20 May 2002 | bmacv
Vincente Minnelli unbound in garish, one-of-a-kind musical phantasmagoria
If Yolanda and the Thief isn't the damnedest thing ever committed to film, it's hard to say what is. Vincente Minnelli took a wisp of whimsey from Ludwig Bemelmans and turned it into this overblown fantasy musical that pushes the flap of the envelope wide open.
Most musicals the best of them, anyway grow out of show business lore and derive their pluck and sass from the raffish traditions of show-must-go-on troupers. But Yolanda and the Thief invents a Latin-American Ruritania (called Patria, or fatherland) out of stereotypes which verge on the offensive but stay simperingly coy. It's a kind of squeaky-clean utopia of the clueless Lost Horizon sort run by a benevolent family of oligarchs called the Aquavivas.
Their only daughter (Lucille Bremer), having reached her majority, leaves the convent school where she is allowed to wear full Hollywood makeup. The vast family fortune becomes hers to administer with the help of a dotty aunt (Mildred Natwick, and the best thing in the movie). Alas, the good sisters have not equipped her to cope with the wicked ways of the world, as personified by a couple of American con-artists (Fred Astaire and Frank Morgan) who arrange an introduction and plan to abscond with a sizeable chunk of her assets. Astaire poses as an angel for the impressionable girl, and almost gets away with it, except he inevitably falls for her. Plus, on the fringes of the action, a real angel operates....
Harmless enough piffle, but get a load of the musical numbers. Full-tilt phantasmagorias that look like Busby Berkeley on acid or crystal or absinthe, they get bigger and more grandiose and ever loonier, with colors so brash that sunglasses are in order (was this the first head movie?). The set and costume designers must have had field day, what with Minnelli extending them a carte blanche they certainly never had before and would never have again until the debut of the music video. But the songs stay resolutely uninspired, which takes the starch out of the dancing (even much of Astaire's). It's safe to say nobody strode out of the theaters in 1945 whistling snappy tunes from Yolanda and the Thief.
It's not exactly fun to watch but you can't take your eyes off it, either. A one-of-a-kind Technicolor extravaganza, it makes you wonder how not to say why it ever got made. Astaire's reputation must have taken a nosedive after its release, and as for Bremer? She makes you long for Ginger Rogers even the very late Ginger Rogers.