29 November 2006 | JamesHitchcock
Any film which annoyed the League of Decency cannot be all bad
"The French Line" is a musical comedy about love and romance. It contains no sex scenes and no nudity or even toplessness. There is no violence, no foul language and no drug references. It is so square it even features a heterosexual male fashion designer. It seems like the sort of film that could be enjoyed by all the family without offending anyone.
Wrong. When it was released in 1954 it was condemned as immoral by the Catholic League of Decency who, apparently, took exception to the supposedly revealing costumes worn by its star, Jane Russell. Ironically, Russell, herself a devout Christian, had been unhappy about wearing a bikini in the film and had been allowed to exchange this for a one-piece swimsuit, but even this gesture towards modesty failed to placate the League.
The film is essentially a remake of a comedy from the thirties called "The Richest Girl in the World". In that film the heroine, Dorothy, was the heiress to a large fortune. She was worried that potential suitors would love her for her money and not for herself, and therefore changed places with her attractive secretary Sylvia. If any man showed an interest in the supposed 'Sylvia' (really Dorothy in disguise), she would suggest that the supposed 'Dorothy' (really Sylvia in disguise) had fallen in love with him and would welcome a proposal of marriage. The real Sylvia was happily married and had no interest in any of Dorothy's suitors; the point of this charade was that a man who showed any interest in the fake 'Dorothy' had failed the test and proved himself unworthy of the real Dorothy's hand.
In "The French Line" this situation is given a new twist. The heroine, Mary, is also the heiress to a large fortune (from ranching and oil in Texas), but she has precisely the opposite problem. Whereas Dorothy was worried about attracting unscrupulous fortune-hunters, Mary (somewhat improbably for a girl who combines great wealth with the looks of Jane Russell) is unable to attract men at all, as potential husbands are actually deterred by the thought of all that money. (Well, this is a work of fiction). The film begins with Mary's third fiancé in succession breaking off their engagement.
Mary is travelling to Europe on a luxury French liner, and swaps identities with a young fashion model named Myrtle in order to conduct a romance with a smooth French designer named Pierre. In the fifties models were presumably less well paid than they are today, when supermodels will not wake up for less than $10,000. Today a fashion model would probably have more in her bank account than a Texan oil millionairess. (Actually, that famous quote from Linda Evangelista dates back to the early nineties. Allowing for inflation, it must now cost at least $20,000 to get a supermodel out of bed).
This is one remake that is rather better than its original. "The Richest Girl" is a very short film, and seventy minutes were not sufficient either to develop the characters or to bring out all the comic possibilities of the situation; the conclusion, in particular, is rushed and muddled. "The French Line" is a very light-hearted, frothy confection (in many places seeming to double up as an extended advertisement for the fashion industry), but at just over 100 minutes it does have more developed characters, not just Mary and Pierre, but also Myrtle and Mary's old friend Annie, also working as a fashion designer. The one character I did not like was Mary's guardian Waco Mosby. He was supposed to be a larger-than-life, tough-talking Texan, but because he seemed to be the sort of American who treated the Declaration of Independence as also being a declaration of war on the English language, I found it difficult to understand a word he was saying.
Although the music is nothing special when compared to the likes of, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein, the song and dance numbers do add to the charm of the film, as well as showing off Jane Russell's charms to their best advantage. And any film which annoys America's narrow-minded Puritans cannot be wholly bad. 6/10