2 December 2009 | athousandchurches
Enjoyable aside from some stunning racism
As a fan of musicals in general and Donald O'Connor in specific, I was all set to enjoy my first dive into the teen musicals he made with Universal in the 1940s. Mister Big turned out the be incredibly enjoyable in some respects, and incredibly cringe-worthy in others.
On the one hand, the performances are generally top-notch, the one-liners are that wonderful mix of hokey and enjoyable, and Donald wears some ridiculous clothing. (Am I the only person who wants to tell him to stop trying on his father's suits? They all look so big on him!) The entire movie is worth buying just for the opportunity to watch Peggy Ryan kick Donald O'Connor in the face in "Rude, Crude, and Unattractive"--the play violence is half the gimmick in their dancing, but that song goes above and beyond the usual. O'Connor's interpretation of Hamlet's soliloquy is likewise charming, and Gloria Jean's solos are a delight.
On the other hand, there are some painfully racist scenes--I'm honestly surprised the other reviews haven't mentioned them. There's an entire number in blackface, and a group of black children are allowed the opportunity to perform with the lily-white main cast in the final number...from a hayloft. Because, of course, people of colour performing in a stable-like setting doesn't imply that they're animal-like at all. Insert eye rolling here.
I'd love to see Mister Big and all the rest of the hep musicals released on commercial DVD someday in a proper boxed set. Even if they're imperfect, these films need to be preserved for study and enjoyment (because really, the less racist moments are worth watching multiple times). However, if the other titles in the O'Connor/Ryan/Jean catalogue contain such blatant racism as is found in this one, I can understand why Universal's been hesitant to put these to press.
My 8/10 rating is for the parts of the film that didn't make me cringe from the unrepentant blackface and marginalization of the blacks in the cast. Including those parts, my rating goes down significantly.