7 January 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Paul Lynde upstages Gene Kelly!
The talented dancer Sandy Duncan has worked in film and television, yet has achieved her greatest success on the musical stage. She's hardly one of my favourites; I find her chipmunk voice more than slightly annoying, and even though she's a lithe and graceful dancer I don't find her very attractive. But her talent is undeniable, and I admire her for having paid her dues (in rubbish like the flop Broadway musical version of 'Canterbury Tales'), and I admire her even more for triumphing over a cancer of the optic nerve that left her blind in one eye. (Her optic muscles were not affected, so the eye moves normally even though it's sightless.) When Sandy Duncan starred on Broadway in 'Peter Pan', the flying sequences had to be choreographed to compensate for the fact that she couldn't see obstacles approaching from her left side.
This TV special is a good showcase for her talents, and equally a showcase for her weaknesses as a performer. The opening sequence is very bizarre: we see (apparently genuine) candid footage of Sandy and her castmates in a rehearsal studio, going through dance steps. 'Whenever you're ready, Sandy,' says the dance director while prepping the chorus. Paul Lynde, sitting in a folding chair, gives a lacklustre reading of one of his punchlines.
This special was produced shortly after 'The Sting' became a huge box-office hit, with its memorable score based on Scott Joplin rags. The best dance sequence in Sandy Duncan's special occurs immediately after that bizarre opening, as Sandy sings an inept lyric to the tune of Joplin's 'The Entertainer' while walking down a flight of stairs, then she launches into a spirited ragtime dance with the chorus. One male dancer becomes her partner for a pas de deux between the chorines. This dancer isn't credited by name, but he should have been. He's quite good, and I was intrigued that he didn't have the usual willowy chorus-boy physique: he's a stocky guy, with a 1970s beard and hairstyle. (Sandy Duncan later married Don Correia, another talented male dancer who is also more stocky than is usual for men in his profession.)
Gene Kelly is on hand in a later sequence, but regrettably his guest appearance is quite brief. He and Sandy sing a medley of famous songs from Gene's musicals, notably "Me and My Gal" and "Singin' in the Rain". They dance together, but the choreography here is a pale shadow of Kelly's timeless dance routines. Considering that he was over 60 when this special was made -- and the fact that he had nothing to prove -- I guess Kelly didn't want to strain himself. Still, it's nice to see him again even though his performance here adds nothing to his legacy.
Astonishingly, the most entertaining musical number in this special is performed by Paul Lynde! With the chorus backing him on vocals, Lynde acts out Jim Croce's song 'Bad, Bad Leroy Brown' ... with Lynde in the title role, dressed in a costume that looks like a cross between a zoot suit and Pimp Daddy's outfit. Lynde speaks the lyric rather than singing it, and the words have been cleaned up slightly for prime time: instead of 'He had a razor in his shoe', Lynde recites 'I've got a water pistol, too.' Then he proceeds to squirt the dancers with his water gun while they sing the chorus. I despise Lynde (as both a person and a performer), yet this musical number is so outrageous that it's actually funny.
The special ends with an elaborate sequence that's anticlimactic, as Sandy finds herself wandering about on an abandoned carnival midway that's clearly a sound stage set. Lynde shows up as a carny pitchman, exhorting Sandy to see the sideshow attractions. His best joke is about the tattooed lady: 'She has a picture of the Chicago Fire on one knee, and a picture of the devil on the other. When she crosses her legs, it looks like hell.' Sadly, any humour in Lynde's delivery has been squandered, because this is the same joke we've already heard him reading (in a flat monotone) during the opening video sequence.
Duncan's talent is considerable, but she has seldom had material worthy of it. Still, she works hard here in this badly-paced and poorly-directed special. It's nice to see Gene Kelly again, and nice to see Duncan paying tribute to the heritage of old-time musicals. Lynde's performance as Leroy Brown does much to redeem his awfulness in the rest of this special (and elsewhere). I'll rate this TV special 4 out of 10.