Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956)

Back in the swingin' 1920s, many people plied their luck in the music industry, but it was the three friends Buddy Desylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson who really made it. From their humble origins as lyricists on a stage revue, to building up a bigger name for themselves, to eventually producing their own shows. Things start getting tense when Buddy starts taking charge too much, making executive decisions for the others without consulting them, and they begin to feel left out...

The Best Things in Life is a movie I have mixed feelings about. It's a movie of two halves. One is a fun musical romp through the 1920s, while the other half is a rather spotty biopic that veers [wildly] between reasonably faithful/accurate I guess to wildly insulting. It's not that the movie treats any of the players as pieces of shit ()  but rather it's like the producers knew these songs were famous, but didn't feel confident in using them straight, so they felt they had to [use them with one hand and mock them with the other.

The most egregious example of this is/are the Al Jolson scenes. Sonny Boy is/has been an enduringly popular song ever since the 1920s, but based on this movie you'd think the creators hated it. We see them intentionally writing the worst song they can think of, making fun of it all the way through. But then the movie sits us down to a recitation of the song that stops the movie dead for 3 minutes. So what is it, movie, do you like the damn song or don't you?! It wants to have its cake and eat it too, and that coupled with its mean tone = pisses me off.

Let's get into the story as a story, ignoring any biographical elements. It's a pretty good = of the lives and careers of these three songwriters.

While its  is one thing, something I feel the movie does an admirable job at is presenting the whole career = in a  way. We see the characters meeting, we see their creative process work for one song, we see one show, etc. Obviously we see more as the movie chugs along, but what I'm driving at is that it doesn't try to cram in every single detail, rather it just gives us an example of each part of the creative process, giving us the general picture of what they did all the time.

Where the film gets back to bugging me is is in the inevitable drama and break-up in the third act. I swear, this always happens, even with bands that had perfectly happy and stable carers. Heck, especially with acts like that! I'm not an expert on Desylva, Brown, and Henderson, so for all I know they may have had their [fair] share of behind-the-scenes drama, but it's annoying to see. Though the movie develops that thread well, as we see Buddy's personality flaws grow and grow.

Said break-up escalates pretty dramatically! After an argument with Lew, Buddy punches him and he goes sailing out the door, down a set of stairs, halfway across the room and into a table! Kitty thankfully chews him out somethin' fierce, saying everything we'd want her to.
The last act is mostly fine, though I didn't  like how crappy Brown and Henderson do once they strike out on their own, only saved by Buddy showing up again and immediately taking charge, changing all their ideas. Also how come these two don't know how to structure a show after working on them for years? The whole ending is a little rushed and almost unsatisfying. It does everything it needs to, but too quickly. Words that should never be heard about a 104 minute long film

The pacing here is good. The timeline is a little confusing, since there's no clear indication how much time has passed, and try as they might, dding a grey streak to Gordon MaCrea's hair does not make him look anything over 30. But overall it does a nice job. Though it didn't need to be shy of two hours! A lot of minor issues the movie faces could have been tuned up easily if it was a little tighter.

The Best Things in Life Are Free is a strange musical, in that it's entirely normal. Not once does it break reality and have characters burst into a fully choreographed number [everyone knows the words to]. Here though is a film that's about songwriters, so the singing is all in-universe, and part of =. Unexpected ,but it's mostly handled well. =

The songs themselves are all great, even if they do come a little sporadically at times. Tunes like Here am I, Brokenhearted, Birth of the Blues, This is the Missus, et al, are  ! Although I may be in the minority here, but the lyrics in Button Up Your Overcoat ARE a bit weird!

The actors all do convincing jobs. Gordon MacCrae is a good lead, painting a = portrait of a good dude but with big flaws. Ernest Borgnine is delightful, getting to not only play tough, but also a singer/lyricist too! Dan Dailey is the third one, which is to say he's automatically the least interesting, but he does a good job. He may be a little milquetoast, but he delivers a fine performance. Sheree North is nice as the = Kitty Kane. The rest of the performers, fleetingly as most of them appear, do well. Roxanne Arlen is great at being terrible, while Norman Brooks as Al Jolson i just plain weird! I haven't seen enough Jolson films to know if that's a perfect recreation of the guy's persona, or if Brooks is just crummy.

The direction by Michel Curtiz is pretty good, and the movie well made. Some have accused it of not looking as extravagant as it should have, but I thought it looked fine. Except for the =, but they're stage plays, so of course they don't look on par with movies. They're not meant to.

The Best Things in Life Are Free has some negatives ,but for the most part it's a fun biographical romp with music, and worth a watch, especially for the nice songs! And Ernest Borgnine, always.

4, 15:23, 29, 45,

1 comment:

  1. And I think that the North's dance with a jailbird is pretty sensational, too--but the problem with the current Fox Archive Release is that it's a "pan-and-scan" copy, which means that although this was a major Cinemascope release, edges are cut off what we see--in the finale, for instance, North's face is often lost in the clouds and frequently characters at the edges with reaction shots are cut off---it's a shame that when the Archives are making films for collectors, they turn out the worst print available--the colors are good--but pan and scan?