Monday, February 7, 2011

Fresh from Paris (Paris Follies of 1956) (Ohio, Mercury-International, Allied Artists, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Fresh from Paris, a rather odd 1955 musical filmed in Los Angeles inside a huge nightclub called the Moulin Rouge (and also released under the title Paris Follies of 1956) and largely a vehicle for Margaret Whiting, who had a glorious voice but did not photograph especially well — she has a grim hatchet face that actually rather fits her character here but didn’t bode well for further film roles, though part of the problem with this film’s visual aspect in general is that though it was shot in color (by DeLuxe), the version Charles and I were watching was an download in black-and-white, and sometimes rather grainy black-and-white at that.

Forrest Tucker stars as promoter Dan Bradley, who’s just returned to America from France with the idea of launching a domestic (and Production Code-sanitized) version of the Moulin Rouge in Paris (of course, the Eiffel Tower figures prominently in the backdrop on the stage and Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters are displayed on the columns holding up the ceiling). He’s got a backer named Alfred Gaylord (Lloyd Corrigan), who’s made it clear that money is no object and whatever lavish adornment he wants on his club or the performers in it will be supplied. Only midway through the movie — to the surprise of absolutely no one in the audience who’s ever seen a film before — Gaylord’s son and daughter-in-law show up and inform Dan, and us, that Gaylord hasn’t a dime; he has a small annuity and he uses it to pose as a rich man, establish a line of credit and then skip out.

So Dan, who’s legally Gaylord’s partner in the club, has to worry about being held legally liable for all the bills Gaylord has been running up and about being prosecuted for fraud — and that’s not his only trouble: his hopes of getting out from under a mountain of debt and a fraud prosecution are dependent on keeping the club open long enough so it can become a raving success. Those chances are dependent on keeping his star, Margaret Walton (Margaret Whiting), happy — only it turns out that a) Margaret only agreed to play the Moulin Rouge because she was in love with Dan, and b) Dan isn’t in love with Margaret; he’s in love with his scenic designer, Ruth Harmon (Martha Hyer). Meanwhile Margaret’s sister Betty (played by Margaret Whiting’s real sister of that name!) wants a featured role in the club’s show, and the director, Chuck Russell (a marvelous screaming-queen performance by Dick Wesson), is encouraging her. Finally Margaret walks out in the middle of the show after she hears Dan and Ruth swearing their love for each other on a backstage intercom, and Betty gets pressed into service to replace her in the second act — only (and here writer Milton Lazarus deviates from the 42nd Street template he’s pretty much been following to this point) Betty gets the Mother of All Cases of Stage Fright and Margaret ends up stepping back in — “It’s the first time in show business that the star has saved the show for the understudy!” she says laconically — finishing the show (and the movie), and all ends more or less happily.

Though it would be nice to see it in color and in a better quality print, Fresh from Paris is actually a reasonably entertaining movie — Margaret Whiting’s singing here is considerably ballsier than you’d expect if all you knew her by were her ballad hits like “Now Is the Hour” and “Moonlight in Vermont,” and the numbers themselves are spectacular even if the staging is rather dull — during one of these lumbering extravaganzae I joked, “Florenz Ziegfeld lives,” and perhaps because they were shooting most of the movie in a real nightclub rather than a Hollywood set, they couldn’t get very many camera angles and much of this film looks like a throwback to the earliest musicals, with their static cameras and deliberate pacing. Still, Fresh from Paris (or whatever you call it) is a fun little film, and it’s nice to get to hear and see Margaret Whiting in full cry.