Let’s Dance is a hearty swing but a definite miss for these musical stars.
The Production: 3/5
Norman Z. McLeod’s Let’s Dance puts together Paramount’s top female star, the cinema’s most legendary dancer, an award-winning composer/lyricist, and a great supporting cast of actors into one of those can’t miss properties that somehow managed the impossible: it missed. It wasn’t for lack of trying: Betty Hutton and Fred Astaire really gave it their all, and Frank Loesser, right after his Oscar for Best Song and right in the middle of crafting one of Broadway’s greatest achievements with Guys and Dolls, turned out a batch of tunes suited especially for the film’s leading lady, but it was all for naught. The concoction just refuses to gel.
After their USO musical act breaks up near the end of World War II, Kitty McNeil (Betty Hutton) and Don Elwood (Fred Astaire) go their separate ways: she into a wartime marriage which ends abruptly when her pilot husband is shot down and is left to raise their son alone and he out of show business and into money management with limited success. Kitty’s stuffy Boston-bred in-laws have decided she’s not a fit mother with her desire to return to show business, but she escapes to New York with son Richie (Gregory Moffett) with great grandmother Serena’s (Lucile Watson) lawyers (Roland Young, Melville Cooper) hot on her trail. She and Don coincidentally meet in a diner, and he persuades her to re-form the act at friend Larry Channock’s (Barton MacLane) club, but there is always the specter of the disapproving Serena to keep Kitty off balance and afraid of losing her child.
Allan Scott and Dane Lussier’s screenplay (based on a story by Maurice Zolotow), despite deliberate efforts to combine adroitly comedy and drama, is filled with contrivance which only multiplies as the film runs (and runs: an uncomfortably long 112 minutes). A parental competency hearing sequence which proves over and over Kitty’s earnest and effective love for her son with the help of a large cadre of friends who have taught her six-year old French, high level arithmetic, and manners far beyond that of a typical child his age should have been the end of the custody question, but for the film not to be over at the one hour mark, it’s dragged on and on ridiculously. Frank Loesser’s tune sack was pretty uninspired when he went looking for songs for the film. Hutton gets two song solos (“Can’t Stop Talking,” “Why Fight the Feeling,” the former a dance duet with Astaire and the latter obviously intended to be the movie’s hit song), and she dives right into three dances with Fred Astaire proving herself more than able to pair with him (despite self-consciously looking down at her feet too much), especially in “Oh Them Dudes,” another of Fred’s comic numbers he and his choreographer fashion for female co-stars who aren’t primarily dancers (think “A Couple of Swells” with Judy Garland or “How Could You Believe Me?” with Jane Powell). Fred gets two showpieces: the “Piano Dance” where he uses a grand piano and a spinet as props for his prancing and a later charm song “Jack and the Beanstalk” as a bedtime story dance for Kitty’s little boy. The “Tunnel of Love” finale is, sad to say, nothing special.
Betty Hutton gets top billing here, and she tries to tamp down the hoydenish qualities on which she made her reputation, but they nevertheless explode from time to time. Of course, the dramedy plays right into her strengths as an actress, one who can shed a tear or do a pratfall as the story dictates. Fred Astaire isn’t a graceful partner for her talents, and they rarely mesh as a couple despite the story wishing us to root for them. Lucile Watson as the imperious Boston matriarch is in fine fettle as Serena Everett. She unbends a little as the film runs and really gets into a horse race later on in the story, but hers is a caricature nonetheless. Ruth Warrick as another member of the Boston Everetts plays a supportive soul for the desperate Kitty, but she’s rather wasted. So is Shepperd Strudwick as Timothy Bryant, a romantic rival for Fred to derail. Barton MacLane, Harold Huber, Peggy Badley, and Virginia Toland are loyal work friends of Kitty’s who are always there for her and an enjoyable lot for us to watch. Gregory Moffett does his moppet thing just fine while Roland Young and Melville Cooper do what they can with their stuffy snooping that is forgotten when they eye beautiful girls at the club.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Overall, the film’s sharpness is just fine, but the main titles are pale and unappetizing when one is expecting Technicolor brilliance, and color varies throughout from rich and impressive to rather shallow and wan. There are instances of colored dust and debris from time to time as well, though the image clears in the second half of the picture. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix gets the job done but isn’t quite sonically comparable to similar mono soundtracks from other studios of the same age. Dialogue and song lyrics have been well recorded and have been combined with the music and sound effects professionally. There are no age-related instances of hiss, pops, crackle, or flutter to mar the listening experience.
Special Features: 1.5/5
Audio Commentary: film historian Lee Gambin contributes another of his chatterbox commentaries going off on endless tangents describing in detail other movies in the filmographies of this picture’s participants instead of commenting in depth on the movie right before him. It’s a tiring listen.
Kino Trailers: Daddy Long Legs, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, Flower Drum Song, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Change of Habit, Sweet Charity, The Paleface.
Not among the more famous films of either Betty Hutton or Fred Astaire, Let’s Dance features lackluster direction by Norman Z. McLeod, mediocre melodies by Frank Loesser, and a contrived storyline that goes on too long and fails to charm. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray release will be welcomed by fans of the stars, but this isn’t a lost gem in anybody’s career.
Matt has been reviewing films and television professionally since 1974 and has been a member of Home Theater Forum’s reviewing staff since 2007, his reviews now numbering close to three thousand. During those years, he has also been a junior and senior high school English teacher earning numerous entries into Who’s Who Among America’s Educators and spent many years treading the community theater boards as an actor in everything from Agatha Christie mysteries to Stephen Sondheim musicals.
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