Monday, January 29, 2018

Blue Skies (1946)



Director: Stuart Heisler

Take Hollywood’s most decorated and profitable leading man of 1945-46 in Bing Crosby, add in the the attraction of being Fred Astaire’s “finale picture,”, and put them in a story mixed with the popular Irving Berlin melodious classics, you get the Technicolor musical Blue Skies. The recipe is was easily one of the more profitable features of year, albeit not the finest work of either leading man appearing alongside of Joan Caulfield. With a winning combination of talent and musical material Blue Skies was a beautiful and entertaining picture for audiences reminiscing for the entertainment of pre-war features with colorful glitz that was becoming more common with America’s now booming post-war economy.

Blue Skies is a musical comedy about a love triangle where a dancer falls in love with a showgirl, but she falls in love with his friend, a nightclub proprietor with commitment issues. Shared through a series of vignettes, radio star Jed Potter (Fred Astaire) recounts his days as a famous Broadway dancer and the story of love that slipped away to his broadcast audience. Jed narrates the tale of how he fell in love with Mary O’Hara (Joan Caulfield), a beautiful showgirl in one of his acts who does not share the same affection back despite Jed’s trying charm. Mary becomes infatuated is taken by the musically inclined nightclub owner Johnny Adams (Bing Crosby), whom she ironically was introduced to by Jed while they were on a date at his nightclub.

Jed warns Mary of Johnny’s compulsive ways and explaining that Johnny is not the marrying type, but Mary cannot shake her infatuation. Mary and Johnny wed, but with his impulsive commitment to work the marriage sours and short lived, even with the birth their daughter. Mary returns to Jed and the two old friends become engaged, but with Mary’s heart not being in the relationship Mary cannot go through with the wedding, emotionally devastating Jed. Jed turns to drinking leading to a devastating accident on stage, ending his dancing career. Jed wraps up his broadcast explaining how Mary ran away feeling overwhelmed by what she had done to Jed and Johnny, and that this broadcast was a wish that she could hear him. The movie closes with an appearance of Johnny on Jed’s program and a final surprise where Mary appears to reunite with the two men.

The picture is the simple story of a love triangle where a man chases the affection of a woman, but the girl falls in love with the friend who is non-committal leading to both relationships are fractured by the unreciprocated love of the partner. It is a poetic tale of torn love, that is fluffed up by a series of musical numbers to well-known Irving Berlin tunes. Part love story, part comedy, part musical and dance spectacle, the fractured movie comes together to deliver an hour and 40 minutes of solid entertainment that is a series of disjointed story with musical numbers.

You can say it is a classic Hollywood musical, as this was the usual formula for its time, but what sadly breaks what can be perceived as a solid picture is the confusing ending. Jed finishes his poetic tale, and Johnny joins in to sing a song, both paying tribute to the love for a woman that had left their lives. The issue is that Mary appears and the three leave together happily. THE END. The problems are as followed: Jed is still scarred by Mary, and Johnny is still as uncommittable as ever, but somehow this threesome leave as if all is right in the world. It is an ending that feels very tacked together, when the picture should have ended a beat or two earlier, with Jed getting a tortured story off his chest, Mary finding a new beginning away from troubled past, and Johnny remorseful for being a poor husband, finding in him a better self. However, all this is cast aside when Mary arrives (which can be poetic “fill in the blank” ending), but then the three lock arms and skip off like they are off to see the wizard, without any true conciliation. It is only my opinion, but as you can see it was a conclusion that I felt ruined a decent movie.

Blue Skies was yet another one of those pictures that ranged from the 1930s through the 40s that were vehicles packaging Irving Berlin music. The famed compose and lyrist had written a great number of timeless classics that continue to hit audiences in the heart, and this musical is no different. Berlin’s holiday classic “White Christmas,” sung by Bing Crosby makes its second motion picture appearance, as firstly featured in Holiday Inn. Once again is brings the movie to an emotional apex, song to a gathering of soldiers being entertained on the front lines of WWII in a quick side scene. Despite the music being so good, the film is rather quick paced when pictures of the period tended to be a bit slower in pace. This pacing plays well for both drama and comedy, helping for it to be more palpable for later generations accustomed to tighter storytelling.

Bing Crosby was always the center of the picture, coming off a Best Actor Oscar in 1944 followed by a second nomination in 1945, as well as being one of the top grossing stars in recent years which included his Road to… movies with Bob Hope. He is just as charming as his always is, perhaps a little scaled down from his award caliber work. It is evident that Crosby worked hard to keep up with the limber and more energetic Fred Astaire, dancing alongside of the perfectionist that Astaire was known to be. Crosby, not a dancer, puts in a great effort to keep up with his dancing co-star in numbers that are pared down Crosby, but remain impressive enough that add to talents of Crosby as singer/actor.

Fred Astaire was actually a fill in for the role of Jed, replacing the initially cast dancer Paul Draper, who was having trouble working with the less trained dancing of co-star Joan Caulfield, while also suffering from his own speech impediment. At the time, Astaire found his work in Hollywood fading to supporting roles and was contemplated retirement from the screen when the offer was made for him to take on the co-starring role. Although his appeal lacks the elegance of working alongside a serious partner, like his old days with Ginger Rogers, he still has the flare and drive of putting on the full framed show he was known for. As usual Astaire style his dancing numbers are shot in long takes with him in frame from head to toe, just the way he liked it, as he danced with every inch of his person. The best-known scene from the picture after all these years happens to be of Astaire dancing to “Putting on the Ritz,” where the coat-tailed dancer is joined by a chorus of Fred Astaires. This work of special effects and tireless work of perfection on behalf of Astaire creates a moment that defines movie magic, a scene that brings down the house for this picture.

For a time leading lady Joan Caulfield looked to be the one on the chopping block for the film when she was having trouble working along Paul Draper, the originally casted Jed for the picture. It was Crosby who stood up for the 23-year-old actress, keeping her in the production. It so happens the two were having a secret affair at the time, but it saved her career, leading to Paul Draper’s exit and Astaire entry into the picture. The former fashion model turned actress was being pushed by Paramount to be big star, and Blue Skies was a picture with the star power that helped launch herself into the upper level for actresses in the studio, if only for a couple of years.

Much of the comedy of the feature was supplied by character actor Billy De Wolfe, with help from Olga San Juan, who also performed in a few musical numbers. De Wolfe, the stage name for the 39-year-old born William Jones, plays Johnny’s loyal employee Tony. Despite the fact his pencil mustached antics tend to grab audiences’ attention in every scene he is in, his character is only filler, playing no vital role in the plot. The same can be said of Ms. San Juan’s appearance as the dancer Nita. The cute and lovely 19-year-old, who comes off as older in the picture, provides little more than reprieve from the primary plot ad players of the film. Both De Wolfe and San Juan are talented supporting performers, displaying their respective comedic and musical talents, but are mere side characters for the star power of the Crosby and Astaire.

Blue Skies proved to be a box office hit, taking in over $5 million in profits. It was noted that the picture was to be Fred Astaire’s swan song, billed as his last motion picture as he was turning his focus on to opening his own dance studios, stating film work had tired him and this picture allowed him to leave while on top. His retirement would not last long when in 1948 he was asked to replace an injured Gene Kelly in Easter Parade starring alongside Judy Garland. This would be the first of several “retirements” for Fred Astaire.

The picture is beautifully shot, utilizing vibrant color, with aspects of lavish musical stage pieces, along with the more plot driven scenes. Critics and audiences of the time loved the picture for what it was. On top of the strong box office numbers, a highly successful album of Irving Berlin music featuring the talents of Crosby and Astaire was produced, becoming one of the top albums of the year. In the end the music far outlasted the feature, but the most memorable would be the talents of Crosby and Astaire as timeless stars of the day.


2 comments:

  1. Enjoyed this article! Drawn to it by research on Paul Draper. What 'speech impediment'? :-))

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  2. Paul Draper had problems with stuttering, a characteristic that comes off as nervous even for an accomplish dancer such as he. It would be an easy choice to replace him with the well know figure such as Astaire who was as accomplished on screen for his dancing skills as any man at the time. It was just the matter of convincing Fred Astaire to keep working in motion pictures when his star appeared to have dimmed in the previous years.

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