By Scott Ross
I finally sat down this week with the Critics’ Choice DVD of New Faces, the 1954 CinemaScope movie of the popular Leonard Sillman revue New Faces of 1952.
I may never recover.
To paraphrase Churchill rather horribly, seldom have so many done so much to so little effect.
I was introduced to the cast recording in my late teens or early 20s by my friend Jimmy Thiem, who has, I am sorry to say, since joined the majority. Jimmy, who before I met him owned a much-loved record shop (ask your grandparents) in Raleigh, was my guide to many of the older Broadway musicals. I knew the big ones, of course, or at least knew of them. Jimmy filled in the gaps. (I owe him especially for sharing Finian’s Rainbow, thus making me a lifelong convert to The Church of Yip Harburg and Burton Lane, and for The Most Happy Fella.) He was mad about New Faces, so I dutifully picked up a copy. I wish I could have told Jimmy I liked it as much as he did, but the fact was it left me not so much underwhelmed as barely even whelmed.
I loved one of the songs, was mildly impressed with others, indifferent to most, and loathed more than a couple. It may have been one of those cases of “You had to be there,” but the talent behind the show, and on the stage (and the LP) was in many ways remarkable for their collective staying power, and for what they would achieve in the future: Sheldon Harnick, Mel(vin) Brooks, Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley, Carol Lawrence, Ronny Graham and (there’s no other word for her, sorry) the fabulous Eartha Kitt.
Oh, yeah. And Robert Clary. More on him anon.
Many of the songs must have seemed old hat to a lot of people even then. Some of them have pretty tunes, especially those by Arthur Siegel, later known to a generation of musical aficionados for his collaborations with the very strange Ben Bagley on the latter’s often risible “Revisited” LP series. But the lyrics nearly always let you down. Siegel’s “Love is a Simple Thing” (lyrics by June Carroll) has, initially, a pleasing rhyme-scheme, perhaps a little too reminiscent of Hugh Martin’s “Love” for comfort, but the words, like the tune, trail off into nothingness. “Time for Tea” contains a nice idea — two elderly spinsters caution the listener not to miss the opportunity for happiness — and then galumphs along in a seemingly endless flashback until you’re ready to cry, “Enough!” Or take “Penny Candy”: Again, a plangent idea (the little ache of longing we feel for childhood pleasures) and an interesting composition, both of which get mired in ennui, especially when the hopelessly trivial dialogue interrupts. Only Siegel’s “Monotonous,” performed with exquisitely bored eroticism by Kitt, really works. Not that its lyrics are as clever as they might be, nor the music as ineluctably soignée as it thinks it is. It all begins to sound too much like cast-off Cole Porter, although he’s far from a bad target at which to aim your artistic sights. Michael Brown’s hoedown “Lizzie Borden” likewise exudes a whiff of must; Tom Lehrer would do this sort of thing much better, and with infinitely greater wit, a couple of years later.
Of the ballads, only Murray Grand’s gently sardonic “Guess Who I Saw Today?” stands out. But the show’s best number, by far, is Harnick’s deliciously wry “Boston Beguine.” My affection for the number, a riotously, rapturously absurd paean to doomed romance, is not mere 20/20 hindsight. Here, composer/lyricist and performer meet in one of those rare confluences of enormous talent, even — dare I say? — genius that both promises a golden future and is giddily superb on its own. What makes the number treasurable, aside from Ghostley’s unerring comic touch and sparkling lyric soprano, is Harnick’s playful intelligence. He alone saw something potentially funny in the very nature of the beguine itself, and his juxtaposition of that slightly studied passion with a set of lyrics bemoaning the incongruously hilarious setting (“We went to the Casbah/That’s an Irish bar there/The underground hideout/Of the D.A.R. there…”) is, even this early in his career, masterly. I’d hate to have to been the poor schmucks who had to follow that one.
Now to the movie. And abandon hope, all ye who enter there.
I won’t dignify the alleged director of this indigestible mulligatawny by mentioning his name. Trust me, you’ve never heard of him. Although New Faces is essentially a filmed performance, albeit sans audience, someone had the (to him, I presume, brilliant, but actually thrice-baked) notion of setting off the numbers with a loathsome, idiotic “backstage” framing story and, having had it, resolutely stuck to the damn thing. Perhaps it was felt that a movie audience wouldn’t accept a filmed revue without some narrative, however tenuous or anemic. That’s no excuse. But there is worse, far worse, to come: He, or they, also built up Robert Clary as if he was France’s answer to Sinatra and Jerry Lewis, all in one foul, diminutive package.
June Carroll’s restrained and knowing rendition of “Guess Who I Saw Today” got the ax, but considering the overall cloddish conception and the inept manner in which the movie was shot, that may have been a blessing for her, and for her composer. Infinitely more appalling is the way Ghostley’s “Boston Beguine” is utterly ruined by long cutaway shots to Clary, made up as a teenager (or perhaps a little boy, who can tell?) lying on the grass of what I assume is Boston Common and making a complete cul of himself. I can’t begin to imagine how Ghostley felt when she saw the results, but for me, it is one of the gravest crimes against decency, wit, and performance in the entire history of the movie musical. And that includes the Village People. And El Brendel.
Clary is nearly beyond human endurance throughout. He mugs to the furthest balcony, hurls every over-sold emotion and steel-belted note like a berserk Al Jolson, scampers and grimaces and poses and flits about adorably until you want to throttle him, and generally shows off what we have to assume is his thorough (and utterly misguided) inner conviction of his own adorableness. God knows the French did themselves no favors by embracing Lewis, but even they did not deserve Robert Clary. Ronny Graham is almost as obnoxious, especially in his inane and lugubrious commingling of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote (whose surname Virginia De Luce mangles — deliberately? — as “Ka-pote.”) Graham just skirts parity with Clary in the insufferability sweepstakes, but only because he gets less screen time.
Blessedly, Kitt gets to perform “C’est si bon” and Francis Lemarque’s “Bal Petit Bal,” and to commit her ineffable rendition of Phil Springer’s “Santa Baby” (added to the show late in its run) to celluloid. But her delectable version of “Monotonous” is, like “Beguine,” sabotaged, this time by an abrupt cut to that leaden backstage story, just as the song builds to its climax. When your director is intent on killing your performance, not even the most brilliant singer/comedian can triumph.
Even an inveterate one-time Paul Lynde fan such as myself finds slim (or is it overfed?) pickings here. Lynde’s African monologue was familiar to me from his early live album of uniformly gruesome, would-be black-comic sketches that, taken on their own, make me wonder how the hell he ever got to be a household name. The nasty tone toward, and the xenophobic ugliness about, Africans makes this one of those artifacts one watches with a numbing dread, and the Brooks-written spoof of Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller, unfunny in itself, is made fully unpalatable by Lynde’s staggeringly inapt over-acting. Brooks himself might have actually been subtler. (Although I doubt even he could have made this particular joke funny.)
The print on the Critics’ Choice disc is as atrocious as the content, the color faded and, occasionally, flashing from a saturated yellow to a weird pea green every few seconds. I gather the later VCI Entertainment DVD’s print is no better. But even if it were, it would take a desperation for entertainment bordering on the suicidal for me to sit through this mélange of witless excess — in which even the redoubtable Richard Barstow contributes dances of yawn-inducing, style-less obviousness and for which Raoul Pene Du Bois could not conjure up more than a series of threadbare and moldy “sets” — ever, ever again.
I don’t know the precise answer to the ages-old question of what killed entertainment, but this movie surely had a hand in its demise.
I wouldn’t be surprised to discover it carried Plague.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross