Friday, 9 September 2016

Film Friday: "Good News" (1947)

This week on "Film Friday," I am celebrating Peter Lawford's 93th birthday, which was on Wednesday, by telling you a little bit about one of my favorite films of his.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Charles Walters, Good News (1947) open in 1927 as the pretentious Pat McLellan (Patricia Marshall) arrives at Tait College to begin her studies. Her arrival causes quite a stir on campus and she wins the immediate adoration of all the male students, including Tommy Marlowe (Peter Lawford), the captain of the school's fooball team. Instantly smitten, Tommy tries to win her heart, but Pat deliberately resists his advances, pursuing instead Peter Van Dyne III (Robert Strickland) simply because he comes from a wealthy family. Undeterred, Tommy resolves to learn French to be able to converse with Pat in her preferred language. To help him study, he enlists fellow student and part-time school librarian Connie Lane (June Allyson), who despises Pat and is secretly in love with Tommy.

Under Connie's tutelage, Tommy learns to speak French well enough to ask Pat to the prom in that language, but he is heartbroken when she turns down his invitation. Learning of the rejection, Connie's rommate Babe Doolittle (Joan McCracken) decides for the sake of the football team to intervene and prevent Tommy from becoming depressed. Babe manages to interest Pat in Tommy by telling her that he is the heir to a large fortune, only by then Tommy has asked Connie to the prom. Connie is overjoyed, but her excitement is shattered when Tommy tells her that he is going with Pat. Meanwhile, Coach Johnson (Donald MacBride), concerned that Tommy will not have the high marks he needs to play in the big game against Colton Univerisity, implore Connie to tutor Tommy for a re-examination in his French class. During their first lesson, Tommy makes romantic overtures to Connie and admits that his interest in Pat was a mistake. Later, he tries to avoid his commitment to Pat by deliberately failing his French test and prompting his own suspension from the game. When he forced to play, he performs poorly and the team suffers greatly. Finally, gets an idea to save Tait from defeat by telling Pat that Tommy has suddenly become penniless. Her plan works and, upon learning that Pat has left him, Tommy delivers a victory for the team and is happily reunited with Connie.

Tommy Marlowe: I never think about anything but being a big football star. Well, that will be over in a few months and then what?

Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson were archetypal Broadway crafstmen whose shows were among the most successful and audience-pleasing of the late 1920s. Their biggest hit was Good News, which opened at Chanin's 46th Street Theatre on Broadway in September 1927 and ran for 557 performances until January 1929. Directed by Edgar MacGregor, this musical in two acts was set in the Roaring Twenties at the fictional Tait College, where football Tom Marlowe falls in love with studious Connie Lane, who is tutoring him so he can pass his astronomy exam and be eligible to play in the big game. John Price and Mary Lawlor starred as Tom and Connie, in a cast that included Inez Courtney as Babe O'Day, a vivacious flapper, and Shirley Vernon as Patricia Bingham, Connie's cousin and Tom's girlfriend. Brooks Atkinson, the theatre critic for The New York Times, described it as "a ripping good show" and "a constantly fast entertainment with furious dancing, catchy tunes [...] excellent singing, and genuine excitement."

In 1930, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer purchased the rights to Good News reportedly for $200,000 and hired Frances Marion to pen the screen adaptation. Lyricist Arthur Freed and his songwriting partner, composer Nacio Herb Brown, were hired to created two original songs to be featured in the film. Directed by Nick Grinde, Good News (1930) starred Stanley Smith as Tom Marlowe, Bessie Love as Dixie (Babe) O'Day and Lola Lane and Patricia Bingham. Mary Lawlor reprised her stage role as Connie Lane, while Cliff Edwards who had introduced the classic Freed-Brown tune "Singin' in the Rain" in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929) appeared as "Pooch" Kearney, Tom's friend and teammate. Filmed in black-and-white, Good News featured a lavish 5-minute finale in Multicolor, which is missing from surviving prints and thus considered lost. Due to its sexual innuendo and lewd suggestive humor, the film stopped being screened in the United States after the strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in May 1934.

June Allyson and Peter Lawford on the set of Good News
After serving as associate producer for the acclaimed Best Picture nominee The Wizard of Oz (1939), Freed decided to abandon lyric writing and focus instead on production. He established his own unit at MGM and soon delivered a smash hit with Babes in Arms (1939), a "backyard" musical starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. To capitalize on their success as a screen couple, Freed seriously considered Good News as the next Rooney-Garland pairing, but the project never came to fruition. Seven years later, he dug the vintage property out of the MGM vault and conceived it with studio head Louis B. Mayer's approval  as a vehicle for Van Johnson and June Allyson, who had previously co-starred in Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) and High Barbaree (1947).

To write the new adaptation of the DeSylva-Brown-Henderson musical, Freed engaged Adolph Green and Betty Comden, who had never worked on a movie script before. Both native New Yorkers, the duo began their long collaboration in 1938, when they formed an acting troupe called "The Revuers" with future Oscar winner Judy Holliday. The act's success earned small roles in Greenwich Village (1944), a 20th Century Fox musical starring Carmen Miranda and Don Ameche, but the lack of new film offers prompt their return to New York. The company went their separate ways soon afterwards, at which point Green and Comden turned to writing for the stage. Their first effort, a musical romp entitled On the Town, opened at the Adelphi Theatre on Broadway, where it ran for 462 performances between December 1944 and February 1946. However, their next two musicals, Billion Dollar Baby (1945) and Bonanza Bound (1947), were not successful and once again the pair headed to Hollywood, immeditaly finding work at MGM. Besides Good News, Comden and Green wrote five other musicals produced by Freed; these included On the Town (1949), based on their own Broadway hit, and Singin' in the Rain (1952).

June Allyson and Charles Walters between takes
Meanwhile, MGM dance director Charles Walters who had coreographed such popular films as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Thrill of a Romance (1945) was looking for an opportunity to helm a picture on his own. When he heard that the studio had approved Good News for production, he found it difficult to conceal his enthusiasm. "It was like somebody put a firecracker under me," he said, recalling the amateur variation he had steered as a student at Anaheim High School in California. "And right there I gave [Arthur] a private audition." To Walters' surprise and utter happiness, Freed immediately hired him to direct Good News. Like Comden and Green, Walters became a Freed Unit regular, directing three other pictures for the producer, includinEaster Parade (1948) with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire.

Walters spent his first day of work on Good News monitoring screen tests of potential supporting cast members for Allyson and Johnson. These included a selection of young MGM contract players and newcomers to the film industry. Tapper Ray McDonald landed the part of Bobby Turner, Tommy's friend and non-playing teammate, while Robert Strickland was cast as Peter Van Dyne III, a wealthy student at Tait College. Gloria DeHaven, Allyson and Johnson's co-star in Two Girls and a Sailor, was given the role of Patricia Bingham, a pretentious new student who becomes Tommy's girlfriend. Betty Garrett was originally assigned to the role of Bobby's pushy paramour, Babe O'Day (renamed Doolittle), but was replaced by Joan McCracken before rehearsals began. A trained dancer, McCracken began her professional career as a soloist in several ballet companies, before finding success on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein's hit musical Oklahoma! (1944). Her acclaimed performance in that show led to a small featured role as a specialty dancer in the Warner Bros. morale booster Hollywood Canteen (1944), but she soon returned to New York to star in Bloomer Girl (1944) and then in the aforementioned Billion Dollar Baby. Good News marked McCracken's last film appearance, although she continued to have great success on Broadway until her death from a diabetes-related heart attack in 1961.

June Allyson and Peter Lawford
The production was unexpectedly delayed when Johnson proved unavailable and Mickey Rooney came and went as his replacement. The role of Tommy Marlowe finally passed to Peter Lawford, who had recently starred opposite Allyson in Two Sisters from Boston (1946). The only child of a prominent British Army officer, Lawford made his acting debut at the age of seven in the English comedy Poor Old Bill (1930). In the late 1930s, he signed a contract with MGM, making his first American screen appearance in Sam Wood's Lord Jeff (1938). His first role in a major production was in the successful A Yank at Eton (1942), in which he played a snobbish bully opposite Mickey Rooney. A series of small uncredited roles followed, until he finally established himself as one of MGM's most popular romantic leads with such films as Son of Lassie (1945) and It Happened in Brooklyn (1947). Lawford initially protested his assignment to Good News, arguing that his English accent would be inappropriate for the part of an American college student. In the film, his character has to be tutored in French; in real life, Lawford spoke perfect French as a result of a childhood spent in France.

Rehearsals for Good News began on February 12, 1947, with Allyson determined to establish herself in a Freed musical. Weary of her novice director, she approached Freed privately and said, "I love Chuck. I truly do. But do you think he's ready to direct a whole picture?" After a few moments of silence, Freed replied, "You must remember June [...] somebody had to give you your start." Allyson soon adjusted and later she acknowledged, "Chuck knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew exactly how to get you to do it." Walters' abilities, however, did not stop DeHaven from abandoning the project haflway through rehearsals. The Hollywood Reporter announced that she left the cast due to "differences over the script," which resulted in her being suspended for a brief period of time. Her part was eventually given to Patricia Marshall, a stage actress who made her motion picture debut in Good News. Walters would later direct DeHaven in the musical comedy Summer Stock (1950), Judy Garland's last film under her contract with MGM.

Patricia Marshall, June Allyson, Peter Lawford and
Joan McCracken in a publicity still
Good News was filmed in 55 days between early March and late May 1947. Besides helming the film, Walters also staged eight of its musical sequences, thus making him the first of Freed's "new boys" to both direct and coreograph a picture. Songs retained from the original stage version included "Good News," "Be a Ladies' Man," " Lucky in Love," and "Just Imagine." In addition, Freed engaged composer Roger Edens another major figure in the producer's unit to supervise the creation of three original songs: "Pass That Peace Pipe," with lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane; "The French Lesson" and "An Easier Way", both written by Comden and Green. "An Easier Way," sung by Allyson and Marshall, was deleted from the final cut of the film, but it survives and has been released as a DVD extra.

Regarding Good News, Allyson later said: "Everything about the movie was unbelievable. [...] No one made any effort to change Peter Lawford's British accent to American. For that matter, my French accent was atrocious and his was superb he spent hours teaching me how to teach him French. Working with Peter Lawford was like going to a party. He made a game of whatever he did." However, the 24-year-old actor was extremely nervous about this role his biggest to date and worked extremely hard to Americanize his accent. "[And] when I'd slip," Lawford remembered, "Chuck would nudge me and urge, 'Cut the Back Bay stuff.'" Walters also devoted time to improving Lawford's very limited musical abilities. Upon seeing the finished film, Lawford's boyhood dance teacher, Muriel O'Brien, declared: "I kept watching him [perform] and thought, Oh, my God! Anybody who could teach that boy to sing and dance in time has got to be a genius."

Good News premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York on December 4, 1947, receiving a general release just after Christmas, on December 26. It garnered generally positive reviews from critics, with Collier's magazine describing it as "the gayest, fast-paced film ever brightened by Technicolor's magic." However, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times considerely it "woodeny done" compared with the original 1930 version, adding: "Certainly Peter Lawford is nobody's song-and-dance boy, being weak in the vocal department and practically null on his pins. And June Allyson, while soft and beguiling as a sweetheart, can't sing worth a fig." (In fact, Allyson's voice was dubbed by Patt Hyatt.) Good News was also successful at the box-office, grossing nearly $3,000,000 in its initial release. At the 20th Academy Awards in March 1948, Edens, Blane and Martin received a nomination for Best Original Song, but the statuette was given to Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert for "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" from the Disney production Song of the South (1946).


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SOURCES:
A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film by Richard Barrios (1995) | Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance by Brent Phillips (2014) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review

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