Thursday, June 27, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #23: "The Groom Wore Spurs" (1951)

Ginger Rogers and Jack Carson in The Groom Wore Spurs, as depicted in this Punch cartoon from 1951.

The flick: The Groom Wore Spurs (Universal release of a Fidelity Pictures production, 1951) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.6

Director: Richard Whorf (Till the Clouds Roll By; lots of TV series, including The Beverly Hillbillies [he directed about one-fourth of the 274 episodes], Gunsmoke, and My Three Sons)

Actors of note: Ginger Rogers (Top Hat, Monkey Business, Swing Time; beloved screen partner of Fred Astaire; Oscar winner for Kitty Foyle), Jack Carson (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace), Joan Davis (star of TV's I Married Joan, which has the catchiest theme song ever), Stanley Ridges (Sergeant York, To Be or Not To Be), John Litel (The Sons of Katy Elder, Key Largo), James Brown (The Godfather of Soul... nah, this one's a white character actor who appeared in Irma La Douce and Targets and was a regular on TV's Rin Tin Tin and Dallas), Victor Sen Yung (The Good Earth, Flower Drum Song)

The gist of it: Lady lawyer A.J. Furnival (Rogers) is thrilled that her new client is cowboy movie star Ben Castle (Carson). She becomes a fawning fangirl in his presence, though she tries to maintain her professional composure as an attorney. It seems Mr. Carson has run up a $60,000 gambling debt he can't pay to vicious gangster Harry Kallen (Ridges), and he wants A.J. to negotiate a settlement with the crime boss. Against the advice of her nosy roommate Alice (Davis), A.J. accompanies Ben on a private plane to Las Vegas to meet Kallen face-to-face. Once they arrive in Sin City, Ben goes into his well-rehearsed seduction routine, and the two abruptly decide to get married. Later, when A.J. learns that Ben was using her because her father was a famous attorney who had defended Kallan, she is understandably upset and goes back home to get an annulment. But Alice advises her to move into Ben's place and start playing the role of his wife. She does, and before long she realizes that Ben is nothing like the character he plays in the movies. He's just a spoiled actor who can't ride a horse or play a guitar to save his life. But Ben has genuinely fallen in love with A.J., and the two do have a certain romantic chemistry. When Ben is wrongly suspected in Harry Kallen's murder, A.J. uses her legal smarts to get him out of a jam and find the real killer in the process.

The film's misleading poster.
My take: This is the second behind-the-scenes Hollywood comedy I've seen in this set, and like Hollywood and Vine, it's a lightweight affair without any real sting to it. Ginger Rogers was on the downward slope of her career when she made this flick,  having committed the unforgivable movie industry sin of turning 40. The glory days with Fred Astaire were long over, and she was appearing in low-budget, low-ambition films like this one, still radiating the charm that made her famous but not getting scripts that were worthy of her. After a few more years of this, she moved further down the Hollywood ladder to television, guest starring in various anthology series but never actually landing a recurring role on any program. These roles dried up in the mid-1960s and Ginger concentrated on stage work both here and in Europe for the last two decades of her career, emerging occasionally to judge a beauty pageant or appear on The Love Boat. So there's a cloud of disappointment hanging over this film from the get-go.

The direction feels a little flat, and the jokes mostly land with a dull thud. I wish Ginger's character, A.J., had been written a little more worldly and less trusting. That would have allowed Jack Carson to be even more of a selfish, womanizing slob than he already is. Carson provides what little pep the film has, getting some comedic mileage out of his role as a phony "Hollywood cowboy" who effortlessly slips into the role of a strutting Western hero whenever he appears in public but is utterly useless behind closed doors. Probably my favorite scene in the film is the one in which Ben Castle registers at a hotel in Vegas and manages to say everything a Western hero should say under those circumstances. The film's longest comedy sequence takes place when A.J. cheerfully barges into Ben's room when the actor is suffering from a terrible hangover. The scene eats up many minutes of screen time but it never quite rises above "moderately amusing." A subplot with a disgruntled, hard-drinking maid is basically a non-starter, too.

Comedienne Joan Davis -- a woman born to play the heroine's wisecracking best friend -- was a star on the rise at this point in her career. Her character, advice-giving busybody "Aunt" Alice, reminded me a lot of another Alice -- the maid played by Ann B. Davis on The Brady Bunch. Joan has a rather mannish appearance in this film, and I was surprised when she openly acknowledged this fact. Evidently, this was an actress without vanity.

Meanwhile, the plot kind of breaks down at the three-quarter mark. Apparently realizing that the "romantic comedy" aspect of the story was going nowhere, the filmmakers decided to turn The Groom Wore Spurs into an "action comedy" for its noisy, chaotic conclusion. Speaking of giving up, the film's score is credited to Emil Newman, but Emil must have had better things to do that day because the finale is set to well-worn classical chestnuts by Rossini and Von Suppe*. This makes the movie feel even more cartoonish, and the story loses whatever connection it had to humanity or the real world. By the way, The Groom Wore Spurs was based on a short story by Robert Carson (no relation to Jack) called "The Legal Bride." It was serialized in Collier's magazine in 1949, and you can read some of it if you care to.

Is it funny: Oh, it'll do in a pinch, I guess. I might have chuckled dryly once or twice. Given the ripe premise, however, this could and should have been much funnier. The cast is game, but this film needed a better, more focused script and livelier direction. As it is, The Groom Wore Spurs is as potent as room-temperature ginger ale. Everyone looks a little bored, as if they'd all rather be somewhere else, and the film kind of plods along until a hectic climax that marks a drastic change in tone from the rest of the movie. This is the cinematic equivalent of a homework assignment that's completed aboard the bus on the way to school.

My grade: C+

* To be fair to Emil, though, he did write a pretty cowboy ballad for this film.

P.S. - The film has no negative black stereotypes, but it sure does have a negative Asian stereotype. Victor Sen Yung, who was born in San Francisco and lived in America all his life, plays Jack Carson's obedient houseboy, Ignacio. The servant's rapid, unintelligible speech is one of the movie's lamest running jokes. Worse yet, there is one cringe-inducing scene in which Victor Sen Yung lip synchs to a sped-up recording of a song from one of Ben's movies, under the assumption that this is what Chinese people's voices sound like.

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