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Stars Betty Grable, Dan Dailey, Mona Freeman, Connie Marshall.
For the big-screen mogul who most immortalized the casting couch, Darryl Zanuck certainly made more than his share of movies that promoted family values back when he was running 20th Century-Fox (and about as skillfully as anyone ever held reign at a studio). There was also an unofficial Fox sub-genre in play just after World War II: the family values movie against a vaudevillian backdrop. Or, maybe it just seemed that way because Zanuck had Dan Dailey under contract as a dependably ingratiating song-and-dance man with a wiseacre streak, though the actor did eventually find a way to get cast in three non-musicals directed by John Ford, who didn’t have much of a track record with hoofers.
All this, however (or at least the Dailey part), may be burying the lead. Mother Wore Tights is foremost a Betty Grable vehicle: the most popular movie she ever made; her own career favorite; and the top box office performer of 1947, a movie year that also gave us Black Narcissus, Out of the Past, Monsieur Verdoux and me. If you have a taste for Fox musicals (which lacked the artistic dimensions of their MGM counterparts), this one has about everything: great Grable-Dailey chemistry; two standout supporting performances; and two songs that became major Billboard hits (“You Do” is my favorite Dinah Shore recording — ever).
We even get, in one scene, the hysterically funny hand puppeteer Señor Wences when he still could be called relatively young, given hat he (and presumably his hand) lived to be 103. This should be enough, but apparently no expense was spared. The same setpiece that serves up the Señor further gives us maybe 15 or 20 seconds of the the indescribable Banana Man — who, as singular performers in history go, is right up here with Carmen Miranda, Liberace and Wences himself. Actually, there were two Banana Men, with the second taking over from his deceased predecessor and then making occasional guest shots on “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Ed’s remaining groupies can just hear it: “Next week on our beeg shew: Margot Fonteyn, Bo Diddley, Sam Snead with golf tips, The Pride of Kobe Kabuki Dancers, John Dillinger and, for all you kids, The Banana Man.”)
How did I get going on all this?
MWT was based on a memoir about her performer parents by Miriam Young, an eventual younger daughter portrayed here by Connie Marshall, an appealing postwar child actress (her sad eyes, when employed, were almost in the Peggy Ann Garner league) before her permanent disappearance from the screen. It tells of how a determined business school grad from Oakland (Grable) meets a sometimes brash on-the-road vaudevillian (Dailey) during a local engagement and becomes his partner before the two eventually marry after a lot of bumps and grinds, by which we mean the emotional kind. Which is to say that theirs is a clean act without any burlesque baggage. Later in the movie, the two seem to be living unambiguously well with a nice house, ample travel/hotel funds and the ability to pay what would seem to be not insignificant tuition for their two daughters to attend a posh girls’ school.
Until its last third or so, the movie doesn’t stray too far out of the usual blueprint for this era’s backstage musicals (and Warner Bros. made as many of them as Fox). But it was a significant stroke of fortune to cast Dailey in this plum role after a four-year screen layoff during the war, especially when he hadn’t been more than a supporting player or the lead in what were basically glorified B’s in the first place. (When Dailey shows up as a Nazi in 1940’s The Mortal Storm, he momentarily stops one of my favorite Frank Borzage achievements.)
He and Grable ended up becoming a popular musical team and made three more pictures together at Fox until even MGM musicals started to fade in popularity, a reality that accelerated Grable’s big-screen retirement in 1955. And, matter of fact, the movie that pretty well ended these vaudevillian sagas was Zanuck’s all-star Christmas-of-’54 extravaganza There’s No Business Like Show Business, which seriously underperformed when compared with the season’s competing Irving Berlin musical: Paramount’s White Christmas. Dailey was one of Business’s stars, and the picture has always been among my guilty pleasures — though in reality, I rarely feel guilty about pleasure of any kind at the movies. Besides, Business exploited a fresh approach to family values: having your son grow up to date Marilyn Monroe.
Further nudging MTW out of Boilerplate Hell is its venture into class warfare (or at least a good skirmish) in its final third. That’s when the couple’s other and elder daughter (Mona Freeman) starts to worry about suffering social ostracism due to her parents’ profession — by her peers at school, at a perceived-to-be uppity summer resort and with the upper-class family of a boy who’s captured her eye. One gets the sense that the entire movie (and probably the source book) is mighty rose-colored in its remembrances, but the moment where a horrified Marshall chides Freeman about her older sister’s feelings is a genuine one. Watching Freeman here — and having recently seen Martin Scorsese favorite That Brennan Girl, which was part of last year’s Republic Pictures series at the Museum of Modern Art — I’m convinced that there was more to her abilities than being just “the girl” in several Westerns, or someone’s kid sister or co-headlining minor piffle in other genres.
Alfred Newman got another of his scoring Oscars here (he probably had to build an extra wing on his house), and the hit tunes likely boosted box office at the time. Oscar-nominated “You Do,” performed three times here, engendered top-10 Billboard placers for Shore, Vaughn Monroe, Margaret Whiting, Vic Damone and Bing Crosby — while “Kokomo, Indiana” gave Monroe a No. 10 for RCA Victor, for whom he was later a corporate spokesman. I seem to recall reading that Gary Crosby said Bing used to make fun of Monroe’s way of singing, and I myself am always maintained how many hits his nasal monotone produced, distinctive as it was. Though this said, Monroe’s last big hit — “They Were Doin’ the Mambo (But I Just Stood Around)” — is a song that has always defined my life, so he gets a pass.
Because a MTW enthusiast and friend of mine used to own a 16mm IB Technicolor print of it, I saw it during the ’60s and maybe early ’70s in prime form a couple times. Thus, I’m wondering if the (to my eyes) almost pastel-like appearance of this Twilight Time Blu-ray version means that this is one of many once electric Fox Technicolor titles whose original elements were destroyed by the studio (don’t get me going) by some of the studio personnel who are presumably now in Hell now along with my sixth grade teacher. In any event, the palate here is not unpleasing, and the rendering looks consistent; it just doesn’t look like IB Technicolor, which will effectively add to the number of doofuses I’ve heard for decades who say, “That movie looked pretty good for one with old color.” In any form, however, color in any form is a bad match with The Banana Man’s sicklymakeup. He was strictly made for black-and-white, even if it took the goldout of his bananas, by which I do not mean anything lurid.