Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Gene Kelly's Brief Sojourn, "Let's Make Love" (1960)


The Classic Movie Blog Association is sponsoring the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon from August 20 - 25 and this is my contribution to the event. Please click here for links to the other participating blogs.

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1960 was the year that

Echo I
  • an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was imprisoned there
  • young Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) won the gold medal in the light heavyweight competition at the Summer Olympics in Rome
  • Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and John Updike's Rabbit, Run were published
  • NASA launched the first communications satellite, Echo I, into space
  • the first working laser was built by American T. H. Maiman
  • #1 hit songs of that year included the Everly Brothers' "Cathy's Clown," The Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me" and Percy Faith's version of the theme from A Summer Place
  • on TV, Western series ruled the ratings, with Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Have Gun Will Travel ranked one, two and three for the year
  • Camelot, starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet, debuted on Broadway
  • John F. Kennedy was elected the 35th President of the United States

As the new decade dawned and the U.S. prepared to embark on a New Frontier, Hollywood was in a state of flux, still reeling from the impact of television on movie attendance. Alfred Hitchcock, whose films since 1954 had been almost exclusively Technicolor/Vistavision dazzlers featuring top stars, shocked audiences and critics with the psychological thriller Psycho. Filmed in black and white, with TV production values and just one bankable star who is killed off in the first half-hour, Psycho was the highest grossing film for that year in the U.S. None of the top ten box office hits of 1960 were musical films. Two musicals did surface in the year's top twenty, Vincente Minnelli's Bells are Ringing with Judy Holliday and the George Cukor-directed Marilyn Monroe vehicle, Let's Make Love.
Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Gene Kelly and Taina Elg - Les Girls
Gene Kelly had made his last musical for MGM, the studio with which his name and career are forever intertwined, in 1957. The film was Les Girls, a vibrant extravaganza directed by George Cukor, co-starring Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg. Cukor was unhappy about Gaynor in the leading lady role ("one of MGM's flat tires") and with the prospect of Helen Rose designing costumes. He had to live with Gaynor but insisted on Orry-Kelly for costumes and the designer went on to win an Oscar for his work.

Kelly's next film, the drama Marjorie Morningstar (1958), teamed him with a nearly grown-up Natalie Wood. Later that year he would return to Broadway and direct the original production of The Flower Drum Song, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that went on to garner six Tony Award nominations and to win one.

With the musical film genre on the wane, Kelly happily accepted an invitation early in 1960 from A.M. Julien of the the Paris Opéra and Opéra-Comique and travelled to Paris to devise a modern ballet for the company. While in France Kelly made a quick trip back to the States to appear in George Cukor's latest film-in-progress.

The Billionaire, a romantic comedy/musical was offered to Marilyn Monroe by producer Jerry Wald of 20th Century Fox. Though it had been hoped Billy Wilder would direct, he was already working on The Apartment (1960). And so the package Wald brought to Marilyn and that she accepted included director George Cukor, screenwriter Norman Krasna and co-star Gregory Peck. The film's slight premise followed the shenanigans of a billionaire (Peck) who discovers that an Off-Broadway revue spoofing him is in the works. When he surreptitiously attends a rehearsal of the show, its star (Monroe) mistakes him for an actor on audition. The billionaire falls for the cabaret star and decides he must learn to be a nightclub performer so he can join the act and woo her. Incidentally, since he is a billionaire and can afford the best possible tutors, he eventually hires three of great expertise - Milton Berle to instruct him in the art of comedy, Bing Crosby to help him learn to sing and Gene Kelly to teach him dance moves.

Playbill, 1959
Just as the production got underway, the Writers Guild went on strike. Because there were script problems, this was a major setback. To keep the project moving, Jerry Wald approached Marilyn's husband, playwright Arthur Miller, offering him the job of developing and rewriting the script. Miller, surprisingly, broke ranks with the striking writers and agreed, quickly delivering revisions. Wald then sent Miller's script directly to Gregory Peck who, alarmed at the extent to which Marilyn's role had been enlarged, balked and asked to be released from his role as the titular billionaire. Many actors were mentioned, but French singer/actor Yves Montand, who had lately taken Broadway by storm with his one-man show, won the part; he would make his American film debut in the film now titled Let's Make Love.

As with each of Marilyn Monroe's late-career films, there would be problems on the set. Though the star was coming off a smash hit film, the one considered the best of her career, Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot (1959), she was in trouble. According to her half-sister, Berniece Miracle, "It was in 1960 that Marilyn began to come completely apart." She believed the drugs Marilyn had initially taken to relax and get to sleep "had turned against her," affecting her moods and ability to work.

Though George Cukor struggled mightily to keep filming on track, the production fell expensively behind schedule. Arthur Miller was called back for further rewrites. And the powers at Fox, mystified by her capricious demands, began to believe that Marilyn was actually mad. As if there wasn't enough chaos, Marilyn created a public scandal by openly carrying on an affair with Yves Montand, whose wife, Simone Signoret, had just won the Oscar for Best Actress.

In the midst of this commotion, Gene Kelly made the 6,000 mile flight from Paris to Hollywood to film his cameo for the picture. Arriving on a Sunday night, he filmed for two hours with Montand on Monday and departed for Paris and his ballet project on Tuesday. Quickly in and out, his may have been the best experience of anyone on the film.

Yves Montand, Marilyn Monroe and Gene Kelly on the set
Let's Make Love opened to great fanfare in September 1960. 20th Century Fox slyly used the Monroe/Montand affair to generate publicity and the crowds turned out - taking the film to #17 among 1960's U.S. box office hits. How audiences managed to sit through the film's first hour is hard to fathom. Let's Make Love gets off to a painfully long, slow start and never gains enough momentum to stir much interest. The cameos of Berle, Crosby and Kelly are highlights, and Montand's charms emerge, at last, during the final 20 minutes or so. But, though the film was promoted with the (silly) tagline, "It's dedicated to the NEW Monroe Doctrine!", Marilyn, whose physical appearance thankfully improves over the course of the film, conjures nothing so much as a careworn rendition of a character that, by now, had become a cliché. It is saddening to watch an actress, a great and gifted star, who had so wished to be taken seriously, wriggle, writhe and whisper her way through the film. Character icons Tony Randall and Wilfred Hyde-White are wasted in a muddle that might best be described, to use a term of the time, as "dullsville."

Gene Kelly's 45-minute jazz ballet, Pas de Dieux, was a great success in Paris. His next film, the critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated Stanley Kramer drama, Inherit the Wind, was released just a few month after Let's Make Love. He would remain busy throughout the 1960s - appearing in the 1962 - 1963 TV series, Going My Way, the 1964 Fox musical comedy/romance, What a Way to Go! with Shirley MacLaine (in a role originally intended for Marilyn Monroe) and the imaginative Jacques Demy musical, Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) with Catherine Deneuve and her equally beautiful (now long-lost) sister, Françoise Dorléac. The decade would also bring Kelly opportunities to direct - the poignant Jackie Gleason vehicle Gigot (1962), the comedy hit A Guide for the Married Man (1967) starring Walter Matthau and the musical Hello, Dolly! (1969) starring Barbra Streisand.

Gene Kelly and Françoise Dorléac in Les demoiselles de Rochefort
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Turner Classic Movies honors Gene Kelly's centenary birthday today, August 23, with 24 hours of his films as part of its annual Summer Under the Stars celebration in August. Click here to learn more...And click here for links to blogs participating in Michael and Jill's Summer Under the Stars blogathon on Gene Kelly's day.

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Sources:
Marilyn Monroe by Barbara Leaming, Crown (1998)
George Cukor: Master of Elegance by Emanuel Levy, William Morrow & Co. (1994)
 

26 comments:

  1. Love the background you've provided. Thanks for an exceptionately well-wrtten article.

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    1. Thanks, Jacqueline, I don't usually write about films I don't much care for, so it was an interesting exercise to look at it from the perspective of background and in the context of Gene Kelly's career at the time.

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  2. Fascinating background information. I forgot Kelly was even in this film, be it a cameo.It actually would have been nice if Kelly and Monroe could have co-starred in a film together.

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    1. John, Gene Kelly has the least screen time of any of the uncredited cameo guests - very little at all. But it is with the appearance of Berle (especially), Crosby and Kelly that the movie picks up. Had Marilyn only lived to make (and been capable of making) "What a Way to Go!", she and Gene Kelly would have had a chance to co-star in a film (he played one of Shirley MacLaine's husbands - along with Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum and Dean Martin).

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  3. Thanks for the great write up and for the background information. It's funny how Gene Kelly's small part means so much to the picture.

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    1. Lasso, His part was small but his talent was huge. He and Milton Berle and Bing Crosby add the magic this picture desperately needed.

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  4. I really enjoyed your fascinating article. Gene Kelly must have loved to keep busy. "Let's Make Love" is a family I have avoided through the years, but I must take a peek one of these days just for the cameo appearances.

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    1. Caftan Woman, My best advice on "Let's Make Love" is to fast forward to Milton Berle's appearance and watch from there. Yes, Gene Kelly must've loved to work, he was always occupied with a project of one kind or another - and kept busy till the end of his life.

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  5. As always, Eve, you article is well-written and wonderfully informative. Let's Make Love has an interesting premise, so had it been done right it could have become a classic. It is sad that Monroe was really never allowed to escape the caricature that Hollywood created for her.

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    1. Kim, This seems to have been one of those productions that was hit by a "perfect storm" of problems. The Writers Guild strike certainly didn't help - Arthur Miller rewriting a romantic comedy/musical seems beyond bizarre. Marilyn originally was excited about the film - but her performance for much of it consists primarily of much wriggling, simpering and cooing of sexy songs while attired in skimpy/sheer little costumes.

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  6. Interesting, well-researched background, Eve. "Let's Make Love" may be my least favorite Monroe film. I can't help but think Gene Kelly would have been better than Montand in the male lead, especially in the segment where he's being coached by Milton Berle. I loved Berle's disbelief at the billionare's total lack of comedic timing. I enjoyed Kelly as the cynical reporter in "Inherit the Wind" - now that was quite a cast. Gene Kelly's musicals came at the end of an era - the music and people's tastes were changing.

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    1. MCB, Gene Kelly was quite versatile - a great dancer, he could also choreograph, act, sing and direct. Considering the changing times he lived in, he was fortunate to be so multi-talented. Otherwise, I doubt his career could possibly have spanned the '30s through the '90s. Marilyn Monroe made a few clinkers during her heyday and "Let's Make Love" is definitely one of them.

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  7. The sadness of Marilyn hangs over this film like a dark cloud. The cameos were by far its brightest moments, Gene being one of them (and anything with Tony Randall always gets my attention. A wonderful write-up on all other things Gene that were going on. Mr. Kelly was, indeed, more than a cameo!

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    1. FlickChick, Even in some of her other lesser films ("River of No Return," "The Prince and the Showgirl"), Marilyn was lovely and had an electric presence onscreen, so the fact that she seems washed out and somewhat frowzy at the beginning of "Let's Make Love" is perhaps the biggest indicator of all that the film is going nowhere.

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  8. I've always been warned away from this film by Monroe fans and your review helps me understand why. I wonder why Gregory Peck was slated for the fumbling billionaire role; on paper it sounds like something for Jack Lemmon or well, Gene Kelly. I like that you give so much background on this film and why it was troubled, in lieu of just beating up on it. Glad you reviewed it!

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    1. Rachel, As I understand it, Gregory Peck was considered ideal for a character who begins the film as rather dull and awkward. The fact that he didn't sing or dance and had no reputation for comedy was seen as a plus. Interesting that a sophisticated French song-&-dance man ended up in the role. I'm not sure Jack Lemmon would have agreed to work with Marilyn so soon after "Some Like it Hot" (she severely exasperated cast and crew on the film), plus he was already involved with Wilder's "The Apartment." Gene Kelly might well have been ideal, but I don't think he could have saved this one. I don't like to write negative reviews so approached "Let's Make Love" from a perspective more interesting to me (and so glad you liked it).

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  9. I really enjoyed your stepping back in time post. I agree... this is not Marilyn's best film, but her performance is very cute and lot of fun. The cameos are awesome, they really make the film worth watching on a rainy afternoon with a hot cup of tea...

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    1. Dawn, I watched "Let's Make Love" three times in preparation for this post and I have to say I may have one more viewing in me, but that is just about it (much as I enjoy the cameos and the blossoming of Yves Montand's character). Stepping back in time, though, I enjoy doing that and will probably do it again.

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  10. Eve, I saw this not long ago and must have liked it more than most. I actually liked Marilyn in the picture and thought the part capitalized on her strengths as an actress-personality, rather like "The Prince and the Showgirl." I was surprised to learn that Arthur Miller contributed to the script. I'd be hard pressed to identify anything Miller-like about the movie. I was disappointed that Kelly's cameo was so brief, even for a cameo. What really surprised me, though, was how good and how charismatic Montand was in that fantasy sequence where he imagines he CAN sing and dance. He was terrific! I came away from the movie wishing he had been given the opportunity at some point in his career to star in a musical built around his charm and music-dancing talent.

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    1. R.D., My take on Yves Montand in "Let's Make Love" is that once he reveals more of his character than the befuddled billionaire, he becomes more and more engaging. By the end, he has charmed me. I have trouble watching Marilyn in this one. Only toward the end, after she has put some clothes on and looks revived and refreshed (less tired and untidy) does she seem to fully project that glow and energy that was her gift. I don't care for any of her musical numbers with the possible exception of "Specialization." I also have problems with the look of this film. Dull! So much so that I looked into those responsible for set decoration and art direction - Oscar nominee/winners all. If only it had had some of the color and style of "Bell Book and Candle" - and a bit of its subtler sexiness.

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  11. I can always count on you to provide fascinating background to a film. I must admit I don't remember anything about this film and remember it being pleasant but little more.

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    1. CFB, You may be best left with your faint memory of "Let's Make Love" - but I would be curious to know what you think if you do watch it again.

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  12. LE.
    I apologize for being so late to your review.

    I loved your starting out with the current events of 1960. I actually cheered upon reading about JFK being elected. : )

    It really is sad that Monroe was struggling so much during this time in her life. It's amazing that any director would agree to work with her but I guess they had no choice given her popularity and ability to fill the seats.

    It says a lot about Gene's professionalism. and need for perfection that he was able to swoop in during his already busy schedule. get his cameo done and then get out of there. I wonder how he would have reacted given a larger part where he would have been present. held up for days on end with Monroe's 'issues'?

    You've given us another interesting piece here. LE. I really enjoyed it.

    See ya later!
    Page

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    1. Page, I didn't realize when I chose "Let's Make Love" that Gene Kelly was in it quite as briefly as he was. 30 seconds? 60? Not very long. This, of course, forced me to get creative.

      After reading of the experiences of producers and directors and other actors involved with the films Marilyn made once she was a superstar (and increasingly unstable), I developed great sympathy for them. For example, Marilyn lost it over the fact that another blonde was in the cast of "Let's Make Love" - this was verboten and she wanted the woman fired and scenes re-shot. When the studio looked into the matter and watched the rushes, they discovered the actress she was raving about was a redhead and had been throughout shooting. There was no other blonde. That was when Fox began to believe she was out of her mind.

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  13. Hello -

    Just checked out and loved your review. I have to say "Specialization" gets on my nerves, while I like a "pre-mod" MM in "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." I also agree this film is dullish at the beginning, though I attribute that more to Yves than MM.

    I've seen most of "What a Way to Go" and just thought...Margaret Dumont: Marilyn Monroe's Mama. The mind reels.

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    1. Hi Mikado (et al) -
      So glad you enjoyed my musings on "Let's Make Love" - it was the last of several pieces about or related to Marilyn Monroe that I posted a few months ago.
      As many times as I've wished Marilyn had survived to finish "Something's Got to Give" and gone on to make "What a Way to Go!", I never got as far as thinking about her playing Margaret Dumont's daughter. The mind reels, indeed...

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