A Rare Musical from 1956 Television: “Paris in the Springtime”

A Rare Musical from 1956 Television

A-VAI-Paris in the SpringtimeAs part of the now fabled “Max Liebman Presents” series of televised musicals back in the 1950s, Jerome Kern’s “The Cat and the Fiddle” was announced as the next presentation. But sudden copyright problems (I read) came up and a musical had to be created in three weeks. The result was “Paris in the Springtime” and it can be seen on a VAI DVD.

The book thrown together by William Friedberg and Neil Simon uses a time-worn plot. (I will use the names of the actors rather than the characters). An unsuccessful song-and-dance man, Dan Dailey, goes to Paris with his agent Jack Whiting and runs into a penniless artistic troupe of players headed by Carlton Carpenter and Gale Sherwood, whom he promises to help. He also runs into an old theatre friend, Helen Gallagher, who is a success at a local night club. And so on.

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Liebman

The songs are established ones by such composers as Cole Porter (“Nobody’s chasing me”), George Gershwin (“I can’t be bothered now”), Richard Rodgers (“From another world”), Harold Arlen (“Down with love”), Vernon Duke (“That’s what makes Paris Paree”), and Gus Kahn (“I’ll never be the same”). One is actually attributed to Marie Antoinette (“La jardinière du Roi”)! Not one of them advances the plot and several are used as numbers performed at the night club.

(Notice that Porter’s “I love Paris in the springtime” is not included. Too obvious? Or copyright limitations?)

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Gallagher

I wonder how they got the copyrights to all these numbers in so short a time. Nevertheless, it is good to hear unfamiliar numbers from shows seldom if ever revived and from composers like Paul Durand (“Mademoiselle de Paris”) of whom I know nothing.

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Sherwood

Gale Sherwood makes a pleasant if not very complex love interest and her voice is operatic. Jack Whiting brings that old-time vaudeville perfection to the song and dance routines, while Helen Gallagher brings down the house in her solo night club number, reminding me of Gwen Verdon at her best. Carlton Carpenter is amiable, while chanteuse Genevieve shows up to deliver one song and is not seen again.

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Dailey

But alas, there is a slight vacuum in the middle of things and that is Dan Dailey. As good a dancer as he is (and we don’t get to see much of him dancing), his singing voice varies from adequate to quite awful. His acting skills are minimal and (sorry to say this) he simply lacks the good looks needed for a part like this.

The black and white video is primitive, of course, but this just adds to the charm. And you can even see the commercials as a bonus! Thank you, VAI, for this treat.

Great Waltz

A-VAI-Great Waltz

Vintage TV Musical Based on the Music of Johann Strauss, Jr

VAI has added to its list of fascinating vintage television versions of musicals “The Great Waltz,” which draws from the music of Johann Strauss, Jr. But first some background.

In 1930, a play with songs opened with music by the Strausses, father and son, with the title “Walzer aus Wien” (Waltzes from Vienna). In 1933, a French version, “Valses de Vienne,” appeared and was followed by several other versions. In 1934, there was a revised version by Moss Hart, Frank Tours and Robert Russell Bennett, this time called “The Great Waltz.” And to top it off, two film versions were made: “Waltzes from Vienna” (1934) and “The Great Waltz” (1938). Neither had little to do with the Moss Hart play.

At any rate, producer Max Liebman decided to ring further changes on the Hart version and it appeared on television in 1955 (in color but the VAI disc is in black and white) with additional songs by Irvin Graham and brand new dialogue by William Friedberg and Neil Simon. So the original play with songs has come a long way.

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The real Johann Strauss II

Keith Andes makes a not too imposing struggling Johann Strauss II; and just about the only non-fictional event that I could spot was his argument with his jealousy-ridden father (Henry Sharp). The woman who encourages him, Resi, is played and sung beautifully (allowing for the ancient television sound) by the then Metropolitan Opera star Patrice Munsel, while the “older woman” who tries to gain Strauss’ affections is played stereotypically by Jarmila Novotna.

What humor there is in this plot is supplied by comic Bert Lahr, who uses his Cowardly Lion tremolo in his newly written number, “I hate the waltz.”

But it is indeed the waltz melodies of Strauss that save this clichéd plot from disaster (just as did the dancing in “An American in Paris”) and there are lots of them. I count 11 musical numbers in the script, two of which are ballets. Indeed, on repeated viewing of this disc, one might simply skip the dialogue scenes.

The running time (the commercials have been cut) is 78 minutes.

 

(Note: The Amazon cover for this set is not the same as pictured above, but the contents are the same.)

Marco Polo

Marco Polo’s Travels Are Set to Rimski Korsakov’s Music

Here  is a forgotten musical especially designed for television and I am A-VAI-Marco Polodelighted that Video Artists International has decided to restore it on a VAI DVD.

“Marco Polo” (telecast April 14, 1956) is obviously inspired by the musical “Kismet” (1953). The book is by William Friedberg and Neil Simon, the lyrics by Edward Eager, and the music of Rimski Korsakov is adapted by Clay Warnick and Mel Pahl. Even Kismet stars Alfred Drake Doretta Morrow in the leads are cast to  complete the feeling of deja-vu.

Somehow the whole project falls a little flat. Except for “Is it you,” which is based on the Prince and Princess theme in “Scheherazade,” the melodies do not compete with the best of the Borodin themes in “Kismet.” Some of the incidental music works to set a mood, but Warnick and Pahl were obviously hard put to find melodic material. And except for “Population,” the lyrics lack originality or wit.

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Rimski-Korsakov

Now for the virtues. Drake can take any mediocre song and make it sound good. Soprano Doretta Morrow plays no less than four parts so that all the interesting women Polo finds during his stay in the East have the same face. And at the end, expectation is thwarted. Character actor Ross Martin does a good job as the ruler of Tibet, making the most of a cardboard character.

The dance routines are not bad, considering the small area of the studio set. The timing of the show without the commercials is 80 minutes; and the commercials are actually added as bonus material. The picture is in Kinescope black and white, the sound a product of its time.  Drake and Morrow make this required viewing for those interested in the history of musicals on television.

Note: Some time ago, the sound track of the musical numbers was released on a DRG CD. Take my word, the video is the way to go with “Marco Polo.”

Heidi

“Heidi” Makes a Pleasant TV MusicalA-VAI-Heidi

  I am not too sure how many youngsters were reading “Heidi” when I was first reading “Bomba the Jungle Boy,” but I am sure that the number of fans of  Johanna Spyri’s 1880 novel today cannot be too great. But it has appeared on film quite often; and in 1955, it was made into one of several versions for television.

This production is now part of the wonderful VAI series of vintage musicals shown on TV in the middle of the last century; and it makes for some very entertaining viewing—with a very interesting cast.

Here is the story of the little girl Heidi (Jeannie Carson), brought by her mean old Aunt Dete (Jo Van Fleet) to live at the top of the Alps with Heidi’s reclusive Grandfather (Richard Eastham), whose antisocial behavior begins to thaw through Heidi’s goodness. She also spends the time with a shepherd named Peter (Wally Cox).  Dete finds a job for Heidi as a companion for a crippled girl, Klara (Natalie Wood) in Frankfort, and the two become fast friends, despite the hostility of Klara’s housemaid Frau Rottenmeier, (Elsa Lanchester).

When found walking in her sleep, Heidi is sent back to her Grandfather, but Klara is sent to Heidi, where she is cured. Of course, some might consider this work today as one of appalling sentimentality; but that’s the way many novels were back then. And considering what passes for literature today, I might say we could use some of that sentimentality back with us.

The music is “based on the themes of Robert Schumann” by Clay Warnick, who also composed original music for the dance sequences (if I read the credits correctly). Yes, “Traumerei” is much used, here called “Greener Pastures.” The lyrics are by Carolyn Leigh and the script is by William Friedberg and Neil Simon. Max Liebman was producer and director for this series of original musicals and adaptations of stage plays.

While Carson and Wood look too old for their parts, they are at least sincere if not great actresses. Cox is simply mild.  But Lanchester is as always a hoot, while Eastham is an excellent basso who was Ezio Pinza’s standby in the original run of “South Pacific.” The “Yodelling Song” and “Yodel-dee Hi” that open the first and third act respectively are musical lyrics at their worst; and indeed most of the lyrics are Broadway-generic.

But the 80 minutes pass by genially, if one puts oneself into a 1955 frame of mind. Thanks again, VAI.

The Stingiest Man in Town

A-VAI-Stingiest Man

Rathbone is Scrooge in a Musical “Christmas Carol”

No matter today’s date, there is still time to purchase as an unusual Christmas gift of a DVD that a relation, a friend or oneself probably does not already own. Now that just about every local theatrical group is doing one version or another of a certain classic seasonal tale by one of the great storytellers, yet another version with something of a surprise cast should fit right in.

So here are the facts.

On the evening of December 23, 1956, the Alcoa Hour telecast a “musical play in three acts” titled “The Stingiest Man in Town.” Basically it was yet another retelling of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with song and dance, and it was worth  restoring on a VAI DVD mainly because of the remarkable cast.

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Patrice Munsel in quite a different role

From the world of opera there are Patrice Munsel (Scrooge’s boyhood sweetheart) and Robert Weede (Marley’s ghost). From Gilbert and Sullivan there is Martyn Green (Bob Cratchit). From the pop scene are Vic Damone (young Scrooge), Johnny Desmond (Fred), and The Four Lads (Narrator-Carolers and beggars).

But the Big Draw in this production is the Scrooge of Basil Rathbone. The old Sherlock Holmes is quite a trooper as he races through the dialogue and doesn’t do too badly with some songs (which he gets through by speaking them in time to the music) and with a few dance steps to show his reformation after the third spirit’s visit. (His Scrooge, however, will never drive from my memory the superb characterization of Alastair Sim in the 1951 British film version.)

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Rathbone in a more familiar role

To be sure, the music of Fred Speilman and the lyrics of Janice Torre leave much to be desired. The former I must describe as “50s homogenous” and the lyrics as less than clever. After all, who wants complex melodies and Lorenz Hart lyrics on Christmas Eve? I must admit that one song does make an impact: “One Little Boy.” As sung by the Spirit of Christmas-Present (Robert Wright) with reference to Tiny Tim (Dennis Kohler), it does conjure up the essence of the holiday, which had long before this show been turned into a frenzy of buying with only a nod toward what the holiday should be about.

The crowd scenes are cramped by the studio space, and the choreography by John Heawood is workmanlike, except for wonderful moments when the dances of Dickens’ time are recreated.

The original color kinescope (a camera filming a television screen) of this show is lost; and the black and white copy offered here is a little marred by ghostly lines in the video. However (to me at least), this just adds to the magic of watching a relic from the past that is quite a reminder from the long lost days of what live television used to be.