Sunday, 3 July 2011
Rose Marie (1954 version)
Rose Marie (1954) dir. Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Ann Blyth, Howard Keel, Fernando Lamas, Joan Taylor, Bert Lahr, Marjorie Main, Ray Collins and Chief Yowlachie
By Greg Klymkiw
Did you know that all Canadian watering holes in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta are populated with friendly mad trappers who raise their mugs of beer nightly and sing rousing a cappella renditions of "Alouette"?
Well, now you know.
God help me, I love operettas.
Glorious tenors and sopranos trilling through insanely romantic melodramatic plots with dollops of broad comic relief have always been my idea of a good time. Rose Marie, a magnificent chestnut (stuffed with loads of oozing cheese) was based on the Rudolph Friml, Oscar Hammerstein II and Otto A. Harbach operetta (light opera, for the uninitiated) and was made into a movie three times - a 1928 silent version with Joan Crawford in the title role, Woody Van Dyke's astonishing 1936 version with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy and the order of today's business, Mervyn LeRoy's ridiculous and stunningly creaky CinemaScope version (in glorious Technicolor no less) from 1954.
Though the 1936 version is a better movie in all respects, I'll always have a special place in my heart for the 1954 vintage. When I was a kid in the 1960s, MGM mounted several major retrospective play dates of their greatest (and even not-so-great) classics and played them in first-run theatres. This version was the first I saw in that series of major reissues - a gorgeous, newly minted print in the aforementioned CinemaScope, Technicolor and on a huge screen in an old picture palace (long since shuttered forever).
Seeing the blazing red uniforms of my country's illustrious Royal Canadian Mounted Police in this fashion has stayed with me well into my dotage.
Even though I eventually discovered and loved Woody Van Dyke's 30s trollop into backlot Canada, this version of Rose Marie is much closer to the original operetta - offering up plot machinations far more ludicrous and as such, deserving copious kudos for doing so.
Read this and weep:
Howard Keel plays square-jawed Captain Mike Malone, a happy horse riding, tune-belting Mountie who trots into the deep bush of Alberta in search of Rose Marie (Ann Blyth, sporting a weirdly delightful French Canadian accent by way of Hollywood voice coaches). Mountie Mike earlier promised an old friend that he'd raise the child as his own should said pal ever bite the bullet. Mountie Mike is the ultimate Canadian Scarlet Avenger - true to his word and always getting his man (or in this case, woman). His loyalty and resolve knowing no bounds, the Mike-ster collects this newly orphaned lass of the wilderness - a spunky wild child tomboy who has no desire or intention to ever leave the idyll of nature.
Rose Marie doth protest too much and does so in utter futility. One never says "no" to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and especially not Mike, for he does what any man of the law would do.
He takes her by force.
Before you can say "maple syrup" la belle femme, soon dons the garb of the Mounties and is raised at the outpost as such.
Yes, a Mountie!
With a bevy of hunky red-suited and red-blooded Canucks providing surrogate parentage, our shapely little Missy becomes even more curvy and delicious - vaguely hiding those supple curves just beneath her form-fitting RCMP adornments. In addition to Capt. Mike, Rose Marie is doted on by a surrogate grandfather figure, the charming irascible Barney McCorkle (marvellously played by Mr. Cowardly Lion himself, Bert Lahr).
Can this possibly get any better? Read on, dear reader.
When Mike's C.O. Inspector Appleby (Ray Collins - he of Boss Jim Gettys fame in Citizen Kane and Lt. Tragg in Perry Mason) pops by to survey the troops, he displays considerable disdain over the lack of close shaves adorning the gorgeous faces of Capt. Mike's men, until he caresses the cheek of Rose Marie.
(To this day, cheek-caressing is the preferred method of inspecting closeness of shaves amongst the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Canadians are indebted to Hollywood forever for revealing this fact to the world.)
At first, Appleby is mightily impressed with the smoothness of this slightly peach-fuzzed face, but one double take later, he realizes the delicate-skinned mountie is, in fact a woman. He orders Capt. Mike to take her into town so she may be trained in the ways of the weaker sex by Lady Jane Dunstock (Marjorie Main of "Ma and Pa Kettle" fame), a ballsy inn-and-brothel-keeper who adorns herself in bright purple-coloured satin dresses.
And presto! Rose Marie is tutored in the ways of woman and reveals looks so beguilingly gorgeous that Mike falls in love with her.
(To this day, whores and/or brothel-keepers are entrusted by Canadians to transform tomboys into ladies and again, Canadians are indebted to Hollywood forever for revealing yet another salient factoid of Canuck-hood to the world.)
Ah, but the plot (as it were) thickens when the dashing James Severn Duval (Fernando Lamas as a French Canadian trapper born in the Yukon and sporting a Spanish accent) is ordered by Chief Black Eagle (Chief Yowlachie, a Native American actor) to stop diddling his comely daughter Wanda (Joan Taylor).
Chief Black Eagle no want-um paleface to make-um daughter squaw. Bloodline must stay pure. Mixing white with red make-um heap mongrel papoose. This make-um Apple, eh? Red on outside, white on inside. Is heap extra bad if white is Quebecois of Spanish persuasion.
No matter, though. Once Duval gets a glimpse of Rose Marie, he's immediately smitten and our poor heroine is faced with having to choose between two hunky fellas.
What's a girl to do?
From here, the plot (as it were) becomes an even stickier Acadian gumbo of romantic intrigue when Wanda jealously decides to get her studly fur-trapping Hispanic back at any and all cost. This turning point happens during one of the most outrageous musical numbers ever committed to celluloid - the Busby Berkeley choreographed "Totem Tom-Tom", a mouth-wateringly sexy depiction of an ancient aboriginal fertility dance where Wanda writhes frenziedly amongst a bevy of beauties and a passel of bronze bucks. During her sensual manipulations, that would, no doubt, put most pole dancers in gentleman's clubs to shame, Wanda becomes distracted enough to notice the love of her life smooching with our lily white heroine.
No give-um birth to Apple papoose if this dalliance continues in earnest.
Hell breaks loose and our tale dips its toe into the dark side with non-aboriginals tied to stakes, murder, mistaken identity and last second reprieves from the gallows.
I was riveted.
That said, my 10-year-old daughter repeatedly chided me with, "But Dad, how can you like this? It's so predictable."
Well, as I said earlier, I'm a sucker for operettas.
It's not just the familiar plots, but that fact that they're used primarily as a coat hanger for the lead characters to burst into song. The ditties in this one are plenty ripe.
This version of Rose Marie is blessed with a rendition of "Indian Love Call" that rivals any I've heard or seen.
And, lest I forget, allow me to cite a great comic warble assigned to Bert Lahr entitled "I'm A Mountie Who Never Got His Man". This number, newly created by George Stoll and Herbert Baker is a genuine laugh riot, though you will need to seriously forget anything you've ever learned about cultural sensitivity to even sit through it, much less thoroughly enjoy it.
In fact, the movie is replete with all manner of stereotypes. Some might call them racist, but there's nothing especially hateful about the attitudes, but rather more ignorant - especially given the time period in which the film is set and when it was made. Though one shouldn't outright excuse the propagation of outmoded cultural representation from another age, it's still probably a good idea to try and appreciate the supremely oddball imaginations it took to come up with them, and in turn, allow yourself a fascinating window into a bygone perspective.
Another interesting aspect of the film is the bizarre portrait it paints of Canada. If you ever get a chance, please read Pierre Berton's magnificent book "Hollywood's Canada". It's an amazing catalogue and history of this strange period when Hollywood decided to prevent an indigenous film industry from blossoming in Canada with government support. Canada, as per much of its history, strapped on the kneepads before Uncle Sam and agreed only to allow taxpayer support of documentaries, and in return, the American government (through the Motion Picture Association of America) agreed to make as many movies as possible promoting Canada - its culture, history and natural beauty. This included shooting in Canada, but in the case of Rose Marie much of the stunning technicolor footage is of the second-unit variety. Of course, this policy of cultural "reciprocity" resulted in the stereotyping of Canada to such an extent I can still fool most anyone from America who has never ventured above the 49th parallel (including Rhodes Scholars) that we all wear fur hats and lumberjack shirts, live in igloos or teepees and bottle-feed the newly-born with Molson Canadian beer. My road trips through the Deep South (Mississippi in particular) are always a blast when I encounter gas jockeys, convenience store clerks and academicians who ask in their tell-tale drawl of white-trashery, "Y'all frumm Kenuh-duh?"
As to the portrayal of Canada's Aboriginal peoples, I must wholeheartedly reiterate that Rose Marie is best enjoyed if you gird your loins of cultural sensitivity and doff your caps of Political Correctness.
In essence, go Republican. Or go home.
"Rose Marie" is one of hundreds of movies from the Warner Brothers catalogue that will not receive an official release on DVD. In Toronto, Canada the only places that carry a wide selection of these titles are the flagship store of Sunrise Records at Yonge and Dundas and the newly resurrected Starstruck Video at Dundas and Tomken. They're simply colour balanced transfers from the best existing materials and available only in specialty shops or online - for a premium price, of course. Also, the transfers do vary in quality. So far, many are good, but I have to sadly admit that the "Rose Marie" transfer is not all it could be. Frankly, it's begging for proper clean-up and meticulous transfer to Blu-ray - not just DVD. That all said, I'm happy many of these pictures are finally available for home consumption, but it would be a lot better if the price point was, at the very least, lowered.