THE BOOTLEG FILES: “ON THE RIVIERA”

I need to prefix this article by stating that I am not a fan of Danny Kaye’s movies. This is not to say I thoroughly hate Kaye’s work – many of his films are rich with individual triumphs of tomfoolery and two of his features, “Hans Christian Andersen” and “The Court Jester,” are deserving of their classic status. But on the whole, the films of Danny Kaye never struck me as being very funny. They’re frenetic, chaotic and lunatic, but genuine organic laughs rarely flow with non-stop consistency from start to finish.

Typical of the Kaye canon is “On the Riviera,” a 1951 feature which is the only Kaye film never released on home video. It is not a terrible film, per se. It has pleasant moments and a few nice surprises. But on the whole, it lacks imagination and style and ultimately falls flat when it could have easily soared.

“On the Riviera” came about after Kaye’s career-building contract with Samuel Goldwyn expired. Eager to take advantage of his box office popularity, Kaye shopped around the studios and accepted an offer from 20th Century Fox to star in a remake of the studio’s 1935 Maurice Chevalier farce “Follies Bergere.” Actually, Kaye was going to make a remake of a remake, as the Chevalier film was also reprised as “Weekend in Havana” in 1941. On the surface, it made no sense why Fox would opt to produce a twice-told tale (especially since neither version was particularly good). But for Kaye, it made perfect sense: “On the Riviera” would allow him to indulge in a plot line involving mistaken identity and impersonations. Most of Kaye’s films fell into that pattern, in which the comic played a low-brow bumbler mistaken for someone of a higher social and physical prowess. The laughs (such as they were) involved his attempts to fill the mighty shoes he was mistakenly placed into.

With “On the Riviera,” Kaye plays an American nightclub comic named Jack Martin. Martin stars in a revue at a popular cabaret in a French Riviera town. He is allegedly assisted in his act by a starlet played by Corrine Calvet. This is somewhat strange, since his assistant never sings or dances with him in any of the musical numbers. In face, Calvet has nothing to do with the film except to walk around in very tight strapless gowns which play up her considerable cleavage. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that (tits ahoy, Corrine!).

Through the contrived coincidences which only occur in movies, Martin crosses paths with a famous French aviator named Henri Duran. Martin and Duran are dead ringers, which is not surprising since Kaye plays both of them. Duran is involved in some hokey business deal to secure a small fortune to launch an airline. While he has no problem attracting admirers (especially lady admirers), raising funds is another matter. Duran hastily departs the Riviera for a London business meeting, forgetting that he is supposed to host a swanky gala at his mansion where a French moneyman is attending. Duran’s associates convince Martin to imitate Duran during the party. Martin is interested, particularly when he gets a look at Duran’s wife (the lovely Gene Tierney). Martin insists that Mrs. Duran not be told that he is an impostor, but she is told and insists that Martin not know that she knows. And, of course, Duran returns home early and no one knows who’s who. Oh, those French!

“On the Riviera” might sound like tonic for fans of slamming door farces, but alas the film makes a fatal error too early in the plot. Both Martin and Duran are highly self-confident men, and this deviates from the Danny Kaye modus operandi since Kaye usually plays confident-challenged bumblers who are forced to imitate the suave and sophisticated. The joke in that set-up is having someone who is a fool pretending to be a champ. In “On the Riviera,” there is no humor whatsoever in having one self-confident man pretending to be another.

Another fatal error comes in the film’s musical numbers. As usual, Kaye’s special musical material was written by his wife Sylvia Fine. Yet this time around, Fine’s talents deserted her and she crafted four painfully dull numbers which failed to show off Kaye’s talent for tongue-twisting lyrics or wild dancing. Three of the numbers look like half-assed Las Vegas revues, complete with gooey chorus girls who precision kick while keeping frozen smiles firmly on their lips. The big “funny” number, “Popo the Puppet,” is an embarrassing misfire with Kaye as a numbskull marionette bobbing along on oversized strings while mangling the names of flowers.

The only musical number that works is not credited to Fine. It was actually lifted from the classic British musical “Me and My Gal,” and it is the novelty dance tune “Ballin’ the Jack.” Kaye sings that in a cocktail lounge setting, without fancy choreography or forced antics. Instead, he simply gets up and belts out the tune, demonstrating its lyrical call of knee-swinging, pelvic thrusting gyrations (which look more like “Jackin’ the Balls”). Kaye does this effortlessly, which makes one rue that he never got to star in a film adaptation of “Me and My Gal” (he probably would’ve been dynamite in that role).

Despite its title, “On the Riviera” was strictly studio-based. There is some brief second unit photography from the French resort, but it is only used as establishing shots and none of the film’s stars are present. But the film has some surprises of its own: Gwen Verdon and Joi Lansing, early in their respective careers, make quickie appearances. Sig Ruman, the German comic actor who memorably menaced the Marx Brothers, turns up as the dyspeptic nightclub owner who is driven to agitation by Kaye’s comedy. Bess Flowers, Hollywood’s ubiquitous Queen of the Extras, can easily be spotted in the nightclub scenes. And the haunting portrait of Gene Tierney used in “Laura” can be seen briefly in the Duran mansion. (Tierney herself is wasted in a superficial role.)

“On the Riviera” was directed by Walter Lang, who also directed the earlier “Weekend in Havana.” He was one of Fox’s most prominent directors and is perhaps best known for helming the 1956 film version of “The King and I” (although some movie addicts will cherish his memory for being the director of “Snow White and the Three Stooges”).

“On the Riviera” was a popular movie and Kaye won the Golden Globe Award for his performance. He did not get an Oscar nomination, but the Academy voters nominated the film in the art direction and music scoring categories (it lost in both categories to “An American in Paris”). Kaye decided not to stay with Fox and would make films at Paramount, Warner Bros. and MGM.

So where did “On the Riviera” go? It’s been on TV (my bootleg copy came from an American Movies Classics broadcast), and it appears that there are no underlying problems with the rights. Most likely, Fox has not seen any commercial viability for a home video release. Plus, Fox prefers to release its vintage titles in collections of three-to-four films. Since this was Kaye’s only Fox film, it is difficult to package this with other similar titles.

But that’s just as well. Unless you are a rabid Danny Kaye fan, you’re not missing much with “On the Riviera.”

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on November 25, 2005 in Features by
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