I enjoyed this film far more than anything had led me to anticipate; from reading other comments here, I suspect it benefits enormously from being seen on a full-size screen in the cinema, in the company of a cheerful and enthusiastic audience. I was lucky enough to have that experience, borne up on ripples of laughter from all around, and had an immensely good time with this undemanding comedy.
For it is as a comedy that it shines, if it shines anywhere at all. The music is nothing special -- in fact, I hadn't realised it *was* a musical, and was very surprised when the assembled ancestors burst into half-spoken lyric -- but I do have to admit that the half-threat, half-promise of 'Oh, what I'll do...' has proved far more catchy than it ever seemed at the time, as it's still going round and round in my head!
The plot, such as it is, largely pivots around the past history of the eponymous Francesca, a sixteenth-century portrait sporting a distinctly anachronistic hairstyle and fur-coat. Her idea on the sanctity of marriage don't quite jibe with those of her distant descendant, the Countess Angelina, and one can almost hear the storyline creaking at the seams under the strain of the Production Code in order to ensure that the heroine arrives unsullied in her much-delayed marriage-bed with the right man...
The romance is scarcely earth-shattering, and in fact the first few scenes, played pretty well straight, verge on the tedious. But where script and film really come to life is in the battle of the sexes that follows. The impudence of Douglas Fairbanks Jr's courtship of Betty Grable's married Angelina is equalled only by Betty-Grable-as-Francesca's pursuit of him in turn, culminating in complete role-reversal in the hilarious fantasy sequence where she -- literally -- sweeps him off his feet. This is probably the comic climax of the plot, although the consequences of the Colonel's understandable confusion are worked out with a deft touch in the remaining two 'acts' of the operetta-structure, and the spectacle of Fairbanks' blissful, bemused awakening is more or less worth the price of admission on its own.
Grable is entirely convincing in establishing her two contrasting characters, wisely gets almost all the (limited) singing opportunities, and shares the honours where the swathes of quotable dialogue in the various verbal duels are concerned. But in the field of unspoken reaction she is really outclassed by her male supporting leads; Fairbanks in particular is an absolute treat in a number of wordless sequences whose set-up and humour is worthy of the silent screen.
This film is too uneven in style to be a classic, varying from sparkling repartee to hackneyed tedium. But at its best it is quite honestly very funny indeed, and brought a round of spontaneous applause and laughter across the auditorium at the end as the lights went up. Out of tune with its times, it may have failed to draw contemporary audiences -- but, on this showing, really didn't deserve to be disowned by both Grable and Preminger, the (uncredited) director. This is no masterpiece, but a thoroughly entertaining minor work, and I for one found myself grinning in remembrance all the way home.
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