Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Best Things in Life are Free - 1956

The Best Thingsin Life are Free (1956) is a delightful entry in the "musicals about composers" genre, presenting an array of Broadway tunes from the team of Buddy DeSilva, Ray Henderson, and Lew Brown. What I particularly like about this movie is it illustrates (probably inadvertently) the enormous impact of Broadway in the 1920s on American pop music.

In this era, Broadway brought us the tunes on the radio, tunes played by the dance bands, and records played on the Victrola. These three gentlemen were responsible for much of that – as the prologue tells us – “for seven years they were the hit songs of the nation.”

Songs like “Button Up Your Overcoat;” “This is My Lucky Day;” “Good News;” “Black Bottom;” and, of course, “The Best Things in Life are Free.” Gordon MacRae and Ernest Borgnine play the team of Buddy DeSilva and Lew Brown. They are polar opposites – MacRae is charming, ambitious, and Borgnine is the sour, grumpy, hot-headed pessimist – but with the secret heart of gold. Though MacRae is the more pleasant fellow, he will prove to look out more for himself and less for the needs of his partners.

Dan Dailey joins the boys as their third partner – and affable family man who works several jobs to support his wife and kids, and who wants a career in popular music composing. Sheree North is a chorine in their latest show, and she’s also Dan Dailey’s sister-in-law.  She is part cheerleader and part mascot of the group.

Through the course of the 1920s the boys turn out a string of hits and their fame grows on Broadway. Happily, the songs are presented in their entirety and not just a fast blur of montage clips.  Eventually, of course, Hollywood calls, and this will bring out the breakup of the group as MacRae yearns to strike out on his own for greener pastures and leaves his pals behind (DeSilva founded Capitol Records). Sheree North is stuck on Gordon, but he is less attentive and she gets the message, sensibly keeping herself at a safe distance from any more hurt. Ultimately, the crew reunites in an effort to start all over again – and though that is a pleasant end to the film, there perhaps could have been more, like some portent that these were the last golden days on Broadway in the late 1920s – the Depression would bring an end to the party on the great White Way.

Sheree North is a terrific dancer, but her singing is dubbed by Eileen Wilson.  Some of the dance numbers are quite daringly surrealistic and erotic.  Dan Dailey adds much to the story as the linchpin to MacRae and Borgnine, but it is not one of his song and dance man roles. He’s mostly sitting behind the piano.

Gordon MacRae is one of my favorites; that rich, baritone voice is fantastic. For Gordon MacRae fans, check out his performances on radio’s The Railroad Hour which are available for download on the Internet Archive – it’s in public domain – for probably the best examples of his marvelous singing voice. The productions are very challenging condensed operettas and musical stage shows, with some terrific guest stars. One of my favorites is his rendition of Brigadoon costarring Jane Powell.

Ernest Borgnine is a pleasing surprise in this movie. The gruff palooka with the heart of gold is stuck on Sheree North.  It’s a disappointment they didn’t end up with each other, as he proves to be a quite gentle family man underneath it all, visiting Dan Dailey’s family for a taste of home life.

But Ernie loses the girl to Gordon MacRae. No surprise, with the way old movies run, and perhaps he is no Gordon MacRae in his singing either, but I got a huge kick out of listening to him sing. His range is very limited, but the tone of his voice kept purposely at a soft register reminds me a little of Nat King Cole’s style. Ernie can actually harmonize.

John O’Hara wrote the script and the wonderful Michael Curtiz directs, so as far as musicals about musical composers go, this one has quality. All the numbers are performed in the setting of stage numbers so moving from one song to the next is quite natural. And they are great tunes. An amusing segment is when the boys are asked by Al Jolson to write a song especially for him, and as a practical joke they come up with what they think is the worst song imaginable with the stupidest lyrics – “Sonny Boy.” They laugh their heads off as they write it.  And what do you know? Jolson loves it, puts it in his act, and it became the huge hit that those of us who are familiar with the American songbook recall.

Come back next Thursday for I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1947), the story of Joe Howard, starring Mark Stevens and June Haver.

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.


Caftan Woman said...

LOVE the Sonny Boy bit. You should never underestimate Al Jolson or overestimate the public.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Too true, CW.

Vienna said...

Terrific musical - and not from MGM! Their songs are just so good. Loved 'The Birth of the Blues' number. Borgnine must have had a ball, playing a part so different from his usual roles.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Vienna! He did look like he was having fun; they all did. The music was great.

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