The I Don’t Care Girl
(1953) is a biography of the vaudeville star Eva Tanguay, and like a lot of
movie “biographies” of the era, it falls short of actually telling the facts. It actually falls short of being remotely connected
to the life of Eva Tanguay at all.
Mitzi Gaynor stars, and among the greatest differences
between Miss Gaynor and Miss Tanguay is that Miss Gaynor was actually quite
talented. Unlike Eva Tanguay, Gaynor
could sing and dance – was a particularly graceful dancer. While the movie has its entertaining moments,
it would have been more interesting to have a film about Eva that was closer to
the mark in her personality, abilities, and real-life experiences, not to
mention all the vaudeville greats who crossed paths with her.
In her day, Eva was a superstar, the highest-paid
performer in vaudeville. Born in Canada,
she spent her early childhood in Holyoke, Massachusetts. This is my neck of the woods, so I grew up
hearing about the name and fame of Eva, even though those heady days of
vaudeville occurred decades before I was born.
Her debut took place in 1886 at a local amateur night contest at eight
years old, where she won a dollar.
Decades later, a more down-and-out Eva made some of
her last performances back in her hometown of Holyoke – which is described in
my book Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain: 70 Years of Summer Theatre on
Mt. Tom, Holyoke, Massachusetts. I’ll
be giving a talk on this book next week in my area.
In between her start and her ending was a career that
might astonish us today. The best
description I can find is here in the excellent book by Trav S. D., No Applause—Just Throw Money:
Billed as an “eccentric comedienne,” her act, at
its heart, was that she was nuts. A bad
singer and a graceless dancer, with hair like a rat’s nest, the homely,
overweight Tanguay would put on outrageous outfits, sing provocative, self-involved
songs commissioned especially for her and fling herself around on stage in a
suggestive manner. She was looked upon
as a curiosity, like the “wild man” in a circus sideshow, evincing the same sort
of appeal that Janis Joplin and Tina Turner later had in the rock era…But her
racier numbers were deemed acceptable because her act was not really reducible
to sex. She was just…crazy.
From my book, Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain:
“Miss Tanguay reportedly choked a fellow chorus girl to
unconsciousness when that woman criticized her performance, and knocked another
fellow performer’s head into a brick wall.
Noticing that scandal brought headlines, which brought more people to
the theater to see her, Tanguay started creating controversy, including
marriages, to keep her name in the headlines.
If that weren’t enough, she billed herself professionally as The Girl
Who Made Vaudeville Famous. It must have
worked. She drew the top salary in the
business, at $3,500 per week.”
“I Don’t Care” was her signature song, and the movie of the
same name does have one scene of Mitzi Gaynor performing this number where she
does seem to channel a wee bit of Eva’s maniacal energy—shrieking and kicking,
and climbing up the proscenium to the box and into the audience, which was
always astounded, pleased, and waiting to see what on earth would happen next.
Most of the rest of the film seems to be an attempt to grasp
at straws at Eva’s career, and with a oh, let's just make it up shrug of the shoulders that Eva
herself might appreciate.
The film begins with George Jessel playing himself, a producer
at 20th Century-Fox planning a movie on the life of Eva Tanguay, and
sending underlings to look for performers who might have worked with her to ferret
out her life story.
David Wayne plays a vaudevillian who takes Eva on as a young
partner. We being a series of flashback
scenes to the good old days, but later are told David Wayne’s memories are false,
exaggerated, and Jessel is no nearer the truth to uncovering Eva’s story.
Oscar Levant and Bob Graham play a battling vaudeville team,
always arguing and stealing girlfriends from one another, but Mr. Graham wins
out here as the love of Eva’s life. They
have a rocky romance: he is already married,
has a roving eye, and she is insanely jealous.
A few scenes of Mitzi Gaynor throwing stuff is meant to suggest Eva’s
powerful impulse to pummel.
The movie concludes with a reunion over a World War I misunderstanding,
and a bizarre reappearance of George Jessel breaking the fourth wall backstage
telling the audience, “I just wanted to see how it finished.”
Along the way we have several musical numbers. They are a mélange of ballet, jazz, bee-bop,
showing Mitzi Gaynor as graceful and athletic, but there is a surreal quality
to them that, except for the fact that they are stunning visuals, are really
kind of pointless to an already nonsensical plot. Oscar Levant has some interminable, if
well-executed, piano solos.
Eva Tanguay died in 1947, six years before this film was
made, and it was perhaps inevitable that Hollywood would pay tribute to a once
well-known entertainer. Instead of the extravaganza
it was hyped to be, the movie really just goes through the motions, and very
few of those motions are Eva’s.
You can see The I Don’t Care Girl currently on YouTube.
Trav S.D. No
Applause—Just Throw Money—The Book that Made Vaudeville Famous (NY: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2005) p. 199
Lynch, Jacqueline T. Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain: 70 Years
of Summer Theatre on Mt. Tom, Holyoke, Massachusetts (Chicopee, Mass.:
Jacqueline T. Lynch, 2017) p.18.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Movies in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century and Hollywood Fights Fascism. Her latest book is Christmas in Classic Films. TO JOIN HER READERS' GROUP - follow this link for a free book as a thank-you for joining.