Well, I’d never seen the film before, but I’ve got to rather strenuously disagree. I may love musicals, but it doesn’t oblige me to love mediocre ones, and this one certainly is, IMHO.
First of all, from a musical perspective, there are only two good songs, and while one (“Dream”) is played to death, the other (“Something’s Gotta Give”) is pretty creepy in context (more on that later). The dream sequence dance numbers would be OK, except they borrow so liberally from The Red Shoes and Yolanda and the Thief (more on that later, too) that it borders on plagiarism. “Sluefoot” is better, but still clunky in the staging (for which we can blame the hack director, Negulesco).
I have to disagree about Ritter, too. I love her, but she is turned into such a sob sister through most of the film, that I found her wasted; only at the end does she begin to resemble the Thelma we love from, well, most everything else she’s been in.
But that’s not the film’s biggest problem. Now, this will probably be the most controversial statement this Society has seen thus far, but my biggest problem with DLL is one that drives home what I find a rather unassailable fact: Fred Astaire is not a very good actor.
Now, don’t get me wrong–as a talent, he is virtually peerless in films. He’s a better dancer than Kelly (though not as good a choreographer), he’s always been underrated as a singer, and he’s got a ton of charisma and natural screen charm. And when he’s asked to play a sympathetic romantic lead (which is 90% of the time), he executes it flawlessly, from his stuff with Ginger to Rita to Cyd. He is casual grace defined, and a completely justified screen icon.
But when he’s asked to take on a more challenging role, like this one (or like the one in Yolanda), he simply can’t do it. Jervis Pendleton III is obliged to go from a being an eccentric, a cad, and an inconsiderate, self-absorbed tycoon to a sympathetic romantic lead. And for Astaire, it’s too much; like in Y&tT, he’s not very good at playing a bad guy. I never found his character arc remotely believable.
And then comes the May-December thing. The film makes the mistake of assuming we’re going to sympathize with the couple, so it’s not obliged to make a convincing case for why they belong together. There is zero chemistry between him & Caron (who’s fine, btw), for starters. Secondly, the age difference requires a gentle touch–we’re completely justified in feeling his motives are largely ignoble, but a talented director would be able to handle it more deftly (see Vincente Minnelli and Gigi); Negulesco’s all thumbs. As a result, the seduction of Caron in “SGTG” comes across as genuinely creepy; there’s no subtlety in the song–it’s all brazen overtures, which comes off as manipulative (especially since he knows that she fantasizes about his alter-ego). I find their mutual attraction a hard sell, and his behavior doesn’t help matters one bit.
The best scene in the film is when the ambassador confronts Jervis in the hotel room, after hearing their conversation in the adjoining balcony. Even though the talk is taken out of context, everything he says is still 100% on-the-money. Jervis is right to feel completely appalled by his own behavior. The problem isn’t that later we get a “happy ending”; the problem is that I never really see what she sees in him romantically, and I never was convinced that he’s actually in love with her. And without this conviction in them as a couple, the default reaction (“creepy” impropriety) is the natural one. The film implicitly condemns the judgmental types (like the guy in the airport) who make the “ugly” assumption, but we can’t help but make the same assumption since their romance feels jerry-rigged and unnatural.* And this is largely Astaire’s fault (though I’ll admit the script builds several large contrivances in her character as well).
Unfortunately, this film needed a real director at the helm–Yolanda (with which DDL has quite a few structural similarities) is a mess in a lot of ways, but there’s plenty of style, tension and innovative composition to compensate. DDL is visually flat, but that may be an unfair assessment since the film’s not available on DVD in its original CinemaScope (which Negulesco was fairly adept at using); still, I’ve seen plenty of Scope films on video where you could sense you were missing things out on the margins–but I never get this feeling here. Worse yet, this film needed a surge of romantic uplift–a sense of emotional inevitability–to overcome its troublesome plot elements, and J.N. just cannot deliver. The film is ostensibly about Love, but what plays is more of an ill-advised (and thoroughly unerotic) lust.
Interestingly, there’s a parallel thread about romantic comedies that I feel applies to this film, but I’ll let another Doper (twickster?) tackle that one.
In short, Caron is the best thing about the film (well, second-best: Kathryn Givney is tops, though given too little screen time), and though none of DDL was painful, most of it felt contrived, derivative and unconvincing. A shame. 5/10.
*I’m obliged to mention that I’m a product of a March-December relationship, so I’ve got nothing against old-young couplings in general.