18 November 2007 | gpachovsky
Who could resist walking Janet back home?
Universal International's "Walking My Baby Back Home" may suffer when compared with the elaborate production values of the great MGM musicals but it is, nonetheless, a very likable piece of entertainment. It does not take itself too seriously and does not try to be anything more than what it is: a fun little movie. Its charm derives mainly from the sunny personalities of its two talented leads.
Donald O'Connor was one of the most versatile young performers in Hollywood during the early '50s. He could sing (passably enough for a musical), he could dance (no qualifiers needed here), he could do comedy (Who else could make pictures with a talking mule without looking ridiculous?) and he could do drama as he proved later in his career. Why he wasn't a bigger star is a mystery. Perhaps it was because he was too good-natured and looked to boyish to be taken seriously. But his role here, as the enthusiastic young bandleader who is looking for that "right" sound and eventually stumbles onto Dixieland-Jazz, suits his persona to a tee.
He is helped in no small part by the very pretty, and equally enthusiastic, Janet Leigh. Leigh, who must surely have had one of the most disarming smiles in cinema history, had begun her career with MGM and, although she had been taught to sing and dance at the studio, she could not make a dent in Arthur Freed's high-powered talent pool. "Walking My Baby Back Home" gave her the rare opportunity to star in a musical and she acquits herself nicely (she would make a bigger impression two years later in Columbia's "My Sister Eileen"). Her "Camptown Races" number, in which she is dressed only in top hat, bow tie, one piece swimsuit, white gloves, and high heels is a treat for the eyes, especially for Janet Leigh fans.
The comedy, provided mostly by O'Connor and Buddy Hackett, is breezy and only adds to the fun. O'Connor's second opera-singing lesson with Madame Grinaldo is a little forced but right in keeping with the lighthearted nature of the film. And the laryngitis scenes, in which O'Connor's facial expressions run the gamut from euphoria to despair, are hilarious. As for Hackett, he is fine as O'Connor's ex-army pal and wannabe musician. I do not find his Chinese waiter routine offensive, merely too long (He is definitely not helped by the man who plays the drunk!).
Again, the musical routines are not in MGM's league, but they are pleasant enough. The film's highlight is the dance number in which O'Connor and Leigh gambol, to the title tune, through a toy-like playground which is set against a backdrop that looks like a child's drawing. It is a nostalgic reminder of the sweetness and innocence of young love.
I once had the delightful experience of meeting Janet Leigh. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that "Walking My Baby Back Home" was one of my favorite musicals, to which she enthused: "Oh, I loved that movie!"
You couldn't ask for a better endorsement than that.