Farley Granger falls for Jane Powell's... Small Town Girl (1953)

In 2014, the Tony Awards began with something that perplexed many people: host Hugh Jackman hopping for over four minutes as he traveled through the theater, encountering people from that year's Broadway shows and, in one funny bit, bumping into former Tonys host Neil Patrick Harris. I can still remember the next morning when all of the news outlets (seriously) were trying to figure out just what the hell Jackman was doing. I didn't have to wonder, though, because the instant I saw the actor start jumping, I screamed, "BOBBY VAN!"

What many people missed -- and by "people," I mean "people not obsessed with classic Hollywood" -- was the quick reference where Jackman hopped in front of a screen and literally saluted the inimitable Bobby Van performing the "Street Dance" from 1953's Small Town Girl. To this day, I'm stunned that such a huge awards show gambled on recreating this number. For one thing, it came from a movie musical that has no real ties to Broadway. For another thing, Small Town Girl isn't exactly well-known, and neither is Van, which, honestly, should be a crime.

At the time, the Tonys' nod to the film thrilled me to no end. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the actual movie itself, at least not completely. It has a lot going for it, but in watching it for a second time, I found myself feeling a bit disappointed.

Small Town Girl has a simple enough plot. Rick Livingston (Farley Granger), a wealthy, carefree playboy from New York, is arrested for speeding through the town of Duck Creek. When he becomes snide with the judge (Robert Keith), he is sentenced to 30 days in jail, much to the dismay of his mother (Billie Burke) and fiancée, Broadway star Lisa Bellmount (Ann Miller). As the days go by, Rick gets to know the judge's daughter, Cindy (Jane Powell), who finds herself drawn to him in spite of his arrogant attitude.

Let's get the negatives out of the way first. The music by Nicholas Brodszky and Leo Robin isn't very catchy, even though they were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song for "My Flaming Heart." While I do enjoy the tune, I think we have to credit Nat King Cole's gorgeous vocals for its success more than its melody or lyrics. Which brings me to my next complaint: although he is in the opening credits alongside the names of the cast, Cole only appears for the one song. That's kind of unforgivable.

The film's biggest problem, though, is -- ugh, I hate to say it -- Farley Granger.


Look, I love Granger. I recognize that he isn't the perfect actor, but I also have always ignored his detractors. His performance in Small Town Girl is good, but the issue is that when Granger plays smug, he is smug. It ends up coming across as mean, which makes it hard to root for him, especially since he is playing opposite literal beam of sunshine Jane Powell. Things improve as the film gets going -- Rick softens up and starts flashing that adorable Granger grin -- but it isn't enough to sell the romance that the film wants us to buy.


What doesn't help matters is the presence of Bobby Van. As Cindy's best friend Ludwig Schlemmer, Van is just a big sweetheart. He longs to be on Broadway, but he is forced to stay in Duck Creek by his store-owner father (S.Z. Sakall). His joy for performing can't be stifled, though; it isn't unusual to find him dancing his way through a room rather than walking. Because of his vivacity and boy-next-door charm, and their musical compatibility, Van winds up being a better match for Powell than Granger. However, although Mr. Schlemmer wants his son to marry Cindy, they just want to remain friends, which is actually very sweet. Their platonic love for one another is obvious in their only number together, "Fine, Fine, Fine."







Van's talent is further displayed in his solo, "Take Me to Broadway." Borrowing a tuxedo from his father's store, Ludwig is daydreaming about his stardom when he spots a group of young women watching him through the store window. Excited to have an audience, he uses the entire space as he tap dances on countertops, shuffles around on bar stools, slides down a railing, and much more. There's even some trickery involved towards the end that makes it look like Van is briefly defying gravity.








These delightful musical numbers, by the way, are brought to you by Busby Berkeley. While the film's director was Leslie Kardos, Berkeley stepped in to work his magic and is part of what makes Small Town Girl worth a watch. In addition to Van's routines, Berkeley crafted Ann Miller's "My Gaucho," which features some captivating colors...




...and her number "I've Gotta Hear That Beat," which competes with "Street Dance" for the title of Small Town Girl's most infamous scene. Surrounded by disembodied hands playing instruments, Miller dances up a storm. The end result is surreal yet dazzling.










Of course, this movie wouldn't be a proper '50s musical without some astounding costumes. Helen Rose's creations here are simple and subtly elegant with just a touch of whimsy. Billie Burke looks incredible in all of her chic finery...





...while Powell and Miller are the epitome of femininity:













And let's not forget the woman who plays Cindy's mother, Fay Wray! I particularly love her skirt suit with the scalloped pockets and bumblebee accents.





Although the role of Mrs. Kimbell isn't very big, Wray does her best with it. She just seems so natural and warm. I would have loved it if the film had established a stronger connection between Mrs. Kimbell and Cindy, actually, like in Two Weeks with Love, an earlier Powell film that features another '30s star, Ann Harding, as her mother.

On a completely random note, there was one moment in Small Town Girl that made my eyes go wide. Late in the film, Mr. Schlemmer barges into Ludwig's room and wakes him up. As they're talking, you can see photos pinned on Ludwig's walls in the blurry background and I'm 90% sure that one of these photos is a publicity still from Singin' in the Rain. What do you think?



Small Town Girl is not going to tickle everyone's fancy; there are just too many elements that misfire. I can't guarantee that if you watch this film you'll find a new favorite, but I can promise you that the elements that do work are fantastic. Plus, why in the world would you ever say "no" to the likes of Powell, Van, Wray, Miller, and Sakall?











































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This is my second and final contribution to Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, The Blogathon. To read more about this fascinating couple and their contributions to Hollywood, click here!

Comments

  1. Again, you and your wonderful screen caps! You make the movie seem like more than the pleasant and colourful diversion that it is. I'll admit to preferring the 1936 non-musical version a tad more than the musical.

    PS: I think you called it on the Singin' in the Rain photo.

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    1. Thanks! "Pleasant and colorful diversion" -- that's exactly what it is. I haven't seen the 1936 version yet, although I've read that they don't have a lot in common.

      I'm glad you see the resemblance, too! I keep looking at the screenshot to see if I can suss out what the other photos are, but no luck yet.

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  2. Thanks so much for entering the Blogathon. I must admit I haven't seen this one yet, but I love all the images you posted. The costumes and dancing look like fun -- and the cast, for me, will make it well worth checking out...

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for having me! As I said, the film isn't the best you'll see, but it has many good qualities. Perfect viewing for a rainy day!

      Delete
  3. I remember Miss Powell from ROYAL WEDDING with Fred Astaire where she was paired up with Peter Lawford. Also Seven Brides For Seven Brothers with Howard Keel. She was on Murder, She Wrote(with Angela Lansbury) where she and Jessica were friends from way back. Jane played a nun.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, Ms. Powell was certainly involved in some great projects, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers being my favorite. And she's still with us! :)

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    2. I mostly remember BOBBY VAN from TATTLETALES with his adorable bubbly wife ELAINE JOYCE. Bobby and Elaine als0 played a married couple on THE LOVE BOAT. Elaine (by then the widow of Bobby Van) was on at least two episodes of Murder, She Wrote. I like the newer one best. She, CONNIE STEVENS & ANNE FRANCIS were sisters who had retired from singing. It also had guest stars DONALD OCONNOR and GAVIN MACLEOD(THE LOVE BOAT) as Annes husband who wanted the sisters to make a comeback.

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    3. Oh yes, I remember that episode! Murder, She Wrote is always great for spotting old Hollywood favorites.

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  4. Hello, hope all good with you - love you to join in... https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/2019/03/01/blogathons-announcing-the-second-marvellous-michael-caine-blogathon-2019/ from Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the invite, Gill! Although I adore Michael Caine, I don't think I'll be able to join, sadly, because those dates are right when I have three different research papers due, but I'll let you know if anything changes!

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