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Yolanda and the Thief (DVD Review)

11 Apr, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Fred Astaire, Lucille Bremer, Frank Morgan, Mildred Natwick, Mary Nash, Leon Ames.

My favorite Fred Astaire number ever, “Coffee Time” represents the greatest disconnect I know between the caliber of a single scene and the movie in which it appears. When Warner’s new on-demand disc of Yolanda arrived, my reward for watching it in (all 108-minute) full was to enthrall myself with Astaire and Lucille Bremer jiving sensually on a zebra-colored art deco floor four more times. And they do this to lots of seductively syncopated hand-clapping contributed by brightly costumed party revelers in the story’s weird Latin American burg — chorus townies who make their own substantial contribution to this set piece, yet also know to clear way so we can mesmerize ourselves to moves by the two principals.

Now. This said, it is also true that Yolanda isn’t just any old movie that doesn’t work; current-day Hollywood puts out at least three or four of those every week. Produced by Arthur Freed and directed by the equally incomparable Vincente Minnelli, this was the first money loser that Freed’s legendary unit at MGM (The Wizard of Oz through Bells Are Ringing) ever suffered. And the loss was sizable because the picture looks like a Minnelli trillion in every frame, beauty that doesn’t come cheap. What’s more, this wasn’t just a story-telling misfire but an archly discomforting folly that had to have screech-halted any word-of-mouth chances dead in their tracks. The movie’s no-hope potential is evident right from the beginning when its title heroine (Lucille Bremer, with cover girl looks that probably inspired me to later marry a redhead) is in her final days at a fantasy convent where the Mother Superior keeps saying, “my child” a million times. We keep hoping that Minnelli will monetarily turn over his director’s baton to a less reverential Luis Bunuel.

A dozen years later, Astaire played opposite Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face — a romantic union that seemed credible (or at least not in-credible) because a) the story educated us on the characters’ motivating psychologies; and b) Fred looked happy. Here, if anything, he looks older than he does in Funny Face and none too happy to be playing a con man who works his way to Y’s inherited millions by convincing her he’s the guardian angel to whom he’s heard her pray. Except for in the dance scenes, Astaire seems tired and embarrassed here — his character reduced to spending a lot of time on trains with a semi-inept partner played by the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan. Even the movie’s happy ending (Yolanda marries this cheat and has something like five kids in five years – or close) feels a little icky.

If you turn the sound down, though, the movie is something, and I can only wonder what a full restoration and Blu-ray release would bring to the eyes. This is the difference: A few days ago, I spent an afternoon at multiplex with The Lincoln Lawyer and Limitless. Each one has a good hook or premise that doesn’t get adequate follow-through, but each connects the dots adequately enough on a primitive “this-happened-and-then-this-happened” level” to make a reasonably absorbing or diverting view if you’re willing to forego any hopes of a shelf life in your mind. Yolanda, on the other hand, is mostly exasperating to sit through, but you can’t dislodge its abject dreaminess from your brain (I’d seen it in 35mm theatrically and on laserdisc — but still couldn’t wait to get this DVD). By the way, it does have another memorable number — a long one of maybe 10 minutes’ duration. It’s a fantasy (borderline pretentious, but I like it, anyway) that probably emanated from a psychiatrist’s visit by someone on the production team. Or it plays like it, anyway. It has to do with the marriage fears of Astaire’s character and finds him in a claustrophobic situation and surrounded by moving bed sheets. More or less.

As with, say, Billy Wilder’s Fedora, John Ford’s corny made-for-TV baseball dramas or all kinds of Blake Edwards movies, Yolanda is one of those unfulfilled projects that auteurists still like because so much of the director’s personality is in them. The corollary, though, is that you can’t defend them too heavily to people you still want to have as friends. Yolanda has picked up a small cult over the years but at the time did real damage. It was a factor in an Astaire screen retirement that only got nipped in the bud because he was called upon to replace Gene Kelly in Easter Parade amid an emergency situation. And it basically killed the short career of beautiful but chilly Bremer, who had played Judy Garland’s older sister in Minnelli’s all-timer Meet Me in St. Louis. But she retired and married well — and, at the end, could always say (thanks to two killer numbers in Ziegfeld Follies) that she was Astaire’s partner in three of the greatest dance sequences of his long career. And “Coffee Time,” hands down, is one of my 20 favorite movie scenes ever.

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