Musical Monday: The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956)

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:
Best Things in Life Are Free (1956) – Musical #729

best thing in life

20th Century Fox

Michael Curtiz

Gordon MacRae, Dan Dailey, Ernest Borgnine, Sheree North, Tommy Noonan, Murvyn Vye, Phyllis Avery, Larry Keating, Julie Van Zandt, Jacques d’Amboise, Roxanne Arlen, Harold Miller, Linda Brace, Patty Lou Hudson, Robert Banas (uncredited), Barrie Chase (uncredited), Ann B. Davis (uncredited), Juliet Prowse (uncredited), Marion Ross (uncredited)

Musical biographical film on the songwriting trio Buddy DeSylva (MacRae), Ray Henderson (Dailey) and Lew Brown (Borgnine) and the music they wrote together during the 1920s. The film depicts how the trio worked together and how they grew apart when De Sylva went to Hollywood and wanted to produce pictures, leaving Henderson and Brown behind.

• Gordon MacRae’s last leading role in a feature film. He wouldn’t appear in another film until 1978.
• Eileen Wilson dubbed the singing voice for Sheree North
• Lionel Newman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.
• Gene Kelly was considered for the role of Buddy DeSylva
• It is speculated that the character Kitty Kane is based on Helen Kane.
• Barbara Nichols was originally supposed to play the role of Perky Nichols, the gangster’s moll trying to get on Broadway, but the role went to Roxanne Arlen, according to Nichols’s biographer.

• Ernest Borgnine singing and dancing
• “Black Bottom” number
• “Birth of the Blues” dream sequence
• The Hollywood montage with “If I Had a Talking Picture of You”
• Costumes by Charles Le Maire

best thing in life2

Notable Songs:
• “Here Am I, Broken Hearted” performed by Gordon MacRae and Ernest Borgnine
• “Button Up Your Overcoat” performed by Gordon MacRae, Ernest Borgnine, Dan Dailey and Eileen Wilson for Sheree North
• “This is the Missus” performed by Ernest Borgnine and Sheree North, dubbed by Eileen Wilson
• “Lucky Day” performed by Gordon MacRae, Ernest Borgnine, Dan Dailey
• “Good News” performed by Gordon MacRae, Ernest Borgnine, Dan Dailey
• “It All Depends on You” performed by Gordon MacRae, Ernest Borgnine, Dan Dailey and Sheree North, dubbed by Eileen Wilson
• “Don’t Hold Anything” performed by Gordon MacRae, Ernest Borgnine, Dan Dailey
• “The Black Bottom” performed by Sheree North, dubbed by Eileen Wilson
• “One More Time” performed by Gordon MacRae
• “Birth of the Blues” performed by Gordon MacRae, reprised by Sheree North and Jacques d’Amboise (in a dream sequence)
• “Together” performed by Dan Dailey
• “If I Had a Talking Picture of You” performed by Byron Palmer
• “The Best Things in Life Are Free” performed by Sheree North by Eileen Wilson
• “Keep Your Sunny Side Up” performed by Sheree North, dubbed by Eileen Wilson

best things in life3

My review:
When it comes to the American songbook, there are many major players from Irving Berlin to Cole Porter to George M. Cohan. A few others are names you might not readily know, but are just important: Buddy DeSylva, Ray Henderson and Lew Brown. Independently and together, the three wrote several well-known American songs such as “California, Here I Come” (De Sylva), “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” (Henderson), “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” (Brown), and “The Best Things in Life Are Free” (the trio).

The latter is the title of the musical biopic about DeSylva, Henderson and Brown, which follows how the three men connected professionally and eventually grew apart during the 1920s and early 1930s.

The film depicts conflicts, such as Lew Brown, played by Ernest Borgnine, being quick tempered, or Buddy DeSylva, portrayed by Gordon MacRae, being ambitious and leaving his friends in the dust. Some of this seems be fictionalized, as director Michael Curtiz’s biographer says the songwriting trio had a fairly benign working relationship.

The biopic is told in magnificent Technicolor with Sheree North, playing a the fictional character Kitty Kane, rounding out the cast as an off and on love interest for DeSylva.

If you like musicals, than this is for you. Before the film title or credits appear, we see Gordon MacRae, Dan Dailey, Ernest Borgnine and Sheree North (dubbed by Eileen Wilson) singing the title song, “The Best Things in Life Are Free” before launching into the credits. It may sound corny, but I loved this sneak preview of what was to come and it made me excited to watch the film.

From start to finish, the film is filled with 20 songs which illustrate the failures and success of the songwriters — from Broadway shows that flopped to making a success in Hollywood films.

Gordon MacRae, Dan Dailey and Ernest Borgnine make an unexpectedly fun trio.
Now you may be thinking, “Ernest Borgnine in a musical?” Let me assure you, he is great! He sings fairly well, the bit of dancing he performs seems natural, and he seems like he belongs in this film (unlike poor Ralph Meeker in Somebody Loves Me). Borgnine gives a fun and cute performance. I particularly liked North and Borgnine clowning and singing “This is the Missus” together. In his autobiography, Borgnine notes that a musical happened in the career of most of his contemporaries, and this was his — just after winning his Academy Award for “Marty.” In 2010, Borgnine claimed that he took this role, because he loved director Michael Curtiz, according to Curtiz’s biographer.

Borgnine’s co-stars were all musical film veterans and excellent too. Dan Dailey plays Ray Henderson, the married man of the bunch who is a bit more settled down. His character is more mild, sweet and also funny.

For much of the film, Sheree North is window dressing, but she is great when she has the opportunity to dance. One of the best moments of the film are North’s two numbers with Jacques d’Amboise — “The Birth of Blues” and “The Black Bottom.”

Gordon MacRae unsurprisingly shines. MacRae plays Buddy DeSylva, who in real life went on to produce films at Paramount Studios. MacRae looks and sounds great in this film, performing each song with his rich, ringing baritone voice. He particularly shines as he belts out “The Birth of the Blues” over a dancing dream sequence. However, though MacRae is excellent, watching him made me rather sad in this film. Though this is a glittering and successful musical film, it would also be MacRae’s last leading role in a feature film, after starring in other top-notch musicals like “Oklahoma” and “Carousel.” MacRae continued to make television appearance, but wouldn’t be in another feature film until the 1970s. MacRae was a fabulous talent who had his demons which affected his career. I’m a big fan of his, and watching this made me sad.

The whole film is loaded with great songs. A personal favorite of mine was a sweet moment when “Together” is performed by Dan Dailey’s character at his anniversary party. It made me cry, because it’s also a main theme in my favorite film, “Since You Went Away.” I also thought it was fun that the movie was able to reference a real film, “Sunny Side Up.” It seems that in many of these biopics, the films and actors are generally fictional.

Another highlight? Spotting an uncredited Ann B. Davis (best known for her role as Alice on “The Brady Bunch”) as a glamorous reporter at a Hollywood reporter, dressed in an evening gown.

There are a couple of downsides. For starters, my DVD copy of this was unfortunately modified to full screen, so I couldn’t watch it in the widescreen Cinemascope format it was originally filmed in. Booo.

Secondly, while the film references Al Jolson — who the crew wrote “Sonny Boy” for — we see Jolson impersonator Norman Brooks in black face, which was something Jolson was unfortunately best known for.

By the time this film was released, DeSylva had passed away in 1950. Lew Brown died in 1958 and Ray Henderson in 1970.

Overall, this film was a great, happy time. It does end on a happy note, and I did wonder if this was deceiving since the three eventually did part ways. But that’s okay, it made for a fun, joyful story.

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