IMPEACH TRUMP.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Top O' the Morning - 1949


“Top O' the Morning” (1949) is yet another example of how much the Irish love to parody themselves, or more specifically as in the case of this Hollywood-made movie, how much Irish Americans love to parody the Irish.  Only the real Irish in Ireland know the truth behind the silliness, and are usually quite forgiving of the Irish American cousins for believing their own fantasies about Ireland.  I suppose it’s too hard-hearted slap down someone who idolizes you so much.
This is our tribute to upcoming St. Patrick’s Day and Ann Blyth’s affinity for her Irish ancestry.
The movie is a comedy, a mystery, and a love story, but a partnership not always so much between leads Bing Crosby and Ann Blyth, as between Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, and a love between the Irish Americans with Ireland. 
The story is a cute idea.  The famed Blarney Stone in Blarney Castle has been stolen, and Bing Crosby, an American insurance investigator—nothing like the hard-edged Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity (1944)—is on the case.  However, like, Fred MacMurray in that same movie, Bing does take to relating his impressions into a Dictaphone.  More of our (okay, MY) fascination with recording devices in movies in this previous post.
Barry Fitzgerald plays the village constable.  His re-match with Bing Crosby, a partnership that first brought success to both of them in Going My Way (1945), is the focus of the film.  Mr. Fitzgerald is a crusty, pompous codger, has no idea how truly innocent he is, and holds the reigns of authority in this village only in his own mind.  The villagers, even his own daughter, acknowledge that he is not taken seriously and that solving the crime of the stolen Blarney Stone might finally get him the respect he craves. 
Hume Cronyn is his assistant, delightfully played with  excitable hero-worship of his superior, but as the plot progresses, we see that Mr. Cronyn has more going on under the surface.  “All the excitement!  It’s a pity Ireland doesn’t have more to steal.”
Eileen Crowe, who, like, Barry Fitzgerald was a product of Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre, plays Biddy, a village crone with great wit and wisdom.  She’s the go-to gal for legends, premonitions, and curses.  I love her observation: “It does little good to put a curse on Americans.  They don’t seem to know the difference.”
It’s odd to think the actress playing the old woman is actually only 51 years old in real life.
John McIntire has a small role as the district police superior to Barry Fitzgerald, a much smarter, no-nonsense guy to who works with Bing Crosby to solve the crime.  Mr. McIntire will come back to us next month when we cover Sally and St. Anne (1952) in a wonderfully comic role, quite different from his normal fare of tough guy supporting players.  We’ll meet him again a few times later this year in other Ann Blyth films, and especially next week when we join Ann for a ride on McIntire’s Wagon Train.
Look for Mary Field as a chambermaid, who gets to sing a line or two with Bing.  We last saw her here as the hilarious saleslady selling bikinis to William Powell in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948).
Ann Blyth plays the daughter of Barry Fitzgerald.  She keeps house, feeds Da porridge for breakfast, and keeps track of how many times she has been kissed in her life.  She longs for her true romance, and falls for Bing Crosby, but though certainly none of Crosby’s movie romances were terribly romantic—he tends to coast through these roles without much fire, she gives us the perfect dream-image of a lovely and spirited Irish lass. 

She gets to sing a duet with Bing, but apart from that and a line in the crowd number, the foot-stomping “The Donovans,” that’s all we get to hear.  Bing gets most of the songs.  It was Bing’s production company that made the film, distributed through Paramount.
Reportedly, his first choice for the female lead was Deanna Durbin, but she turned down the offer, planning her final escape from Hollywood and a life of happy retirement.  There were several career connections or coincidences between Deanna Durbin and Ann Blyth.  Ann was discovered while touring in Watch on the Rhine, discussed in this intro post, by Universal director Henry Koster, who made several films with Deanna Durbin and may have seen something in Ann to remind him of her.  Ironically, despite having brought her to Universal, he never directed a film with Ann Blyth.
There may have been, in the beginning of Ann’s film career, a tendency to regard her as “the other” Deanna Durbin.  A syndicated article by Harold Cohen when she was signed to Universal in December 1942 noted, "Pretty little Ann Blyth of Watch on the Rhine may be Universal's new Deanna Durbin...although she doesn't sing in the play, she has a lovely voice..."  Because of her first four light musicals, she may have been groomed to be a second-string Deanna Durbin (even as, when she arrived at MGM, Ann may have been considered a second-string Kathryn Grayson).  If, indeed, in both cases she was regarded as a spare soprano, it may explain in part why Ann had such difficulty getting the prime musical roles she desired.  We'll talk about her MGM musicals down the road.
I find it odd that, since she was so adept at drama, but was also a trained singer, the studios for which she worked did not find a way to slip in a song or two in more of her non-musical films.  For instance, in something like I’ll Never Forget You (1951), which we discussed here (and will discuss again later in the year), it would seem like a natural fit to have this actress with her trained singing voice at a pianoforte performing an air from the historical period of this time-travel piece.  Anytime you see a dramatization of, say, a Jane Austen novel, there’s always going to be a woman banging out a tune on a pianoforte and singing.
I would compare Ann to Irene Dunne, who was also adept at drama and comedy.  But Miss Dunne sang often in her films, even those not considered musicals.  Consider Love Affair (1939), which we discussed here.
Irene gets that wonderful moment where she plays and sings “Plasir d’Amour.”  Life with Father (1947), discussed here, gives us the lovely duet with William Powell on “Sweet Marie”. 
You can better believe that if Irene Dunne were in a movie that was staged entirely in a broom closet, they’d find some way of stuffing a piano in there too.
But though Ann Blyth’s versatility as an actress was celebrated in the press in these early years of her career, her singing talent seemed under-utilized.  She should have gotten more singing time in Top 'O the Morning.  She should have gotten more singing time in lots of movies.
Bing is a nice guy in this movie; he’s always a nice guy, which makes his first song “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”, sung to a little girl when he’s getting his passport photo taken for the trip to Ireland, slow and unnecessary.  We already know his character.  It’s the one he usually plays.  It is a wasted opportunity for him not to be singing it to, or with, Ann Blyth, as he does in this clip here.


This clip, performed on the set of Top O' the Morning was actually filmed for Family Theater, a Catholic media production as a program promotion.  It’s a shame the duet doesn’t appear in the movie, but it’s nice that it was preserved on film anyway.  She’d get to sing "Toora Loora" on TV’s Ford Startime with Art Linkletter in a variety episode called “The Secret World of Kids”, broadcast October 27, 1959.
In September of this year, 1949, (a month after Top O' the Morning was released) Ann would appear with Bing on the Lux Radio Theater in “The Emperor Waltz”, but here, too, he gets the lion’s share of the songs as the happy-go-lucky phonograph salesman pitching his wares to Ann’s stuffy duchess in turn-of-the century middle Europe.
Top O' the Morning is a sweet, pleasant movie, but critics’ chief complaint seemed to be the ersatz feel of Paramount soundstage  rather than the rustic Irish landscapes, and vigorous if equally-self parodying dialogue, we would be treated to later in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952).  To be sure, we do have a requisite shot of Blarney Castle slipped in, but for the most part, it’s a Hollywood version of Ireland.
Barry Fitzgerald’s humble cottage, when we visit for a party, suddenly seems as large as a Costco inside to accommodate all the dancers.  Ann gets to jig a wee bit, and in “The Donovans” number, young Jimmy Hart, a boy who figures prominently in the plot, starts to sing a verse with what we may presume to be a Guinness in his hand when he is promptly slapped in the head by Barry Fitzgerald.  A favorite moment of mine, as a little slapstick is suitable to almost any occasion.
Another cute scene where Ann, trying to find clues to verify an old legend with which Bing is unaware he has a major role, keeps sneaking peeks into the different pockets of his coat while they are dancing.  He gives her a “what a weirdo” look, and wonders if she’s a closet pickpocket.

The climax of the film, quite unexpectedly, has a more serious, even sinister tone, as the mystery is solved and the real thief of the Blarney Stone is discovered, the thief also having committed murder.  For some critics, this was too drastic a change in mood from lighthearted to sinister, but I like it.  A little Celtic noir.  A little slapstick.  A little romance.  A little porridge.  Did not G.K. Chesterton make the mercurial Celtic nature most plain when he wrote:

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.

There is a happy ending—especially for the insurance company.  Now they won’t have to pay out.
Ann Blyth’s Irish accent in this film, we may presume, came without much difficulty.  As mentioned in our intro post here, Ann’s mother was originally from Dublin (a Lynch girl, which automatically makes her swell), and Ann grew up hearing the accent at home, as well from the aunts and uncles who emigrated along with her mother to the US, including the aunt and uncle with whom she made her home after the death of her mother.  According to one reporter for The Milwaukee Journal, that aunt, Mrs. Catherine Tobin, “…has a brogue so thick that she is sometimes difficult to understand.”
This movie is embroidered with a lingo of enthusiastic superlatives: “I tracked him gallantly.”  “That’s a gigantic reply."
That autumn of 1949, Ann was planning her first trip to Ireland with her aunt and uncle, hoping for a break in her film schedule the following year.

Ann Blyth strongly identified with her Irish ancestry and her mother’s birth country.  She had several aunts, uncles, and cousins still living there, and it must have been a deeply emotional moment when she visited her late mother’s hometown of Dublin for the first time.
St. Patrick’s Day 1950 kicked off her Irish year when The Ancient Order of Hibernians in Los Angeles named her the year’s outstanding Irish screen or radio performer, presenting her with a statuette at their St. Patrick’s Day Ball.
Columnist Sheilah Graham noted after Ann’s return from the Auld Sod, “Ann Blyth is dreamy-eyed when she talks of meeting a ‘Hundred of my relatives in Ireland.  I had my own claque when I appeared at the Royal Theater in Dublin.’"
Louella Parsons wrote, “She had a wonderful summer there with her aunt and uncle and all their many friends...“‘Ireland is even nicer than I ever dreamed it could be,’ Ann said…‘And how willing they are to go out of their way to make you happy.  And those people are so contented with so little.’”
Top O' the Morning got the Lux Radio Theater treatment on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1952, with Barry Fitzgerald and Ann Blyth reprising their roles.  You can have a listen here, scroll down to the episode.  In Bing Crosby’s shoes this time is singer/comedian and Jack Benny sidekick, Dennis Day.  Mr. Day would figure prominently in Ann’s future.  His younger brother, James McNulty, would become Ann’s husband the following year in 1953.  Both she and her husband would make cameo appearances on Dennis Day’s TV show in the 1950s, and Ann would join her brother-in-law in concert in distant future.  More on that later.
Ann celebrated another St. Patrick’s Day, in 1959, with her husband at the White House where President Dwight D. Eisenhower invited her to sing for the visiting President of Ireland, Sean O’Kelly.

Have a look at Laura's take on Top O' the Morning here at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day to those who celebrate it.  Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh.
May the road rise with you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And the rain fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
   may God hold you
   in the palm of His hand.
Here's "The Donovans" number currently playing on YouTube:

Come back next Thursday when we join Ann as an ornery saloon gal, Dick York as stumblebum bank robber, John McIntire as the unluckiest wagon master in the west, and a little boy with an ugly disposition in a comic episode of TV’s Wagon Train  from 1961 called "The Clementine Jones Story."  It's part of the Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon hosted by Aurora over at How Sweet It Was.

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Milwaukee Journal, November 2, 1949, p. 1.
Milwaukee Sentinel, syndicated article by Louella Parsons, March 13, 1959, part 2, p. 2.
Paley Center for the Media website.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 3, 1942, syndicated article by Harold V. Cohen, p. 22.
Spokane Daily Chronicle, March 10, 1950, p. 20
The Spokesman-Review, syndicated article by Sheilah Graham, August 20, 1951, p. 5
St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press, syndicated article by Louella Parsons, December 16, 1951, p. 4D.

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UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood





Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.


The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com and I'll get back to you with the details.

6 comments:

Caftan Woman said...

"...a little slapstick is suitable to almost any occasion." Truly, words to live by, me gal.

Happy St. Patrick's Day.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

And yerself, Missus.

vienna said...

Loved your comment about the broom closet and sneaking a piano in for Irene Dunne.
I do agree we should have heard Ann's lovely voice oftener.
Can't say this film appeals to me but maybe I should give it a chance.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Vienna, I think perhaps Irene would have insisted.

I am surprised the directors and producers under whom Ann Blyth worked did not utilize the whole fabulous package more often.

Laura said...

I enjoyed revisiting this film via your post and reading about it in the context of Ann's career...and her visit to Ireland!

Thanks so much for including the link to my site, too!

Happy St. Patrick's Day,
Laura

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

You're welcome, Laura -- or perhaps I should say Cead Mille Failte. Thanks for stopping by.