11 June 2010 | rick_7
Polished remake of Roberta, with some great dancing
Lovely to Look At (Mervyn LeRoy, 1952) is a remake of the Randolph Scott and Irene Dunne romance Roberta that trims and polishes Alice Duer Miller's plot, reworks the musical numbers and winds up a whole lot more satisfying. It's also something of a dry-run for the phenomenal Kiss Me Kate (the source play of which is referenced in the script) uniting three of that movie's stars a year ahead of time: tenor Howard Keel, soprano Kathryn Grayson and curvy tap dancer Ann Miller. The toothy Keel, my mum's favourite movie star, plays an aspiring Broadway producer, trying to get a new musical off the ground. When his fellow impresario, comic Red Skelton, inherits Parisian dress shop Roberta's, they and pal Gower Champion decide they'll sell up and splash the cash on their stage show – until they catch a look of the tasty co-owners (Grayson and Marge Champion).
The film dispenses with much of its predecessor's plottiness, using Roberta's as a metaphor, rather than thinking a dress shop is massively important in itself. Howard Keel is more like Coward Heel, you see, and the selfish showman needs to learn how to do right by his friends, and the gownerie they hold so dear. Keel, who went stratospheric after Annie Get Your Gun and starred in several key musicals of the period, including Calamity Jane and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, had a wonderful voice and fair comic instincts, but appeared to lack dramatic range. That's not necessarily true, evidenced by his commanding performance in Kiss Me Kate, but he was one-dimensional unless otherwise encouraged. Skelton is asked to truly act, as well as provide the usual buffoonery, and his scenes of heartbreak contrast nicely with his over-the-top comic shenanigans. As Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler (see Punch-Drunk Love) would after him, he finds a sentimental dramatic groove through intelligent underplaying, and confounds expectations. He still puts paper in his ears and shoots a woman's fur, though, if you're worried. Skelton also has the funniest line of the picture, reminiscing about the girl he "could have married". In support, Kurt Kasznar is the pick, playing the buffoonish Max, who holds hidden depths. The way he approaches a business meeting is hilarious.
Roberta featured the incomparable Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as cinema's most attractive second leads. They're replaced here by husband-and-wife dance team, Marge and Gower Champion. MGM apparently planned to remake all of Fred and Ginger's movies using the married hoofers, but this was the only one to come to fruition. They offer a pair of brilliant dance numbers, the joyous I Won't Dance – which is all done in one take – and a spot in the finale that sees them scrapping over a diamond bracelet. I was really taken with their agility, slinkiness and easy on-screen chemistry. The best number of all, though, is from Ann Miller, whose Hard to Handle is an absolute knockout: the leggy hoofer shoving aside wolfish admirers in a display of shimmering bravado. It could barely be more different from Ginger Rogers' version back in '35, which was performed in a heavy Russian accent, into a standing mic. Lafayette, a jaunty number that sees the three male leads bouncing around Paris, is great fun. The film also allows Grayson and Keel – never the most enthusiastic dancers – to stick to their strong suits and bellow two American standards introduced by Roberta. The title tune is sung by Keel, while Grayson does a touching reading of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which is modestly staged and perhaps performed at the wrong time, but lovely to listen to.
Several of these performers would scale greater heights the following year in the dizzyingly, dazzlingly inventive Kiss Me Kate. While Lovely to Look At isn't in that league, it remains an accomplished slice of high-grade entertainment, complete with some eye-popping numbers.
Trivia note: As well as leaning on Roberta, the film borrows a couple of tricks from an MGM classic of decades past: Ninotchka, which was also set in Paris. Grayson's straight-faced recollection of stats about the Eiffel Tower is taken straight from that masterpiece, while the shot of Keel upon his return is pure Lubitsch.