Escapist Fun in the ’50s Sun: On The Riviera

So here’s the thing. Walter Lang’s 1951 musical On The Riviera is not a great film. It’s not even a particularly good film. It’s all style without substance, and what could have been a prime vehicle for one of the most dynamic comedians of the 20th century manages to be pleasant at best, working from a slight, unoriginal script.

OK. Glad we got that out of the way.

Because you know what? I love this movie.

No one in their right mind watches a movie like On The Riviera with any sort of expectations other than to simply be entertained. Films like this exist for the same reasons that pizza on a Friday night exists: We’re tired, we hate our job, and all we want to do is escape with some complex carbohydrates.

That’s where Danny Kaye films come to the rescue.

The entire purpose of a film like On The Riviera is escapist nonsense, and in that respect, the film succeeds. There’s not a serious bone in its beautifully bronzed Riviera body. The film is the third such adaptation of the story , the first having been Follies Bergere (1935), and That Night in Rio (1941). Danny Kaye plays a dual role, as he’d done before (and to much greater effect) in Sam Goldwyn’s marvelous musical comedy Wonder Man, and would repeat soon again (to lesser effect) in The Inspector General. Here Danny is an American nightclub singer at an elite nightclub on the French Riviera who has two things: a gorgeous French girlfriend (sex kitten Corinne Calvet) and a striking resemblance to a world famous aviator and playboy–a French Howard Hughes–the debonair Henri Duran. Kaye makes a splash at the nightclub by impersonating Duran, making fun of his reputation as a ladies’ man. Duran is amused–although his stunning wife (The Supreme Goddess of Technicolor Gene Tierney) is less so.

Duran happens to be in deep financial trouble, and his his last lifeline, a rival named Periton, has backed out of a deal that would save him from bankruptcy. Unaware of the trouble, Tierney throws a lavish party and invites Periton. But Duran has flown to London without telling his wife, as a last-ditch effort to secure a loan. Duran’s aide’s are panicked and so they hire Kaye to stand in as Duran for the evening. Tierney reluctantly agrees to play along. The aides instruct Kaye to say nothing at all to Periton, which turns out to be Duran’s saving grace. Periton thinks Duran is hiding some sort of juicy deal and, by the end of the night, has promised to back Duran’s deal.

There’s a lot more of the same: mistaken identities, jealous wives, jealous girlfriends, jealous husbands–all necessary ingredients in such a story–and they weave in and out to create pleasantly amusing moments of misunderstanding. It’s a definite Kaye vehicle, which means the supporting roles are really there to look good rather than make any sort of real contribution to the film. Kaye is perhaps more debonair in Riviera than any other film in his career–as neither of the dual roles have any of the outrageous Kaye antics that have come to define him–and Tierney and Calvet are unfathomably beautiful specimens of perfection.

But as I mentioned: you’re not watching On the Riviera for any sort of deep, meaningful substance. You’re watching it for the quick, witty, and often mischievous dialogue–always a staple in Kaye’s films–and you’re most definitely watching it for the splashy production numbers, of which there are several, each bigger and more lavish than the last.

The payoff is highly satisfying thanks to the decadent, lavish, wonderfully Hollywood treatment given to the numbers. Written by Kaye’s longtime wife and creative partner Sylvia Fine, they are, as always, designed to accentuate Kaye’s very unique brand of comedy. They also benefit from the magical dancing gams of none other than Gwen Verdon, strutting her stuff to the work of  legendary choreographer Jack Cole. (Cole appears himself in the closing number.)

Kaye excelled at tongue-twisting nonsensical novelty numbers and, as a sublime mimic, had mastery of faux languages–not fluent in any, he could certainly make it sound like he was. Fine’s numbers allow him to move from English to “French,” and back again with ease. (Although Kaye’s finest number is a cool, low-key, lounge version of the standard “Ballin’ The Jack.”) The film crescendos with a snappy closing production entitled “Happy Ending,” which drives home the point that this film has been nothing more than an unabashed 90 minute dose of feel-good fluff.

As a kid, I was relegated to watching this film on a very shoddy VHS copy and was thrilled to hear of its release on Blu-ray from Fox Home Entertainment, in conjunction with Danny Kaye’s 2013 centennial. The transfer, as with nearly all of the Fox transfers, is sharp and clear and takes every opportunity to accentuate the full splendor of Technicolor–the opening montage of the idle rich at play on the Cote d’Azur is eye-popping. There is, however, an issue with the color registration in a number of scenes: yellow and green are so overly saturated they give the actors a garish glow. (There are times when Kaye actually looks yellow–as in Crayola crayon yellow.) It’s quite distracting, not to mention disappointing, but I still give the Blu-ray full marks for the very obvious loving care that went into making the sparkling Riviera very nearly pop from the screen.

On The Riviera is a film that simply could not exist in the 21st century–and that makes me a bit sad. I wonder if our society has lost its sense of humor. We don’t seem to be comfortable anymore with no holds barred escapism. We’re so quick to key in on the faults, we miss the big picture– which can lead to missing out on the fun.

So lighten up, everyone, and give On The Riviera a watch. You might remember what it feels like to just sit back and enjoy the sheer bliss of escapism.

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