Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Small Town Girl (1953)

SMALL TOWN GIRL is a relatively minor but extremely enjoyable MGM musical, distinguished by a deep cast, attractive production design, and excellent musical numbers.

Sunday morning church services in the little town of Duck Creek are disturbed by the sound of a car screeching through town, followed by sirens. Wealthy Rick Livingston (Farley Granger) is arrested for speeding 60 miles over the limit, and when he gives the judge (Robert Keith) attitude, Rick is sentenced to 30 days in jail. This is a disappointment to Rick's fiancee Lisa (Ann Miller) as they were in the process of eloping.

An annoyed Rick goes off to serve his sentence in the town jail. Enter the judge's daughter Cindy (Jane Powell), who eventually proves to be a good influence on Rick's character.

The terrific musical sequences, staged by Busby Berkeley, include Bobby Van's famous "human pogo stick" number, where he hops all over town, and two great dances by Ann Miller. Miller's first dance, "I've Gotta Hear That Beat," features her dancing around instruments played by disembodied arms; THE BUSBY BERKELEY BOOK has a fascinating photo of Ann Miller on top of the platform and the men standing underneath it "playing" the instruments. It's a great dance, and I think I liked Miller's final number with Latin rhythms, "My Gaucho," even better.

Nat King Cole has a wonderful song performed in a nightclub visited by Granger and Powell; he sings the romantic "My Flaming Heart." The film closes with Powell and a choir singing a stirring rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus"; for a small town, Duck Creek boasted a superb church choir!

The film is interesting from a social history standpoint for its depiction of the early '50s: the film begins with various cast members leaving their homes for church, and closes with the hero and heroine reunited during another church service. Powell's family eat dinner together and grace is said at each meal (the interruptions of grace are a running joke). After dinner the family relaxes with checkers, needlework, or a trip to the movies; television had not yet invaded Duck Creek. The multiple references to church and prayer were doubtless unremarkable in 1953, and it's a shame that in today's world the film's comfortable depiction of religion as a part of daily life is somewhat unusual.

Billie Burke is marvelous in a small role as Granger's mother, and it's a real treat that Fay Wray (recently seen by me in 1932's ANN CARVER'S PROFESSION) came out of retirement to appear as Powell's mother. Wray retired for marriage and motherhood after marrying screenwriter Robert Riskin in 1942; she resumed acting in 1953, appearing in both SMALL TOWN GIRL and TREASURE OF THE GOLDON CONDOR.

The cast also includes Chill Wills as the town jailer, Philip Tonge as Burke's butler, and Roger Moore (not 007, but the older brother of actor Robert Young) as Burke's chauffeur.

This 94-minute movie was directed by Leslie Kardos, also known as Laszlo Kardos. Kardos, the brother-in-law of the film's producer, Joe Pasternak, only directed a handful of American films. Kardos' sister was the wife of S.Z. Sakall, who appears in this film as Bobby Van's father.

Longtime MGM cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg shot the film. The costumes were by Helen Rose, who later designed the wedding dress for Princess Grace of Monaco. Andre Previn was the film's musical director; he started working at MGM as a teenager and was all of 24 years old the year this film was released.

This SMALL TOWN GIRL has no relationship to the 1936 romantic comedy of the same name, which starred Robert Taylor, Janet Gaynor, and James Stewart.

The video I watched wasn't a particularly good copy, with the color in some scenes very washed out and a couple of scenes noticeably dark. The film features beautiful pastel costumes and sets which weren't done full justice by the video.

SMALL TOWN GIRL was recently released on DVD-R from the Warner Archive and I was curious about the print quality, as most films are being released to the Archive "as is." I found a consumer review at the Home Theater Forum with good news: "I just looked at Small Town Girl and it is in great shape. The transfer is clean and crisp with good color. I almost get the feeling the transfer was done for a regular DVD release for a Musical Collection that was aborted. It looks much better than some of the past musicals that were released through Warner Archive."

I'd like to pick up a copy when the Archive has a sale, as it's definitely a film my family would like to watch again.

SMALL TOWN GIRL can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer available here.


Blogger Missy said...

I have Small Town Girl on LaserDisc. I haven't watched it in sometime, but I don't remember there being an issue with the picture quality. Maybe the work they did to produce the LaserDisc was available for the DVD.


6:19 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Missy! That's an interesting thought. I'm going to be watching for one of the Archive's sales or coupons so I can check out the print firsthand.

Best wishes,

6:21 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Laura,

I'm the author of an upcoming biography of Busby Berkeley and I wanted to let you know how right you are on your opinion of "Small Town Girl."

At this point in his career Berkeley was a somewhat beaten man, yet he still had some fascinating ideas. I regard "I Gotta Hear That Beat" as his greatest late masterpieces akin to some of his early Warner Brothers numbers. The photo you refer to is quite revealing. Ann Miller thought Berkeley was a tyrant because he wouldn't allow her a time-out to bandage her bleeding and blistered foot.

Anyway, the anecdotes relating to S.T.G. are all in my book.

Keep up the good writing!

Jeffrey Spivak

9:59 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Jeffrey,

Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment. I hope you will let us know when your book is published. I'm sure it will be of great interest to many of my readers. I'll look forward to reading the stories behind STG and Berkeley's other great work.

Best wishes,

10:15 AM  

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