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Monday, August 23, 2010

My Interactive Summer Holiday

All that work and it's wrecked in the end. That's not a quote, but it's what comes to mind when I see Foolish Wives, The Red Badge Of Courage, or lately viewed remnant, Summer Holiday. Those beaten down by its failure ... director Rouben Mamoulian, composer Harry Warren ... bore scars to the end. As with all doomed projects, this one has defenders. Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg hailed Summer Holiday in their 1968 book, Hollywood In The Forties. I'd seen Meet Me In St. Louis shortly before reading, and imagined Summer Holiday might be that favorite's equal. Years spent looking for MGM's 1948 musical would not be rewarded by discovery of a new favorite. The disappointment others so keenly felt would be mine as well. What goes wrong when Hollywood's premiere song and dance factory commits two million dollars along with seasoned talent to a venture so unsatisfactory in its outcome? Metro released Summer Holiday after a year and a half spent fussing and cutting. By then, they thought it stale bread. Mickey Rooney and Gloria De Haven as co-starring leads were eighteen months less appealing than when they'd done shooting. An "integrated score" that wouldn't stand tampering was diced by nearly half. Was a potential classic ruined by misguided executives supplanting creator's judgment with their own? That's an oft-told tale in movies. Hindsight permits heaping of scorn on those who savage artists' effort, though in the case of Summer Holiday, surviving tracks (on Rhino's CD) and a newly released DVD from Warner Archive offer insight into both sides of the argument. Listening (CD), then watching (DVD), then listening again was like sitting alongside jittery decision makers in MGM's panic room.

They wanted another Meet Me In St. Louis, as did New York's sales division, exhibitors through the land, and some millions of consumers. The hope of duplicating previous hits was what drove this company in postwar decline. When Summer Holiday began filming in a boom summer of 1946, there were dollars pouring out of St. Louis and The Harvey Girls, seeming proof that whatever money you invested toward musicals could be easily got back. Summer Holiday was entrusted to (presumed) magic wand waver Rouben Mamoulian, late of Broadway's Oklahoma and not to be questioned as to one-man-bandsmanship. He assumed responsibility and lived with it --- Summer Holiday would be Mamoulian's last sole director credit for nine years. And yet what he did with this musicalized remake of Eugene O' Neill's Ah Wilderness was departure even from innovation Vincente Minnelli brought to Meet Me In St. Louis. Unlike Minnelli though, Mamoulian's effects seemed more eager to be noticed, and set pieces he staged for Summer Holiday merged less easily with narrative than highlights Minnelli finessed in St. Louis. Press and critics expressed reservation from August 1946 when Mamoulian reported Summer Holiday's near-completion, their knowing of Eugene O' Neill as source and doubtful that forever-Andy Hardy Rooney would do it justice. Mamoulian found himself defending insertion of song and dance to sacred text. The function of the music is to enhance the drama and not to interfere with it, said the director. He told columnists of having brought O'Neill around to possibility this adaptation would be worthy of the author's original. There would be all of 1947 to push promise higher for a bigger fall. An observing trade had to know something was amiss for all those months passing with no announcement of release. Studio previews in the meanwhile were followed by cutting which was followed by more previews/cutting, and all got the same response ... tepid.

Summer Holiday's problem seems (again hindsight) basic from the start, but who was going to speak up and admit the songs weren't terribly good? As had been done and would be again, a doomed ship was permitted to make sail. I played the CD ahead of watching, so heard the four songs they dropped ... and frankly would have done the same given authority. None contributed beyond slowing a pace already leisurely. These had been costly to stage, including ambitious Omar and The Princess wherein Rooney and De Haven dream and dance of scenes inspired by poetry of Omar Khayyam. I could picture Mayer and committee scotching this at inception had they been apprised, but many were the misguided ideas allowed to go forward on extravagant MGM stages, correction of same generally delayed until too late. Little wonder that visiting artists like Mamoulian were traumatized by seeming hack jobs in post-production. Shears were applied even to numbers remaining in Summer Holiday. The Stanley Steamer was closest they had to a show stopper, but that didn't save it being trimmed. To be fair, I gave discarded songs several listens, as did, I'm sure, Metro's deciding committee. Do the same, and you'd feel their pain. By dawn of 1948 and Summer Holiday's final editing pass, Leo was a lion in distress. An overrall $6.5 million was lost in 1947-48. Unprecedented pressure was on to shape up completed merchandise for profitable release. Any man's job might be sacrificed to guessing wrong. The Freed unit was protected preserve, but had no right to final cut. A team that shed life's blood to create what they'd hoped would be the year's outstanding musical now stood by as front office pragmatists studied preview cards and recut Summer Holiday in accordance with them.

What went out in April 1948 ran 93 minutes, well short of closer to two hour length of most Metro tune-fests. Reviewers pounced Rooney's broad playing and a cast given too much to types in support (too old Frank Morgan, too unappealing Butch Jenkins --- the only face missing was customary pater familias Leon Ames). Long delaying found Summer Holiday at the mercy of a changed marketplace. Old ways that once worked were at the least suspect and more often reviled. Urban jungles shot on location had replaced Andy Hardy's sunny neighborhood (Summer Holiday reused the Hardy house for its family residence). Even Mickey was eventually persuaded he'd blown the lead performance (I tried too hard, his latter-day verdict). Domestic rentals skidded at $1.2 million, but foreign was the deal-breaker with a miserable $401,000, demonstrating (once again) folks across the pond care not about our rose-hued Americana. A loss of $1.4 million was less noteworthy only because so many other MGM offerings spilled ink as red. People just weren't going to the show like they used to. Comparison of the CD and now the DVD really brings all this home, providing valued insight as to how and why Summer Holiday jumped the track. Great as certified musical classics are, sometimes it's failed and frustrated ones that teach us the most.


Anonymous Jeff said...

Great post. I always wondered if Metro didn't regret just buying "High Button Shoes" for its next Americana musical.

Speaking of stage shows, wondered if you had an opinion on "Take Me Along," the stage adaptation of "Ah,Wilderness" that opened about 10 years later.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Dugan said...

Thanks for the warning on "Summer Holiday." I bought a copy of "Yolanda and the Thief" in a $2 VHS bin then tried to watch it. It was not a happy experience

3:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

No warning here, Dugan. I'd highly recommend "Summer Holiday." In fact, I'll probably be watching my DVD again soon. As I wrote, the failed musicals are often the most interesting ones.

3:12 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Jeff, I've never seen "Take Me Along" on stage, but Griff talks about it in his e-mail which follows:

Dear John:

Well, Spring isn't everything.

Interesting piece on SUMMER HOLIDAY, practically a film maudit along the lines of RED BADGE OF COURAGE (as you note) and MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Considering how much deleted material has surfaced from Metro musicals over time, I always wondered whether we'd one day see the "Omar (and The Princess)" number on some special edition dvd. I gather the no-frills Warner Archive release has ruled this out. But then your point about the Harry Warren/Ralph Blane songs is well taken; these are terribly weak, and even the tunes remaining in the film barely propel the action.

Hugh Fordin wrote with a lot of passion about SUMMER HOLIDAY in his great book about the Freed unit, The World of Entertainment (aka Hollywood's Greatest Musicals). A great admirer of Mamoulian (and of Rooney). Fordin may have seen more in the director's aspirations and ambitions for the project than was actually in the film that was ultimately released. Still, there's much that is effective in the film. The use of color is striking (no black-and-white still from the movie does it much justice). The sequence with Rooney and the b-girl is very well done. Huston is expert as the father. Morgan, getting close to the end of his career, is very good as Uncle Sid. Granted, I'm not sure that SUMMER HOLIDAY would have ever have been a big success, but, gosh, those are some of the most unattractive ad designs I've seen come out of MGM. That cover for the exploitation handbook with the cast with suitcases is just dreadful. The poster is not only pallid, it's cheap-looking -- is it an Australian day-bill?

The notion of turning Ah, Wilderness! into a musical was more successfully revisited a decade or so later when David Merrick presented Take Me Along on Broadway in 1959; the show ran for over a year. Joseph Stein and Robert Russell adapted the O'Neill play into a musical book; Bob Merrill composed the music and lyrics. Jackie Gleason, who played Uncle Sid, won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a musical; Walter Pidgeon played the father, Robert Morse played the son.

-- Griff

3:13 PM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Yes, but like the film. TAKE ME ALONG lost money--one of the first Broadway productions to remain in the red despite a respectable run.

6:17 PM  
Anonymous Richard said...

This is a film I have unsuccessfully tried to like for years; ever since I first watched it when it was released on laser disc in 1992. (Even then Warners did not know what to do with it - instead of it logically being released with AH, WILDERNESS they released it with the Jane Powell/Debbie Reynolds film musical ATHENA featuring male bodybuilders.....)

I believe you hit the nail on the head with the score, which presumably unsettled everyone from the very beginning. After all, if those songs were really special, would we perhaps have had Judy Garland instead of Gloria De Haven?

MGM instead spent a fortune making the film - and even in this state it indeed looks great - but it also clearly looks like they are desperately trying to cover up the score's deficiencies. The comparison to YOLANDA AND THE THIEF is interesting and quite apt, however at least that has the magnificent COFFEE TIME number. The one number I really liked on the essential Rhino CD, "Wish I Had A Braver Heart" was lovely but they probably did not know what to do with it. Anyway I do hope the filmed outtakes emerge some day.

12:23 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson e-mails about another MGM stab at Americana ...

A sort of footnote to the nostalgia wave was "Excuse My Dust" (1954), recently revisited on TCM. Red Skelton was knocking out B&W comedies for MGM, but this one was a good deal more lavish with color, period trappings and musical numbers. Were they looking to elevate Skelton into big Danny Kaye vehicles? Testing the market for a bigger nostalgia epic? Or just getting some mileage out of all the bustles and straw hats left over from the earlier films?

Anyway, there was a sort of revival with the Honking Big Musicals of the 60's, many of which offered lavish American period settings. By then evoking other recent hits (or Disneyland) had pretty much replaced actual nostalgia.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Dugan said...

Well John I like failed musicals as well I wonder at what point the filmmakers knew that had serious issues on their hands. "Finian's Rainbow" had Fred Astaire way past his prime, Hello Dolly seems incredibly dated in spite of Gene Kelly using a lot of the old MGM Freed Unit team. What was Robert Wise thinking when he cast Julie Andrews as a sexy sophisticated theater star in "Star. "At Long Last Love, Sweet Charity,On A Clear Day..." There is a fascination with seeing talented people guiding these train wrecks.

9:49 AM  
Anonymous zafrom said...

Thanks very much John for calling this film to our attention. I've not (yet) seen it, but the cast alone should be worth a look, including teenaged Anne Francis.

I've always liked Jo Stafford's rousing version of "The Stanley Steamer". Ralph Blane's lyrics verge on being overly rhymed (like Irving Berlin's "The Piccolino"), and the songs succeeds with Harry Warren's melody. Jo steams ever onward, carrying me along with her infectious joy.

5:19 AM  
Blogger D said...

Having just watched Summer Holiday I have to say, it's aspirations are admirable but the movie is just kinda dull. And the score is awful. It's not that it's dull, it's that they quite often chose to musicalize the wrong moments. Totally baffling. What I did like was the rich colors that Mamoulian used and the extended opening musical sequence , its unfortunate that Harry Warren and Ralph Blane didn't come up with a score to match the source material.

7:20 PM  

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