Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Unsinkable Maybe, But Not Quite Titanic

 The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Rhino MGM Musical Scores:
Arrangements/Orchestrations:  Leo Arnaud, with Alexander Courage, Leo Shuken, Jack Hayes
CD released Nov. 21, 2000 

Rhino Handmade R 2 72465, 28 tracks (stereo)  Excellent production, so so songs.
Producer: George Feltenstein, Performed: MGM Soloists, Studio Orchestra & Chorus, Conductor: Robert Armbruster

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) is based on the musical by Meredith Willson.  The Broadway version was the follow-up to Willson’s The Music Man, and, though it had a respectable run, was considered something of a letdown after the phenomenal 1957 success  of Willson’s first show.

Nonetheless Molly Brown became one of the last of the big MGM musicals, directed by veteran  Charles Walters and arranged by several surviving members of the studio’s celebrated  musical unit.

The lengthy film is also a product of the shift in Broadway musical adaptations that came with the end of the studio era and the emergence of  what I call the “behemoth” Broadway movie musical, a genre launched by such films as West Side Story (1961)  in which every grace note and fermata of the original score was transferred to film, overloading the movie versions to epic, but often tedious proportions.

Amazingly, MGM did not follow this trend with Molly Brown. As they did with On the Town, Brigadoon, and other adaptations, the studio blithely tossed out much of the Broadway score  and produced a movie that actually moves. (The spectacular location shooting is the way Seven Brides for Seven Brothers should have been filmed!)

The fact-inspired script is based on the life of Molly Brown, a poor Colorado backwoods girl who got rich and fought her way into wealthy (and snobbish) Denver society.  (Her story is also hinted at in James Cameron’s Titanic, the “unsinkable” Molly becoming the determined heroine of one of the doomed ship’s lifeboats).

Debbie Reynolds aggressively tears into the role of Molly, replacing Broadway’s more elfin Tammy Grimes. Harve Presnell was maintained from the Broadway original. Many of Willson’s songs were also dropped, with “I Ain’t Down Yet,” and “Belly Up To The Bar, Boys” and "I'll Never Say No To You" the main survivors. Reynolds gives  her all to these numbers, but also has the annoying habit of half-speaking the opening phrases, which somewhat negates  the melodic impact of the two best tunes in the score. 

Big Voice, Big Man 
Not so with Presnell, a power baritone who can still be heard on the CD reissue of  Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Philadelphia Orchestra (and who was recently seen in Fargo). MGM obviously considered Presnell a successor  to Nelson Eddy and Howard Keel in the studio’s roster of leading music men. And indeed he could have been if the classic movie musical had not been on the way out about the time of Molly Brown. (Presnell’s  next film co-starred Herman’s Hermits and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs!)

FILE - In this 1969 file photo, Harve Presnell is shown at the ...

Harve in 1969 at the premiere of the film of Paint Your Wagon.

At any rate, Presnell  is given the movie debut of a lifetime as the camera loving examines every virile, tight jean-clad  inch of him in his opening number, “Colorado My Home”. After seeing this introduction it is perhaps not surprising to learn that director Walters was, for the period, a relatively out-of-the-closet gay man. (See William J. Mann's Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood).

And for a graphic example of how Hollywood could pound anyone into peak shape compare the sexy cinematic Harve to the photos of a rather dumpy Presnell in the Capitol original cast album that was one of a few OCs that also included a copy of the original theatrical program.

Molly Brown original Shubert Theatre Broadway program. 
The show starred the delightful Tammy Grimes and Presnell.

Willson wrote one new tune for the film, “He’s My Friend,” which, along with “Belly Up,” provide the film’s major production numbers, and some of the last great MGM dance sequences, some of which feature Broadway dancer Grover Dale in one of his few film appearances. Rhino includes all the energetic dance music, as well as the film’s many underscore cues, some adapted from the Broadway score.

Rhino’s 2000 restoration  is a pleasant souvenir of one of the last of the big MGM Silver Age musicals, and the profuse underscoring is an especially appealing reminder of the studio’s brilliant arrangements and orchestral sound.
Ross Care