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Give a Girl a Break (DVD Review)

5 Dec, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Marge Champion, Gower Champion, Debbie Reynolds, Bob Fosse.

If you’ve seen Bob Fosse’s heavily autobiographical All That Jazz (and where is it on Blu-ray, by the way?), you know that cigarettes, sauce and women dancers with women dancers’ legs counted as his best friends. So it’s definitely snicker-bait to witness Fosse on screen in this agreeably minor Stanley Donen musical (with some major participants) pulling some substantial wool over our eyes. It’s in the scene where the backstage go-fer he’s playing tells Debbie Reynolds about the prodigious amount of time he spent at the drugstore waiting for her to show up — enough, in fact, for him to have downed five banana splits.

Girl sneaked out during the Dore Schary studio-chief era at MGM, and the Fosse character’s declaration is a whopper that I don’t even think Schary predecessor Louis B. Mayer could have swallowed, even though banana splits were the kind of vice he liked MGM contract players to have on and off screen. In fact, Fosse’s ticklish dialogue reminds me of the follies I used to read as a kid about all the times that Babe Ruth missed a game because he was said to have ingested too many hot dogs and Nehi’s (translation: “Sorry, kids, the Bambino just caught a big-time dose from a stripper”).

Running just 82 minutes and back-ended with enough pigment-happy musical numbers to make the second half notably superior to the first, the movie is actually about plural girls (as they used to be called) competing for the same Broadway role after a pending show’s huffy femme star ankles it in a dispute with the show’s director (Gower Champion, who, of course, went on to become one of the great Broadway musical directors ever in real life). In competition are singer/dancers played by Helen Wood (actually about 36 when the movie was made, though she doesn’t look it); much younger Debbie Reynolds (then on the brink of going from star to something close to a superstar); and Marge Champion, Gower’s then wife and his dancing partner in clubs, TV and about half-a-dozen features including one (Jupiter’s Darling) that is sometimes credited with having killed the MGM musical and is still a singularly twisted event.

It has been said that the socially conscious Schary wasn’t too keen on musicals, but in addition to a few big guns like Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon that were likely in the works when he took over, the studio embarked during this period on a series of modest entertainments with tune breaks and short running times. Among them were I Love Melvin (Reynolds and Donald O’Connor); The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (Reynolds, Fosse, Bobby Van); and this subsequent back-stager. The barely functional plot here deals with the agendas of three of the show’s male principals. Its composer (Kurt Kasznar) is smitten with Rose and wants her to be selected, unaware that she has a husband. Fosse’s crush on Reynolds dictates his choice, while the Champions have some history that proves prejudicial in both positive and negative ways.

Donen had already co-directed On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly, preceded by one excellent (if underappreciated) musical on his own: debut feature Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire and Jane Powell. If his peak years were still to come, Oscar-nominated Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was only one year off — though the otherwise glorious Brothers would be shot on obvious outdoor sets in muddy Ansco Color.  In an irony of ironies, the far more modest Girl is in real-deal and generally fade-proof Technicolor — which helps make some of its numbers real eye-poppers even if one of the best ones is a modest rooftop duet with Reynolds and Fosse. Speaking of the last, I have always been impressed by guys who can do back-flips wearing a suit and off hard surfaces.

According to IMDb.com, the New York Times didn’t even give Girl a review, even though it is generally thought (and not accurately) that any movie a tier or two up from Rex Allen or the Bowery Boys ended up getting one. Nor did Girl even rate a gig at my hometown palaces the Loew’s Ohio (still standing) or Loew’s Broad (closed in 1961), even though, between the two, they covered most of the day’s MGM product. And to show you what constituted a minor musical in those days: in addition to Donen, the slight script is by big-guns Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (It’s a Wonderful Life; Father of the Bride; The Diary of Anne Frank); the cinematography is by William Mellor (A Place in the Sun; Giant); and the score is by Burton Lane and Ira Gershwin with additional music by Andre Previn. So even if this is a picture emitting the teensiest flame, we’re talking about a period when there was talent to burn (and none of it expended on CGI).

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