we visit that special world and some of Ann Blyth’s performances from the 1960s through the 1980s.  We’ll explore these musical shows through newspaper reviews and interviews, which are all we have left to prove they existed. 

This is going to be a long post.  Pour yourself a root beer, hitch up your shorts, pull your lawn chair up close to the bug zapper and relax.

One of her very first summer theatre experiences, perhaps her first, was Carnival in July 1963.  She had given birth to her fifth and last child in April, and according to a syndicated column by Joseph Finnegan in the News-Texan, was already preparing for this new stage, literally a new stage, in her career.

During her recent hospital stay after having the baby, Ann was the most entertaining patient on the maternity ward floor as she rehearsed her singing role in Carnival…Any nurse with spare time could always drop by Ann’s room to hear a few songs.

Ray Danton played the male lead, and John Smolko and Helon Blount were also in the cast.

That summer she would also be filming her last appearance on the TV show Wagon Train, “The Fort Pierce Story,” which we discussed here.

We might well understand Ann chomping at the bit to perform in a musical again; it had been nine years since she did Kismet on film, which we discussed here, and there were fewer opportunities for big screen musicals anymore.  Her career always seemed to flip-flop between periods of dramatic films, and shorter periods of musicals, with the need to remind producers that she was available for both.  Just before her string of 1950s musical films, she was quoted in Erskine Johnson’s syndicated column in 1951:

I’m grateful for my wonderful dramatic chances.  But I keep hinting for musicals.  I’ve kept up with my vocal lessons and I could brush up on my dancing with a little practice.

There was another reason for approaching stage musicals: by the early 1960s films were changing, Hollywood was a different place after the collapse of the studio system, but on stage, an actress in her mid-thirties could still, in the tradition of theatre, play ingénue roles.  On screen, there were fewer meaty roles left for “older women” (and women in their thirties were, indeed, considered “older women”).  On stage, Ann played leads, not character roles, through her fifties.

Perhaps the best reason for turning to summer stock was that Ann originally came from the world of theatre herself, having played on Broadway in Watch on the Rhine as a child, which we covered here.

She explained to Jack Hawn for the Los Angeles Times in February 1985:

"Most actors who have done theater dearly love getting back to it," she said.  "It's exciting. . . . Once you start, that's it.  Nobody's going to say, 'Cut; let's try it again.'  You must continue, but that's part of the excitement.  I love it a lot."

It was the heyday of summer theatre, when many Hollywood stars toured the country in popular plays.  Carnival was a production of the Kenley Players, which was performed at the Packard Music Hall in Warren, Ohio, and then played the Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium in Columbus.  The very end of Kenley’s season that year featured Ann’s old movie co-star Howard Keel in Man of La Mancha.  Colleagues and friends from the movie business regularly crisscrossed the country on the heels of each other’s performances.  Sometimes a star would perform in several productions of a summer.  Ann did Carnival again in subsequent seasons, and in 1967, her performance in this play at the Valley Music Hall in Salt Lake City was followed immediately after a two-week run of The King and I in St. Louis.

A year after Carnival in 1963, she played her first production of The Sound of Music in August 1964 at the Tenthouse Theatre in Highland Park, Chicago.  The show also played in Texas as a Dallas Summer Musicals tour, where the eldest daughter, Liesl was played by a teenaged Sandy Duncan.



She performed in The Sound of Music in several other productions through the 1970s, in Miami Beach, Florida; at the Colonie Coliseum in Latham, New York, among other places.  In 1972, she performed it at Milwaukee’s Melody Top Music Tent, a venue where she remained a huge audience draw for many years.  A review by Jay Joslyn of the Milwaukee Sentinel lauded the opening of the summer season with:

…what every summer theater should have: glorious weather, a spectacular star, a well polished company and a vehicle of supreme charm.

To combine an appearance of Ann Blyth with a performance of The Sound of Music has to be the equivalent of box office overkill…each generates success.

The show broke audience attendance records.

Miss Blyth, her voice as lovely and true as ever, gives the role of Maria von Trap a wonderful gamin turn that provides great strength and sympathy.  She’s superb.

Mitchell Gregg played the Captain in this production, where each of the fourteen performances was sold out.

Ann Blyth took a brief detour from the world of musical theatre back to drama in May 1967 when she starred in the suspense thriller Wait Until Dark in Chicago, which we discussed here.



Then in August, it was back to musicals in The King and I, which she performed again in the following year, 1968.  Her first time as Anna occurred in June 1965 at Highland Park, Chicago, at the Tenthouse.  The King was played by James Mitchell.  A review of “T.W” in the Chicago Tribune:

Ann Blyth’s gracious, well-sung Anna and James Mitchell’s skillfully played king gave Tenthouse theater…professional stature, tho both performers were of somewhat limited range.  Miss Blyth projected Victorian elegance but had no spitfire spark.

The show also played New England in June in Framingham, Massachusetts; and in Wallingford, Connecticut at the Oakdale Musical Theater in August.  A blurb in The Hartford Courant noted her reputation for versatility:

Miss Blyth, who as built an enviable record of versatility in all entertainment media, will be Anna.


William Chapman of the New York City Center Opera played the King.  The production was directed by James Hammerstein, son of Oscar Hammerstein II, and the children of the palace were played by local kids from Connecticut.  From a review by Allen M. Widem in The Hartford Times, who remarked on the…

…delight at Oakdale Music Theater of seeing one of Hollywood’s most talented thespians bring Mrs. Anna to life.

That star is Ann Blyth.  A mere wisp of a thing, with boundless charm, she is an impressive addition…Miss Blyth is a delightful Anna.





A reader named Ellen, who provided these images of the Oakdale Musical Theatre's production of The King and I, which was theatre-in-the-round, recalled of the performance she attended:

When she started her entrance & on the way to the stage, part of her costume became entangled on a theater chair, but was quickly separated...neither Ann or the orchestra missed a beat.  Her performance on Aug. 16, prompted by the orchestra, had the sold-out audience singing "Happy Birthday."

Ann would have turned thirty-seven.

Howard Keel, who had performed here in this tent himself, in his autobiography Only Make Believe, recalled:

There isn’t a hotter place on earth than inside the Wallingford tent on a matinee day with all the lights on.

This is, I confess, another reason for my admiration for summer stock.  For the actors and techies, it’s rather like going through Marine boot camp.  Howard Keel, unlike many actors who write books about their film careers and give short shrift to summer stock, spends a lot of time covering his years in summer theatre, mentioning not only on-stage problems, but the mishaps of everyday life that are magnified for an actor about to go on any minute: emergency root canal, various injuries and illnesses that he must pretend are not hurting, the discipline it takes not only to learn one’s craft, but the discipline it takes to stifle a flu or allergic reaction-prompted need to vomit until one can make it to the wings after the next scene.  Howard Keel affirmed:

I believe summer stock people are some of the bravest people I know. 

This was proven in an horrific incident in a production of Kiss Me Kate in which Ann appeared in July 1968 in Pittsburgh.  Lew Herbert, who played one of the gangsters in the show felt ill during a performance, but he soldiered on.  After the performance, he collapsed in his dressing room.  He was taken to the hospital with an apparent heart ailment.  He died the next day.  The understudy went on that night.  The most courageous and yet most brutal aspect of live theatre is that the show goes on.

Walter Winchell, who scavenged stories like this for his column, wrote his take on the event two months later in September:

Lew Herbert…was stricken in his dressing room, Ann Blyth, the star, kissed his cheek to comfort him.  “Now I can die happily,” he whispered…which he did soon after.

The review of Kiss Me Kate at the Civic Light Opera was cheerier:

Miss Ann Blyth is a sight for sore eyes in the role of Lilli Vanessi…she gives a pleasant performance, somewhere in the middle ground, effective and likeable, but not striking or distinctive…Her voice is agreeable and natural, but lacks an emotional range.

The reviewer, Carl Apone’s remarks on male lead Robert Wright and the director were also tepid.  Along with his review, he interviewed Ann on the state of the film world that seemingly drove her to the stage.  If things were changing in 1963, it had become an unrecognizable world for many classic film stars by 1968.  “Filth” was the topic of their conversation, and Ann remarked that the treatment of explicit sex in films…

“…has a bad effect on young people.  They get quite a distorted sense of something quite beautiful.  All the wondrous and beautiful aspects of sex are gone.  For the ideas they see of sex on the screen tend to drag it into the gutter…I dearly love to perform, but there is no need to bring myself down to that level.”

Miss Blythe [her name is misspelled throughout the article], the mother of five children, looking as beautiful and youthful as she did in her early movie days, doesn’t mind admitting her age.  She will be 40 on August 16.”

This was echoed in 1976 in a syndicated column by Vernon Scott: 

She makes no attempt to convert anyone to her own lifestyle.  But neither does she compromise on her own strong convictions.  She won’t, for instance, appear in movies or television shows of dubious moral content…

“That’s why I prefer summer theater. The quality and tone of the shows I do are proved and have high standards…For the past 13 years, I’ve done almost all of them,” she said. “Last summer it was Bittersweet, Show Boat and Kiss Me, Kate.

“It’s six weeks of hard work but a wonderful break from the routine.  I enjoy it.  But my children and husband come first.”

We discussed other classic film stars’ opinions on the changing attitudes of sex and violence in films in this post here.

When she played in Kiss Me Kate in August 1984 in Flint, Michigan, The Argus Press marveled that she was turning 56 the following week, and took the opportunity to laud the breadth of her career:

…is one of the few stars who not only conquered all five mediums of the entertainment world, but who has scored resounding success in each.

From radio to legitimate theatre to motion pictures, television and supper clubs, the singer-actress has traveled back and forth with ease.  In doing so, she has built a reputation for versatility and talent equaled by few.

She returned to Milwaukee’s Melody Top Theatre, one of her most popular venues, for South Pacific in 1973 and was presented with their Showstopper Award for helping the show to earn more money than any in this tent theater’s history.  Have a look here at this fan page Melody Top Memories for now defunct Melody Top Theatre for production photos of Ann Blyth in South Pacific.

Peter Filichia noted in his post at the Theater Mania blog here:

Ann Blyth! My buddy Craig Jacobs, production stage manager for The Phantom of the Opera, worked with her on a summer stock production in Milwaukee. After watching her perform and dance in rehearsals, he told her how he marveled that she never perspired no matter how hard she worked. Days later, after one particularly grueling rehearsal, she came up to him, pointed to her forehead, and said, "Look!" to show him that a single bead of sweat had formed.

Perhaps her biggest and most performed show of the 1970s was Show Boat, which she first performed in 1970.  (“Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” the title of this post, as many of you probably know, is the title of a song in Show Boat.) Andy Devine, who appeared with her in one of her early Universal musicals, Babes on Swing Street (1944), which we’ll cover later in the year, played her father, Cap’n Andy.  She would play Magnolia again several times through the decade.

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In September that year, Edwin Steffe was her father for two weeks in Milwaukee that closed the Melody Top season.  From Michael H. Drew of the Milwaukee Journal:

Miss Blyth is lithe and lovely as film fans remember her.  And, praise be, she brings us a Real Voice –not one of those sound stage concoctions that—in person—side step the high notes and undersell the big ones…when that dastardly Gaylord Ravenal (Lowell Harris) abandons her, tears flood her comely cheeks.  The World Almanac claims she’s 42.  It surely lies.

The rival paper, the Sentinel, agreed, calling Ann…

…a leading lady of truly stellar stature and charm…Ann Blyth, the show’s captivating Magnolia, is a superlative actress, whose winning ways are bolstered by one of the sweetest voices around. She demonstrates why the show’s Jerome Kern music has never died.

In a 1975 performance at the Music Circus in Sacramento, California, Jesse White, who played with her in Katie Did It (1951) –a film which I am still looking for – played Cap’n Andy, and the wonderful Kathleen Freeman was her mother, Parthy.


Show Boat closed the 1976 summer season at the Storrowton Theatre in West Springfield, Massachusetts.  Sam Hoffman of the Springfield Daily News reviewed the play:

Miss Blyth has lost none of her beautiful lyric soprano voice or any of her beauty.  She is a delight to see and to hear…Miss Blyth not only sings [the songs] for all their worth, she is capable of giving each a dramatic touch.

Magnolia just never looked as beautiful or was in finer voice than Miss Blyth.

Here Jay Garner filled in for an ill Andy Devine as Cap’n Andy, and Ed Evanko played Gaylord Ravenal.

In a follow-up article, Mr. Hoffman confessed his admiration for Ann Blyth was a torch he’d been carrying for some time.

…I remember her lovely lyric soprano voice that seemed to float right out of the screen in my direction.  I always managed to blot out the male star to make sure it was me she was singing to and not someone else. 

I was even a bit jealous when she upped and married a doctor for Ann Blyth has always been one of my favorite screen stars, someone I didn’t particularly care to share with another person.

He also noted in his interview with her, that she hoped to get in some tennis before the Thursday evening show.

One of the treats of summer theatre at this time was getting to see up close those Hollywood stars who before this era were rarely seen except on screen. That they appeared in town as flesh and blood people was a bit of a shock for many, such that even star-struck interviewers sometimes paid a bit too much attention to the star’s private lives and not enough on their performances.  Have a look here at this1970 television interview of Ann Blyth by Bette Rogge of local TV station WHIO-TV in Dayton, Ohio.  Ann was in town for Show Boat, which you can hear rehearsing in the background, but despite the excitement, Miss Rogge is more interested in Ann’s dress size and vacation plans in Hawaii.

In 1969, Ann returned to operetta in The Merry Widow, at the Starlight Theatre in Swope Park, Kansas City, Kansas, which she recalled for columnist Jay Horning in 1994 was one of her favorite shows.

“The music is so beautiful, so singable, and for audiences, so hummable,” she said, “So walking out of the theater they’re able to whistle a happy tune.  You want to leave an audience feeling good.”

Toward the end of her stage career in the later 1970s and 1980s she would turn more to operetta, in a way bringing her career full circle.

In 1975 she played in Noel Coward’s Bittersweet at Milwaukee’s Melody Top.  Columnist Jack O’Brian referred to it as an “even-when-first-produced nostalgia trip,” denoting operetta as something quaint and too artificial to be taken seriously.

From the Milwaukee Journal:

Veteran star of Hollywood, and currently, Hostess TV commercials, was satisfactory in a show so musically demanding that her third act was almost a recital.  While pretty rather than prodigious, her soprano glittered brightly. 

One audience member saw Ann the next day at the local mall, as recounted in this Memories of Melody Top website:

BITTER SWEET, an operetta by Noel Coward, was charming, as was Ann Blyth when I encountered her over a table of sale items in Marshall Field's at Mayfair Mall the day after I saw her performance…I couldn't resist telling her I didn't want to bother her when she was shopping, but I had to say how much I enjoyed her performance the previous evening. I immediately took off, only to hear her yelling after me, "That's no bother!"

There was Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song in August 1979 at the Starlight Theatre, and at the MUNY, famous for its outdoor productions in St. Louis. 

Song of Norway in 1985 with the Long Beach Civic Light Opera in Long Beach, California, a show which seemed to carry enough of a reputation for being clunky that few reviewers seemed kindly toward it, was reviewed by Don Shirley for the Los Angeles Times:

Any production of Song of Norway had better be well sung. The dramaturgy in this slab of aging shmaltz [sic] is primitive, and the spectacle—at least as designed for the Long Beach Civic Light Opera—is dull.

Only one of the Long Beach voices, Ann Blyth’s comes close to justifying the experience.  Her dark-hued solo of “North Star—Soveig’s Song” in the second act is the show’s only scene that casts any sort of spell.  Perhaps she also deserves some credit for the fact that her character, ostensibly the villain, is marginally less tiresome than the others.

Her male lead in this production was Bill Hayes, who first starred with in a 1967 production of Brigadoon at the St. Louis MUNY, which Mr. Hayes called in an interview with the Daily Breeze of Torrance, California, “the Brigadoon to end all Brigadoons.”  Bill Hayes would, in the next decade, become Ann’s singing partner in yet another phase of her career – singing in concert.  We’ll get to that in a future post.

The Daily Breeze called Song of Norway, “pleasant fare"…

That’s largely because its stars, Ann Blyth and Bill Hayes, don’t take themselves too seriously and play with enough camp to liven up the stilted tale.  And the orchestration is delightful…Blyth is amazing in that she is one of Hollywood’s most successful stars and still looks good more than 30 years after reaching the top.

Lowell Harris, who played opposite Ann in Show Boat in 1970, here played the friend of Bill Hayes, Susan Watson played the lovely Nina, and the trio of friends is broken up by “the lusty Countess Louisa” played by Ann and her lothario husband played in a comic role by Ray Stewart.



We conclude with New Moon in 1987, when Ann performed the lead, at 58 years old, for the Long Beach Civic Light Opera.  Neither of these Long Beach shows were actually "summer" theatre, but I include them for convenience.  Sandra Kreiswirth of the Daily Breeze of Torrance, California interviewed her on the second day of the two-week rehearsal.

…although it’s a dark, rainy afternoon, Blyth enters a Long Beach tearoom looking as if she stepped out of a fashion layout—casual, but definitely chic.

She’s in terrific shape thanks to her three-times-a-week workout regime.

The article was a biography of her life and career, events and circumstances Ann rehashed many times over many decades with patient cooperation in order to sell tickets.

From a review by Lewis Segal in the Los Angeles Times:

Ripples of excited recognition spread through the house at the first hint of “Stout-hearted Men” in the overture.  And if they became ripples of giggles by the time Ann Blyth sang the very, very, very last solo reprise of this 1928 Sigmund Romberg anthem, no matter: The Long Beach Civic Light Opera had incontestably delivered a generous sampling of the vocal overkill and off-the-wall character comedy endemic to Broadway operetta…

This was all pure hokum, of course, most of the time utterly unrelated to human behavior as we know it on this planet.

Operetta, as we’ve mentioned in this series this month, is an acquired taste. 

Blyth made a spunky, likeable Marianne…All but obliterated in the ball scene by a gown exploding with ruffles, polka dots, ribbons, bows and lamè, Blyth nevertheless radiated great poise and style.  

But at 58, her voice must be carefully husbanded and, even so, frequently sounded pinched or hooded on Saturday.

In 2002 when Opera News writer Brian Kellow interviewed her, Ann Blyth was still singing in supper clubs and concert venues. 

She still takes her singing quite seriously and works to keep the voice in shape.  “It’s the old story,” she says, “You’ve got to find out if it’s there every day.”

She was seventy-three.

If anyone has any memories to share of attending one of Ann's musical theatre productions, I'd love to hear from you.  See, I've got this here book to write.

This concludes our month of Ann Blyth's musicals.  Come back next Thursday when we start a month of Ann's historical costume dramas.  We'll take a second look at her time-travel romance, I’ll Never Forget You (1951) 



Posted by Jacqueline T. Lynch at Another Old Movie Blog.
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The Argus Press (Owoss, Michigan), August 10, 1984, p. 19.

Daily Breeze (Torrance, California), March 8, 1985, review by James Bronson, p. E24; February 24, 1987, article by Sandra Kreiswirth,  p. C1; October 19, 1992, article by Sandra Kreiswirth, p. C1.

The Hartford Courant, August 18, 1965.

The Hartford Times, August 18 1965, review by Allen M. Widem, “Ann Blyth Able Anna in “The King and I.”

Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World, May 29, 1969, p. 14.

Lodi News (Lodi, California), July 24, 1975, p. 7 “Show Boat Docks at Music Circus.”

Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1984, articled by Jack Hawn, “A Blyth Spirit from an Earlier Era”; March 8, 1985, review by Don Shirley, p. 16

Milwaukee Journal, September 2, 1970, review by Michael H. Drew, part 2, p. 13; July 9, 1975, Part 2; January 27, 1976, syndicated by Vernon Scott.

Milwaukee Sentinel, September 2, 1970, “Showboat’s Here and Wow!”; June 7, 1972, part 1, page 9, review by Jay Joslyn; September 29, 1972; July 2, 1973, p. 12, part 1

The News-Texan, May 22, 1963, p.2, syndicated column by Joseph Finnegan.

The Northeast Missourian, October 24, 1951, syndicated column by Erskine Johnson.

Opera News, August 2002, article by Brian Kellow.

The Pittsburgh Press, July 28, 1968, “Filth in Movies Saddens Ann Blyth” by Carl Apone, p. 13, section 5; July 29, 1968, p. 14, review by Carl Apone; article by Kaspar Monahan.

Bette Rogge, 1970 interview, WHIO-TV, University of Dayton collection:

Sarasota (Florida) Journal, April 15, 1975, syndicated column by Jack O’Brian, p. 5B.

The Spartanburg Herald-Journal, September 1, 1968, syndicated column by Walter Winchell, p. B-10.

Springfield Daily News (Springfield, Mass.), August 31, 1976, review by Sam Hoffman, p. 8; September 1, 1976, article by Sam Hoffman, p.25.

St. Joseph News-Press (Missouri) p. 11.

St. Petersburg Times, September 18, 1994, column by Jay Horning, p. 12A.

Theater Mania blog, post by Peter Filichia, August 10, 2003. (http://www.theatermania.com/new-york-city-theater/news/08-2003/taking-stock_3796.html).

Toledo Blade, June 2, 1963, section 7, p. 1, article by Ray Oviatt.

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 THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

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TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
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 HELP!!!!!!!!!!

Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.

Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from Switch, The Dick Powell Show, the Dennis Day Show (TV), the DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 

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A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.

I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  Just email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference).  Thanks.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rose Marie - 1954

Rose Marie (1954) is a delightful surprise.  It stands on the shoulders of its 1936 predecessor, whose stars Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald became icons in their roles, and soars beyond that famous cliché, ironically, by joyously and most unselfconsciously wrapping itself in the old-time conventions of operetta and melodrama.  New technology, however—CinemaScope and Technicolor—gave this version a twist and a punch in a most convenient and happy marriage of the old and the new.

Ann Blyth was 24 going on 25 when she played the title role in this musical, and one is impressed by her ability to appear so young, so naturally and effortlessly a teenager when in her teen years she often played characters who were older, or least more poised and sophisticated.  Very light, natural-looking makeup, and her loose woodsman’s buckskins covering her shape help to create this illusion, but two things she does herself complete the picture—her animated expressions which, with the innocence of youth, do not mask her emotions, but let us see every flickering thought passing through her mind, and also the way she moves.  With an animal-like ease and strength, she lives the outdoor life like someone completely at home in the woods, not stomping about in her buckskin with exaggerated mannishness like Doris Day in Calamity Jane, but hiking, climbing on rocks, and running with the grace of an athlete. 
The picture of her seeming physical change was overshadowed in the press of the day, which took greater notice, with greater surprise, at her singing voice.  This was her first big singing role after her one song in The Great Caruso, which we covered here. 

A review in the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times:

The surprise in Rose Marie is Ann Blyth’s singing voice, which is gloriously pitched, full, and strong.
The “new Ann Blyth” of the headline “New Ann Blyth Emerges in Classical Rose Marie,” (in pretty much every film she did she was always “new”), emphatically declares herself with her first song, the exhilarating “Free to Be Free".  Just like the character Rose Marie, who wants to live life in the wild without being forced into a “ladylike” life of restricted freedom in town, Ann Blyth is declaring her freedom in a way that says, “Look at me.  I can really sing.  This is my movie.”  Her range is quite demonstrably large in this song, even drifting down into the mezzo area, and her control is stunning, bang-on notes with no vibrato or trilling.  It’s a magnificent delivery and a great song to come charging out of the gate in this movie, as if to make the audience take notice—this is Rose Marie, the old chestnut you thought you knew, but didn’t.

The old chestnut, as it happens, was never produced the same way twice.  We think we know it as the template of all parodies involving a man in a Mountie’s uniform, from Dudley Do-Right to Monty Python’s male chorus in “The Lumberjack Song.”   It started as the second-longest running play of the 1920s, just behind The Student Prince, (we discussed that 1954 film last week here.)

As far as the popular parodies go, I confess, Dudley Do-Right was my first crush.  I know, he wasn’t very bright, but he exemplified honor, attention to duty, and all things respectably Canadian.  And he had that red coat.  Chick magnet.

He didn’t sing operetta, though.  Not like Mighty Mouse, who was a magnificent tenor.

I’m sorry, where was I going with this?

Court Square Theatre, Springfield, Mass., author's collection.

The Broadway play, an operetta that took its melodrama seriously, featured a boatload of songs, only a few of which survived in film versions.  The story was of Rose Marie, who loved Jim, a miner, who was accused of murdering an Indian named Black Eagle, whose girlfriend, Wanda, is the real killer.  Rose Marie is brokered off in marriage by her brother for money to marry city slicker Etienne Darcy.  Behind all this menagerie, is the stalwart Mountie, Sgt. Malone, who is on the trail of the murderer.  At one point, in a suspenseful moment to help Jim escape, Rose Marie signals him by singing the “Indian Love Call.”  Note: the love story is not between her and Sgt. Malone; it’s between her and Jim the Miner.  The Mountie sees that justice prevails, and Rose Marie is free to marry Jim and go off into the wilderness. 

Court Square Theatre, Springfield, Mass., author's collection.

The play wowed them at the Imperial Theatre from September 1924 through June 1926, and then brought back quickly by popular demand at the Century Theatre in a revival in 1927.  Hollywood, now poised to pounce on any Broadway hit, took over the property and promptly made the first of three movie versions of Rose-Marie in 1928.

A silent movie, obviously, it was released in February, six months before Ann Blyth was born, and starred an actress whom she would come to know years later—Joan Crawford.

Miss Crawford was something like 23 when she played Rose-Marie, with James Murray (so terrific in The Crowd, which we discussed here) as her lover Jim the Miner, and House Peters as the Mountie, Sgt. Malone.  There’s a nice still from the movie here at this website, Nitrateville.

Publicity photo, Joan Crawford with co-star House Peters.

Joan is quoted as having said, “I felt very uneasy as a French Canadian.”  An odd remark, considering she did not have to speak with an accent in this silent film, and considering her real name was Lucille Le Sueur.  The film is considered lost, but we can imagine the melodrama probably went over well as a favorite genre in the heyday of silents.

The second go-round for Rose Marie came in 1936, the famous matchup with Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald.  Because these two stars already walked into the story with their own strong talents and screen personalities, and because MGM wanted to build up the team, the original story was scrapped.  Rose Marie 1936 bears little resemblance to the operetta, though a few songs remain, including the now famous “Indian Love Call,” which cemented the duo’s iconic place in film because it was sung in this movie an amazing four times.  Just in case we weren’t paying attention.

In this film, there is no Jim the Miner.  Rose Marie is an opera singer, going by her stage name, Marie de Flor.  We see Jeannette performing scenes from Roméo et Juliette and Tosca just to show she can do it.  

Her brother, John, is in trouble, on the lam in the Canadian wilderness, from murdering a cop.  He is strikingly played by a young James Stewart, who conveys the young man’s restlessness and pitiable scamp’s charm, and his ultimate hopeless future with great sympathy. 

Jeannette leaves the glittering opera house of Montreal, heads for the big woods, and hires a guide to take her to her brother.  She does not even attempt a French accent; she leaves that to her maid, played by the wonderful Una O’Connor.

Instead of a turn-of-the-century melodrama, we get a modern 1930s romantic comedy, admirable for the magnetism of its stars and its fast-paced plot.  Nelson Eddy is the Mountie, here called Sgt. Bruce, hunting her brother, and the race is on as to who will get to him first, Jeannette or Nelson.  From the moment they meet, Nelson is after her, too, and we know they will end up a romantic couple. 

Jeannette, playing a spoiled diva, has a great comedic scene when she tries to emulate a saloon torch singer, competing with her, unsuccessfully, to earn coins thrown at her from an inattentive audience. 

Nelson sings the title song “Rose Marie” to her in a canoe, while she slowly unbends her opinion that she hates all men.  The climax occurs when she finds her brother, but so does Nelson, and takes him in. 

The film is well done, with plenty of natural scenery (not filmed in Canada), but uses its share of rear-screen projection as well—particularly noticeable when Nelson Eddy rides in front of a troop of Mounties singing in his heroic baritone, “The Mounties.”  But it’s just him.

This movie, because it cemented the Eddy-MacDonald team and because of those four separate unrepentant blasts of “Indian Love Call,” rose above the quaint operetta on which it was based and took on a life of its own.

The Rose Marie of 1954, playfully, and with equal dash, revisits the old operetta with unabashed admiration and humor.  It is more leisurely-paced, and with its magnificent scenery (including location shooting in Alberta), glorious singing, CinemaScope and Technicolor, invites us to enjoy the marvels of technology on this very old-fashioned story.
Ann Blyth is Rose Marie Lemaitre, all alone in the world after the death of her trapper father.  Miss Blyth apparently had no qualms about playing a French Canadian, as her delightful accent is spot-on.  She has no qualms, either, about being alone in the world, for when the Mountie first encounters her, she is placidly fishing from a canoe, contentedly doing for herself, and wants no outside help.

The Mountie, Sgt. Malone, is Howard Keel, resplendent in that red coat enough to make me almost desert Dudley Do-Right.  He sings "The Mounties" while riding ahead of his troop of men, not rear screen projection.  He has the job of taking her out of the wilderness, (which as he tells in song is no place for girl) and bring her into protective custody. 
She is unwilling, even frightened to go with him, like an animal panicked at the sight of a cage.  She gets away, and he tracks her down, finding her cuddled up like a bear cub in sleep, but when he disturbs her, she attacks him with a knife.  At the first opportunity, she bites him.

Someday I'm going to have to tell you my coonskin cap story.  When I feel I know you better.

We may note that she runs like an athlete, not like Jeannette MacDonald, who runs through the woods like a sissy. 

Sgt. Howard Keel catches her again.  Have a look at this image of him holding her, one-armed, from his horse, dangling her like a rag doll.  An indignant, frustrated rag doll.  Do you see any bit of the slick sociopath Veda Pierce here?  Any bit of haughty, conniving fashion plate Regina Hubbard, the graceful elegance of the Countess Marina?  The poised, demure high school graduate Gail Macaulay?
Few of Ann Blyth’s contemporaries were as versatile.  I love her little groan, equal parts despair and discomfort, when he hoists her into the saddle after she capitulates.

Howard Keel at first was not happy with the Mountie’s role in this film, finding him too weak and ineffectual…perhaps like Dudley Do-Right…but his requested changes to the script were made and he signed on, noting in his autobiography, Only Make Believe, that it was a fun shoot.

I didn’t sing with Ann Blyth, but she was a delightful cutie and sang beautifully.
They did not sing “Indian Love Call” together because in the original story, that song was for Rose Marie and Jim the Miner.  Here, he’s Jim the Trapper Who Wants to Also Pan for Gold, played by Fernando Lamas.  One of the film’s particular pleasures is giving us not one, but two baritones, who are rivals for the hand of Rose Marie, adding a bit more tension to the plot. 
Mr. Lamas, in deference to his impossible-to-disguise Argentine accent, is also supposed to be French Canadian.  Only to a Hollywood producer would this be logical.  He sounds about as French as the Mountie, but if you can overlook the Spanish accent coming out of his mouth, Fernando presents as a brooding, handsome mystery, who fascinates Rose Marie from the moment she meets him.  It will be a coming of age story as she struggles with her feelings for the two men.

You might stumble on some spoilers as we go. 

Bert Lahr is the comedy relief as the bumbling corporal.  When she is first brought into custody at the fort, Ann pleas with Bert, “You let go me, yes?”

“If I let go you, they let go me, and on a clear day I can see my pension.”  She bites him.
Ray Collins, one of my favorite stuffed shirts, here plays the inspector in charge.  By the time he visits, Ann has become docile, changed from her buckskin to a cut-down and tailored Mountie’s uniform as the post mascot.  Inspector Collins inspects the troops, berates the men for not shaving properly, and is pleased with the little Mountie who has no five o’clock shadow.  After a beat, the penny drops and he realizes it’s because she has a hormonal advantage.
“She’s a woman!” he blasts Howard Keel, who suddenly realizes that fact as well, now that it’s been pointed out to him.  He thinks of her as just a kid.  Collins wants to send her away, to his cousin, Marjorie Main, in town.  If the wilderness is no place for a woman, neither is the police constabulary.  Poor Rose Marie, just when she begins to adapt, she’s got no right to be here either.
There are several laugh-out-loud moments in the film, as everyone, not just Bert Lahr, gets to play for laughs.  One of the particular charms of Ann Blyth’s character is her quality of being quite innocently unselfconscious.  Mountie Howard tells her she is interesting to men, and she agrees, "You're right.  I am interesting."  He tells her she is beautiful, she beams at the coincidence, "I think so too."  She greets the inspector with enthusiasm, telling him about the horse Howard Keel taught her to ride.

“A fine horse, Monsieur.  Old, but still alive.  Like you, Monsieur.”  She deals with the ups and downs of life with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. 

But she does not want to go to town and leave the post, so she runs away.  Howard catches up, and instead of handcuffing her, explains that she will enjoy growing up and being attractive to men in the song “Rose Marie.”  By the song’s end, she is intrigued and wants to give it a try, and he is astonished to realize his own attraction for her.
Interesting how this scene is filmed.  First, it is an outdoor shot.  Rose Marie is furious that the inspector, “the man with the face” wants to send her away.  Her rant is hysterical.

“…the man with the face.  Oh, Mike, I hate this man most happily.”

“Well, what do you aim to do about it?”

“Kill him.”

“Kill him?”

“Sure.  It’s easy.  I show him how I shoot the hat at fifty paces, but I do not shoot the hat, I shoot the face.  Voilà.”
She leans against the trunk of a tree.  When she pushes herself off of it, she steps into what is a studio soundstage wilderness, but it is so imperceptible you don’t notice it unless you obsess over frames like me.  Howard sings his song, Ann steps back to the tree, leans her bottom against it, and we are back outside again.
This was the first musical ever to be filmed in CinemaScope, and it’s amazing how fluid the scenes are and how the shots vary.  In later musicals, including The Student Prince, Kismet, really most of the late 1950s musicals that were filmed in CinemaScope, the shots seem almost static.  In some cases, you see the characters wrenched into a kind of kick-line to fill up the horizontal space, and often the glaring far left and far right are empty.
Rose Marie has a vibrancy to its set-ups that makes use not only of the grandeur of the scenery just made for widescreen, but is used most effectively in indoor shots as well.  Over the shoulder shots, composition that makes use of the widescreen qualities, but does not scream CinemaScope gimmick.

In town, Ann is taken under the wing of Marjorie Main, a blustering saloon keeper who’s sweet on Bert Lahr.  She’s got a motherly streak, and she teaches Ann to be a lady.  Ann recalled for Classic Images in 1995:

I think a lot of people don’t remember that Marjorie was really a marvelous dramatic actress.  She did some marvelous stage work, and, of course, a few roles like that in pictures as well…As funny as she could be, she could break your heart as well.
In these shots of Ann’s bedroom above the saloon the director makes use of the mirrors on either side and the window to open the space up for CinemaScope.  You can see Jim riding up through the open window.
In this series of shots, Jim sings of his love to her from the half-door of a trapper’s bunkhouse behind the stable.  The camera pulls back, reveals the top of a pine tree, and then embraces the second-story balcony where Rose Marie sings in response.
Before this, they have sung the famous “Indian Love Call” with a frank loveliness that seems to dare the audience, and snarky reviewers, to compare them with Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald.  Ann holds the last note for around nine or ten seconds, but that’s not her record. She could hold the end of “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” from Kismet for a full nineteen.

“I can still do it,” she told interviewer Brian Kellow for Opera News in 2002.

Here is the “Indian Love Call.”



Love with devil-may-care Jim does not run smooth, however.  He is, by his own admission, “not the marrying kind.”  This is what he tells Wanda, the Indian maid whose jealousy will drive her to attempt to murder Jim/Fernando, fail, and then kill the Indian chief when he beats her for chasing after Jim.  Jim gets stuck with the rap, and, just as in the play, Rose Marie, tearing up, sings the “Indian Love Call” in reprise to signal to him that she does not love him, to make him leave and not wait for her so Howard Keel will not catch him.
In the middle of all this is a typically garish Busby Berkeley-choreographed number that is mesmerizing for its bizarre sexuality and plot pointlessness.  Wanda, played by Joan Taylor, who appears to be the only woman in the Indian village, takes part in some sort of fertility dance with a zillion braves.  Wanda sees Ann and Fernando watching, perceives they love each other, and you can’t help but be heartbroken for Wanda.

The 1936 Rose Marie includes the play’s original “Totem Tom-Tom” number in a much more natural style and setting, looking for all like a real tribal celebration, and it is more dramatic and moving for being so.  I’m not sure why the Busby Berkeley number, except that there is no big musical dance scene in this movie, apart from the charity dance at the saloon.  Maybe producer and director Mervyn LeRoy, whose work in this movie is otherwise very effective, fell back on the Big MGM Musical template and decided this weirdness was needed.  It is colorful, certainly, and eye catching, if a little stupefying.
The Mountie does catch his man, and Fernando is going to be hung, but Howard, stunned at Ann’s confession that she loves Fernando (Howard had earlier proposed to her), decides to sift through the evidence one more time and saves the day.  When Fernando is released, Ann, in gratitude, tells Howard she will marry him and do whatever he wants.  Howard wants her to put her buckskin clothes back on, and take a ride with him out of town.  When they are out in the woods, despite his earlier position that girls do not belong in the wild, he tells her that she was meant to be free and to live in the wilderness.  He sends her off with Fernando.  It is just the noble thing you’d expect a Mountie to do.
We could also marvel that not only is he telling her she is no less feminine for wearing buckskin and living a rugged life, but there is no suggestion that she and Fernando are going to rouse a justice of the peace in the middle of the night to marry them.  They’re just going off together in the wilderness in a bittersweet ending.  We cannot help but wonder how they will fare.  Will Jim be faithful to Rose Marie?  Will the Mountie ever find another girl to love him?  This is what happens when you stop thinking about the stars, when the stars are skillful enough to allow you to do that.
The principal players generally received good reviews, though most reviewers dismissed the story as an antique.

There would be few opportunities ever again to present operetta on screen, and even popular musicals were on the wane.  Ann Blyth was newly married when Rose Marie was being filmed.  We can imagine it was a period of both personal and professional happiness.  Her wedding was, like many celebrity weddings, called The Wedding of the Year when it occurred in 1953, which we mentioned in this previous post, but except for that occasion, she managed to live so quietly that few took notice.

Hedda Hopper noted of Rose Marie in June 1954:

Ann just goes her own sweet way, making little fuss and fewer headlines.  Then, when you least expect it, she comes through with a Sunday punch and you find yourself blinking and asking, “Was that Ann Blyth?”
Come back next Thursday, when we have a chance to say, “Was that Ann Blyth?” again, and again, in three decades of musical theatre performances from the 1960s to the 1980s.  Until then, here’s the trailer for Rose Marie:


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Classic Images, February 1995, “Ann of a Thousand Smiles” by Lance Erickson Ghulam, p. 20.

Hartford Courant Magazine, June 6, 1954, article by Hedda Hopper, p. 10.

Keel, Howard, with Joyce Spizer.  Only Make Believe – My Life in Show Business (Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2005) pp. 156-157.

Opera News, August 2002, article by Brian Kellow.

St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, March 22, 1954, “New Ann Blyth Emerges in Classical Rose Marie,” review by L.B., p. 34.
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THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

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TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
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 HELP!!!!!!!!!!

Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.

Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from Switch, The Dick Powell Show, the Dennis Day Show (TV), the DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 

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A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.
I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  Just email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference).  Thanks.