Musical Monday: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949) – Musical #200

Studio:
Paramount Pictures

Director:
Tay Garnett

Starring:
Bing Crosby, Rhonda Fleming, Cedric Hardwicke, William Bendix, Murvyn Vye, Virginia Field, Joseph Vitale, Henry Wilcoxon, Richard Webb, Alan Napier, Julia Faye, Mary Field, Ann Carter, Olin Howland (uncredited)

Plot:
In 1912, mechanic Hank Martin (Crosby) is caught in a storm, while riding a horse. When he falls from the horse and hits his head, he finds himself transported to Camelot and the court of King Arthur (Hardwicke). Since Hank traveled backwards from the present, he’s regarded as a monster or a magician with all of his knowledge. He falls in love with Lady Alisande La Carteloise (Fleming), who is betrothed to Sir Lancelot (Wilcoxon).

Trivia:
• Based on Mark Twain’s 1889 novel.
• In 1927, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart adapted Twain’s novel into a Broadway musical. (The music in this musical has no connection to the Broadway musical). The story has been told by Hollywood in 1921, 1931, 1979 and 1985.
• Patric Knowles was considered for the role of Lancelot, according to The American Film Institute.
• The film was in production from Oct. to Dec. of 1947 and retakes were taken throughout 1948. The final product was released in April 1949.
The jousting tournament was filmed at Busch Gardens in Pasadena, CA. Charles J. A. Miller, an authority of the Middle Ages, was present to monitor accuracy, according to the American Film Institute.

Highlights:
• The Technicolor cinematography

Notable Songs:
• “When Is Sometime?” performed by Rhonda Fleming
• “If You Stub Your Toe on the Moon” performed by Bing Crosby
• “Once and For Always” performed by Bing Crosby and Rhonda Fleming
• “Busy Doing Nothing” performed by Bing Crosby, William Bendix, Cedric Hardwicke

Bing Crosby and Rhonda Fleming in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

My review:
In memory of actress Rhonda Fleming, who died Oct. 14, 2020, our Musical Monday this week is a musical film adaptation of a Mark Twain novel, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

Before I get into my review, I want to go over some incongruencies with the release date. If you look up the movie on various websites (for example IMDB vs. American Film Institute), the release date is either 1948 (IMDB) or 1949 (American Film Institute).

However, the original New York Times film review from Bosley Crowther, was published on April 8, 1949, corroborating the AFI’s statement that the film was released in 1949. And since both of those are more scholarly than IMDB – which is crowd sourced – we will go with that date.

With the housekeeping out of the way, now we can dive in to this Technicolor film.

The story of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” was originally published as a novel by Mark Twain in 1889. The story has been through many transformations since then:
• It was first on screen in 1921 starring Harry Myers and Pauline Starke.
• In 1927, songwriters Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart adapted the story into a Broadway musical, “A Connecticut Yankee,” which ran 421 performances in 1927 and had a Broadway revival in 1943.
• It was again on screen in 1931 staring humorist and actor Will Rogers.
• In 1949, the version that are discussing today was released with songs by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke.
• In 1955, a television version of the Broadway musical aired starring Eddie Albert, Janet Blair and Boris Karloff.
• Disney adapted the story twice: Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979) and A Kid in King Arthur’s Court (1995).
• The most recent version starred Martin Lawrence in 2001 entitled “Black Knight.”

This is not to mention the various times the story was retold abroad.

Released by Paramount Studios, the 1949 story has the added benefit of gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. Bing Crosby plays Hank, the American transported from 1912 back into Arthurian times, while he still has all of his contemporary language – making reference to Williams Shakespeare, Jack the Ripper, modern appliances, and contemporary slang. Because of this, everyone believes he is a sorcerer, and he is only saved, because he performs “magic” – setting a piece of paper on fire with a mirror and the sun. Along the way he befriends Sir Sagramore (Bendix), who Hank of course calls “Saggy,” and falls in love with Lady Alisande la Carteloise (Fleming).

Hank isn’t loved by all in his brief time in King Arthur’s court. Merlin (Vye) and Lady Morgan le Fay (Field) both hate, as he interferes with their plans to take over the kingdom. Hank even befriends King Arthur (Hardwicke) and convinces the king to go on a walking tour to see the poor conditions his people live in.

Of course, all of this can’t last and Hank eventually has to return to modern times.

This film is fairly enjoyable and fun, but the jokes and atmosphere wear thin. Crosby acts with his usual casual charm. Even New York Times Critic Bosley Crowther said he didn’t think anyone but Crosby could recreate this role.

Rhonda Fleming is gorgeous with her flaming red hair and Arthurian costumes. We even get the opportunity to hear her sing. Fleming was in some musicals, but she often was a stormy dame in noirs, so hearing her singing is an added treat.

But I do feel like something is missing from this film. Perhaps the film would have been better with the original Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical score. Paramount purchased the rights to the original musical, and I think seeing those numbers performed would have been a treat.

Instead, the audience is served up songs written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, which are fine but forgettable.

The first song we hear is “Stub Your Toe on the Moon” which (complete with a child chorus) is suspicously similar to another Crosby hit “Swingin’ on a Star,” which (by the way) was also written by Van Heusen and Burke.

I will admit that the jaunty “Busy Doing Nothing” is fun, because we get to hear Cedric Hardwicke sing. I love hearing non-singing actors perform.

Considering “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” in respect to Fleming’s career, this was only her sixth credited film role. Can you imagine – that early in your career – co-starring with a megastar like Bing Crosby?

This is a genuinely entertaining film that I feel could have benefited from stronger music. But the biggest surprise is that the notoriously grumpy Bosley Crowther really enjoyed this film when he reviewed it in 1949.

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