Monday, August 4, 2014

Tony Curtis, Song & Dance Man

A Tony Curtis musical comedy?  Yes.  He sang and danced?  Yes.  And he wasn't bad.  If a young person today asked me what made Tony Curtis a major movie star, I would most definitely have that young person watch him in Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones, Some Like It Hot and Spartacus.  The Bronx native became a star in the old Hollywood studio system days.  He was put under contract.  His name was changed from Bernie Schwartz to Tony Curtis.
In the early 1950s before he really hit the heights as a star, he acted in all kinds of movies.  Especially at Universal, his home studio.
He had the face and form for action, adventure and romance.            

The Hollywood newcomer learned his screen craft in modern dramas, comedies, westerns, war stories, Medieval action movies (1954's The Black Shield of Falworth) and desert dramas (1951's The Prince Who Was a Thief and 1952's Son of Ali Baba) and a biopic (1953's Houdini, one of the films in which he starred opposite his real life wife, Janet Leigh).

Universal was not a top studio for musicals like MGM and 20th Century Fox were in Hollywood's Golden Age, but it produce musicals.  Deanna Durbin in the 1930s & '40s was for Universal what Judy Garland was for MGM -- it's top female musical star.  It also had Donald O'Connor in several low-budget musicals that took him from teen to young adult years before he moved up to A-list musicals like MGM's Singin' in the Rain and 20th Century Fox's There's No Business Like Show Business in the 1950s.  So This Is Paris proves that Universal could do Technicolor musical comedy very well, thank you.  Tony Curtis, Gene Nelson and Paul Gilbert are three American sailors looking for love while they're on leave in Paris.  It's a lightweight plot in a breezy musical.  In the category of Americans in Paris, it's not a Grade A, champagne production like An American in Paris starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron or Funny Face starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn.  It's more bubbly ginger ale, a lower-budgeted film.  However, folks on and off camera bring their A-game to a B-movie production.  The smooth and athletic Gene Nelson co-choreographed the numbers in the film.  With all his skill -- and he's mighty fine in this movie -- your eye keeps going to Tony Curtis.  You know he's nowhere near the trained dancer that Nelson obviously was, but he keeps right up with him.  Curtis had a natural grace and rhythm as a hoofer.
In the 1970s, MGM produced a documentary saluting its own movie musical history.  That's Entertainment! was such a box office champ that it spawned sequels.  If Gene Nelson and Tony Curtis had been On The Town's Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in So This Is Paris for MGM, two of the numbers featuring Curtis would've been highlighted in That's Entertainment!  If you're a fan of Tony Curtis movies and you see this rarely-shown film of his, you'll wonder why Universal or another studio didn't put him another another musical.  Yes, he does that good a job.
In the above photo, Tony's on the left, Nelson aloft in the middle and Gilbert's on the right.
This was a movie I used to see on local TV's late show on the weekends when I was a kid.  Many years later, when I had the fabulous opportunity to interview Tony Curtis live on Fox 5's Good Day New York, I mentioned in the intro that he had sung and danced on the big screen.  That's why.  I remembered watching So This Is Paris on TV in Los Angeles when I was growing up.
The movie's opening number sets the pace and tone for this fun musical.  "Wait 'Til Paris Sees Us" also shows that the three male leads work and move well together.  It's a smartly choreographed number that puts the sailors joyfully in transit.  Nelson, one of the finest male singer/dancers of 1950s movies, really got to shine in Warner Bros. musicals starring Doris Day. Doris and Gene were quite a good dance team.

Gene Nelson went to star in Fox's deluxe big screen adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!  On Broadway in 1971, he originated the role of Buddy in Stephen Sondheim's Follies.

Paul Gilbert, the third sailor of the trio was also an actor who sang and danced.                                    
Like Curtis, he dressed as a dame in one movie.  In the 1965 drama Sylvia, starring Carroll Baker and George Maharis, Gilbert played a karate-chopping drag queen nightclub entertainer.

That's Paul Gilbert in the middle with Carroll Baker to the far left.

He did a lot of TV work and adopted the little girl we came to know as TV actress Melissa Gilbert.

Tony Curtis famously dressed as a dame in Billy Wilder's 1959 classic, Some Like It Hot.  Two Chicago musicians witness a gangland slaying in the 1920s.  They dress as women to flee the gangsters and join an all-girl band on a train to Florida.  Joe (Curtis) becomes "Josephine."  Sex symbol Marilyn Monroe played the band singer, Sugar Kane.  Curtis also did a brilliantly funny vocal send-up of Cary Grant when his lover boy musician pretends to be a bookworm millionaire bachelor called "Junior" and tries to get some Sugar.  Tony Curtis masterfully played three characters in one comedy.  Peter Sellers played three characters in one dark comedy, 1964's Dr. Strangelove.  He got one of his Best Actor Oscar nominations for it.  Tony Curtis didn't get an Oscar nomination for Some Like It Hot.  But I feel he was worthy of one.

That was not Tony Curtis's first time imitating Cary Grant in a movie.  He copied Cary in 1955's So This Is Paris during his cute song called "It's Really Up To You" sung for some French youngsters.  It's a sweet, jaunty tune telling the kids what they have to do if they want to be famous.  In this song, Tony Curtis references and imitates Cary Grant.  In his imitation, he says "Judy, Judy, Judy."

So This Is Paris movie has good songs with clever arrangements.  One standard added to the film is given to the female lead, Gloria DeHaven.  She plays a classy nightclub entertainer.  She had a snappy dance routine to her rendition of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" sung in French.
My favorite Tony Curtis dance bit in this movie comes during his "Three Bon Vivants" number.  The three sailors perform this routine at a ritzy charity function.  It was Tony Curtis's tap dance break in "Three Bon Vivants" that made me wonder why the heck Hollywood didn't give him another movie musical assignment.  He killed in that number.

And just two years later, he'd take one giant step up the stardom ladder as the ambitious "cookie full of arsenic" New York City publicist named Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success co-starring Burt Lancaster, followed by The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier and Spartacus with Kirk Douglas.

So This Is Paris needs to be on DVD so longtime Tony Curtis fans can discover his musical comedy talents -- talents that were rarely seen and rarely mentioned.
If you'd like to see the fun morning experience I had with him, here's our interview on WNYW/Fox5's Good Day New York.  I'd read in a celebrated magazine that he had to wear an extra-strength athletic supporter under his Some Like It Hot drag.  I asked him about that -- and about a movie quote he was reported to have said early in his film career.  The Hollywood legend was in town to promote his 1999 special airing on Turner Classic Movies.

There was absolutely nobody like Tony Curtis.  He was definitely a Hollywood star.

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