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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME (1937)

Underseen & underrated, director Rouben Mamoulian juggles a lot of genres in what might be called an ‘Eastern’ Western with music (it’s set in Pre-Civil War Pennsylvania). Irene Dunne, singing in her dad’s traveling medicine show, falls hard on the road for winning young farmer Randolph Scott (unusually energetic). But when the young man’s oil derrick ‘comes in’ at the wedding reception, bucolic romance, and his game young wife, take a back seat to business affairs & a fight against Alan Hale's railroad baron, who’s out to wreck the local oil entrepreneurs. A tough nut for a musical to crack. Enter Oscar Hammerstein & Jerome Kern, from the equally unlikely SHOW BOAT/’36, just filmed with Dunne over at Universal. And while HANDSOME is no SHOW BOAT, it’s a big, handsome thing on its own terms, with swinging rhythms in Mamoulian’s staging & camera moves that beautifully catch wide open spaces (lensing from Ted Sparkuhl) as well as intimate romance on artificial turf (lensing from Victor Milner) and a most unlikely ride to the rescue by Dunne’s circus pals (lensing by . . . actually, we’re guessing on who lensed what). Some of the plot strands feel rushed, but what a line-up of character actors to play them! (Major spots for Dorothy Lamour, Alan Hale, Charles Bickford, comic reliever Ben Blue & more). Akim Tamiroff and a bunch of kitty-cats get a spectacular bit as third-act villains, and William Frawley shines in an out-of-the-blue song-and-dance number. The score, with the notable exception of the luscious ‘The Folks Who Live On the Hill,’ is pleasant & characterful, if not quite memorable. But watch Dunne as she tries serenading the farm animals at breakfast and winds up with a barnyard chorus. All told, the film’s as worthwhile as it is unusual. (It may also had led to Mamoulian directing Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! on B’way in ‘43.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The opening of the title song lands within a whisker of the famous (not yet written) war-beat tattoo that famously takes over the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony #7: Leningrad. Coincidence? Ah . . . yes.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/LINK: Peggy Lee’s version of ‘The Folks Who Live On the Hill,’ conducted by Frank Sinatra, is much admired if a bit on the self-conscious side. (Frankie walking on eggshells.) Bette Midler covered it slavishly on her Peggy Lee tribute album. (YOUTUBE has them both.) Instead, try Kiri Te Kanawa with Nelson Riddle. Remarkably successful. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2t1zctDN5uw

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Tom Milne makes a fine defense of HW&H (and of Mamoulian in general) in his superb MAMOULIAN monograph originally out from Indiana University Press.

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