Last Sunday I had the rare treat of seeing Leonard Maltin interview Emma Thompson for an hour prior to a preview screening of next month's SAVING MR. BANKS (2013). Tonight I attended a tribute to Oscar-winning actor-singer-dancer George Chakiris at UCLA, which concluded with a 35mm screening of THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (1967).
I was very glad I'd had the foresight to buy my ticket for the Chakiris tribute when I was at UCLA a few days ago to see STAGE DOOR (1937) and FIFTH AVENUE GIRL (1939), as there was a long line for tickets and the Billy Wilder Theater was absolutely packed with admirers of Mr. Chakiris.
The evening began on a high note for me before the actual program, when I took my usual aisle seat and realized that Russ Tamblyn was sitting just across the aisle and one row back. I've seen Tamblyn in the past, including at a screening of GUN CRAZY (1950) earlier this year and an Academy tribute to SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954) many years ago; I also saw Chakiris speak at a screening of WEST SIDE STORY (1961) a few years ago. However, having "Bernardo" and "Riff" under the same roof was beyond cool -- especially when George Chakiris himself came in and took the seat immediately across the aisle from me, in front of Tamblyn.
I'd thought the woman sitting right in front of Chakiris strongly resembled Shirley Jones but didn't give it much thought at first -- until Chakiris saw her and exclaimed "Shirley!" It was Shirley Jones, sitting with her husband, Marty Ingels. She actually had been the presenter who handed Chakiris his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and now here she was enjoying his tribute evening half a century later. (Chakiris is greeting Jones and friends in this cell phone snap, as Ingels looks on.)
I couldn't help thinking, how often does someone get to watch a movie sitting a couple of yards from George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn, and Shirley Jones? As someone who has loved musicals for my entire lifetime, it was an extra-special experience.
A bit later Patricia Ward Kelly walked in, who I recognized from her talk at a 2010 screening of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951). Her late husband Gene was one of the stars of the evening's film, THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT; in fact, it was one of very few Kelly films I'd never seen.
The evening took a surreal turn when I looked up and noticed a very familiar-looking older gentleman standing next to my seat. I wasn't quite sure it was who I thought it was, and then I heard his voice and was pretty certain I was right. When someone approached to shake his hand and jovially exclaimed "Doctor!" I knew it had to be Dr. Kildare himself, Richard Chamberlain. How can the heartthrob of CENTENNIAL (1978) and THE THORN BIRDS (1983) be turning 80 early next year?!
The first part of the evening consisted of Chakiris discussing his career with Los Angeles Times dance critic Debra Levine, interspersed with very rare clips of his singing and dancing in various TV shows.
One of the revelations of the evening, thanks to the TV performances, was that Chakiris is a superb singer in addition to being a remarkable dancer. In the evening's first clip he crooned "Night and Day" to Sally Forrest as part of a beautiful dance number choreographed by Robert Alton. (Speaking of revelations, how did I not know that Sally Forrest was an extremely talented dancer?!) There were several other variety show excerpts showcasing his singing talent, concluding most impressively with a scene from a TV production of KISMET where he dueted "Stranger in Paradise" with Anna Maria Alberghetti. I suspect I'll be fortunate to ever have the chance to see these wonderful TV clips again, so I reveled in the opportunity to enjoy them.
THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, known it its native France as LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT, is a candy-colored dream. The film is mostly sung and danced, and while the storyline is somewhat odd, the movie is such an upbeat blast of sunshine that the viewer willingly goes along for the ride.
The opening scene is fantastic, as a convoy of trucks comes to a stop and the passengers -- including Chakiris and costar Grover Dale -- slowly get out, stretch, and burst into dance. It turns out the trucks, part of a traveling fair, have stopped on a barge conveying them across a river. The dancing and camera work is simply wonderful and sets the tone for the rest of the film.
The fair sets up in the town of Rochefort, where several love stories unfold, involving Delphine (Catherine Deneuve), her twin Solange (Deneuve's real-life sister Francoise Dorleac), and their mother Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux, THE RAGE OF PARIS, RICH, YOUNG AND PRETTY), who runs a charming cafe on the town square.
A sailor (Jacques Perrin) dreams of finding Delphine, whom he had painted after seeing her once, while Solange has a chance meeting with American Andy (Gene Kelly, in amazing shape at 55), a famous pianist, after which they both dream of finding one another again. The carefree carny workers, Etienne (Chakiris) and Bill (Dale), are also interested in the twins. Meanwhile Yvonne dreams of her old love, Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli).
That's really all there is to the plot of this 125-minute film, which was written and directed by Jacques Demy, with a score by Michel Legrand. It's simply great fun to watch all the dancing and take in the amazing visuals. I especially loved the airy design of the cafe and the pastel-colored costume design.
Gene Kelly's introduction rather calls to mind AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, as he interacts with both children and sailors while dancing down the street. Kelly and Dorleac also have a lovely dance duet, and Chakiris has any number of energetic, entertaining numbers.
Some of the French dialogue sounded like Kelly and some didn't, which was interesting; I believe Chakiris's French was also dubbed. Apparently most, if not all, of the entire soundtrack was prerecorded. It's normal, of course, for musical production numbers to be prerecorded, but it's so extensive here that, combined with the film's unreal air and near total focus on musical numbers, it almost seems as though the movie is an early, super-long spin on music videos.
There's a tragic footnote to the film, as Francoise Dorleac died in a car wreck shortly after this film opened in France. The Lady Eve paid tribute to her earlier this year.
Here's a Susan King interview with Chakiris published last week in the L.A. Times.
THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT was released on DVD, but it's now out of print and very expensive. Hopefully it will be reissued at some point -- I'd like to add it to my musicals collection! Happily, in the meantime it's available on DVD or via streaming from Netflix.
It also had a release on VHS.
2013 has been a year of many interesting first-time film discoveries for me, including THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT. And what a great night to discover it!
April 2014 Update: Great news: This movie will be released by the Criterion Collection in July 2014.