There was a time, apparently, where showbiz biopics were a big thing in Hollywood. I, unfortunately, was too young to appreciate such things, and despite my exposure to star studded musicals of yesteryear, never really drank those up. Not for lack of interest, mind you, but more because they always got eclipsed by other musicals (Singin’ in the Rain, anyone?). That said, my exposure to biopics in general is fine and competent, at least those of the last four or five decades. They follow a particular formula and everything is usually fine to disastrous because such films tend to want to cover too much in one film. The best biopics concentrate on a particular era or idea and expand it so that the themes make sense in a more universal way. The worst collapse in on themselves. I was surprised, then, to find that Michael Curtiz’s I’ll See You in My Dreams, following the career of lyricist Gus Kahn and his amour Grace, has the atmosphere of a classic ‘30s musical but makes the mistakes of a more contemporary biopic.
Long, rambly introduction aside, I’ll See You in My Dreams gives the audience a familiar slightly rags to riches story of snappy, maverick song writer Gus Kahn (Danny Thomas) and his desire to make it big as such. During his pursuit of that dream, he comes in contact with Grace Leboy (Doris Day), a beautiful, ambitious piano player and quasi-composer. Soon, they become a hit machine, churning out tracks like “Pretty Baby, “It Had to Be You”, and “Makin’ Whoopee”. Various trials and tribulations occur.
Perhaps most famous for his epic romance Casablanca, Michael Curtiz gives the film a certain kind of unexpected, warm atmosphere to the film. Had I not looked at the DVD case, the film would have fit very comfortably within the canon of cheery musicals from the 1930s. The tete a tete between Thomas and Day seems fairly screwball, but one can suppose that its ability to gloss over serious subject matter sets it apart from its pre-Code ancestors. For, however warm and fuzzy the film can get, there’s still a sense that something is missing from the film, especially as far as biopics go.
One of the trademark qualities of a biopic is watching the fall and subsequent redemption of a (presumably) famous person. The audience is probably most intrigued by the fall, though, a chance for the storytellers to humanize a figure who is often seen as out of reach for the little people. It is often a very “they’re just like us! They’re flawed too!” sort of thing. But what few private tribulations there are depicted in Gus Kahn’s life in the film seem intentionally as light and unburdening as possible, as if the filmmakers didn’t want to reveal too much about Kahn. A brief scene, in which Gus slaps Grace in the face, is a) played off like an accident, glossing over any possible themes of marital abuse in the film and b) very soon after played off as comedy, as the children, not totally understanding the situation, continually mention what happened as if to guilt trip Gus. This doesn’t totally work given the fact that the tone has not been properly set up or adjusted or even followed through for such a scene. Instead, it feels kind of jarring. The desire to pursue possibilities of infidelity as a serious issue within the marriage between Gus and Grace is also played more for laughs than for any importance in drama, which is frustrating.
While Doris Day is perfectly charming and more than competent as Grace, and Danny Thomas is occasionally amusing as Gus, one does not actually seem to feel that they make a good couple, writing team or otherwise. Gus is kind of abrasive in his forcefully humble ways, Grace is extremely ambitious and has a very acute eye and ear for success. That the infidelity storyline isn’t really taken seriously makes me question if it’s the way the script was written or the fact that Danny Thomas and Doris Day didn’t have the chemistry to sustain the on screen relationship. Gus fancies himself as a wisecracking, persistent guy, but more often than not is annoying and smarmy. By the end of the film, Gus has turned into your grandfather yelling, “They don’t play music on the radio like they did in my day!”
Its desire to cover all of Gus and Grace’s career also serves as narratively problematic, since there ends up being very little focus on much of anything. The family life is covered, the experimentation with Ziegfeld is looked at, and the little drama in it gets rushed through like trying to get through a packed vaudeville revue. Maybe the biggest problem is that the film doesn’t give itself time to breathe.
There are some lovely tunes in the film (I may be biased given my adoration for the Great American Songbook), but like the erstwhile drama that takes place in the film, it all starts to sound the same after a while. At least Doris Day is lovely.