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1951 proved a banner year for Jane Powell. It marked her first adult role, as Fred Astaire's sister and dancing partner in Royal Wedding, and the birth of her first child. In between, she starred in Rich, Young and Pretty, returning to juvenile roles as a Texas heiress accompanying her father (Wendell Corey) on a trip to Paris. There she finds her true love (Vic Damone) and befriends an older woman (Danielle Darrieux) who turns out to be her birth mother.
Though she was Rich, Young and Pretty on screen, off screen Powell felt sick and bloated. She had found out she was pregnant, after a year of trying with husband Geary Anthony Steffen, Jr., during the final days of shooting on Royal Wedding. The studio couldn't postpone her next film, so she had to work through morning sickness as cinematographer Robert Planck shot around her expanding waistline. Morning sickness quickly became a 24-hour ordeal. Pregnancy for Powell meant months of sickness, a situation that would recur with her other children. It was particularly hard for her to get through one number, "How Do You Like Your Eggs in the Morning," when the last thing she wanted to think about was food. Eventually, she became so sick she couldn't drive, and MGM had to send a car to pick her up each morning.
Although she was happy to be pregnant, she also had another cause for concern. After years of younger roles, she had hoped that Royal Wedding would convince the studio to move her into more mature stories. Instead, at 22 the expectant mother was still playing a young girl innocently devoted to her father until she tastes her first real love. She wouldn't get another adult role until she was cast as Howard Keel's frontier bride in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Ironically, she would get her best reviews playing more mature characters, suggesting that there was much more to her acting talents than MGM's executives were willing to admit.
Of course, juvenalia was producer Joe Pasternak's stock in trade. He had first made his name in Hollywood producing a series of musicals starring child soprano Deanna Durbin that had saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy. He had come to MGM in the '40s to help them make another young singer, Kathryn Grayson into a star. When she grew up, he started crafting vehicles for Powell. Even director Norman Taurog was an expert on working with younger players. He had won an Oscar® directing his nephew, future MGM star Jackie Cooper, in Skippy (1931), then had gone on to work with the young Judy Garland, Grayson and Mickey Rooney. Only in the late '50s would he establish a new identity working with adult players, though even then he worked frequently with teen heartthrob Elvis Presley and comedian Jerry Lewis, whose humor verged on the infantile.
Pasternak proved his eye for talent with two casting coups on Rich, Young and Pretty. He cast singing idol Vic Damone to make his film debut as Powell's love interest, a role he had played briefly a few years earlier off-screen. The two stars had met when Powell was doing a singing engagement in New York. Over her mother's objections, he had taken her out for a night of dancing. The next morning, he had sent her a gold and ruby necklace. They wouldn't see each other again until Pasternak cast them together in this film.
Also making his MGM debut in Rich, Young and Pretty was Fernando Lamas, cast as Darrieux's lover. Although paired with the older woman on screen, he was actually just a few years older than Damone, the film's juvenile love interest. The Argentine Lamas was already an established star in Mexico when he decided to give Hollywood a try. MGM had signed him to a contract but didn't know what to do with him until Jose Iturbi, a frequent performer in their musicals, spotted him at a party and told Pasternak: "Joe, Joe! Here's a prize; a gaucho for the girls!" (from James Robert Parrish, The MGM Stock Company). Pasternak cast him in Rich, Young and Pretty, and the studio began molding him as a Latin lover.
For foreign film buffs the film offers a rare chance to see Darrieux in an American picture. She had become a star in her native France, particularly as Charles Boyer's doomed love interest in Mayerling (1936), an international success that led to her one U.S. film of the period, The Rage of Paris (1938). Returning to France, she scored a series of international hits. Just before returning to Hollywood, she burned up art-house screens in La Ronde (1950), a film that helped break down local censorship in the U.S.
Rich, Young and Pretty had success written all over it, as Powell's and Damone's fans lined up for tickets. The critics were relatively kind, appreciating the picture as a light-hearted way to display the cast's musical talents, though the New York Times dismissed it as "pretty as a picture postcard and just about as exciting." They were quick to point out Lamas' sex appeal and mature acting and vocal talents, while also noting Damone's screen potential. With the film's success, Powell's co-star was moved into more starring roles at MGM and encouraged to get a nose job.
In later years, the film would be singled out by feminist critics for its unrealistic depiction of women's lives and grouped with other juvenile romances that display a strange sexual tension between young women and their doting, often divorced or widowed fathers. In A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960, Jeanine Basinger calls it "a treatise on the horrors of womanhood." Although she acknowledges the film as a "charming, escapist musical...," she also points out that "the impeccably turned-out Powell, doted on by everyone, was a cruel role model for young women in the audience."
Producer: Joe Pasternak
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: Sidney Sheldon, Dorothy Cooper
Based on a story by Sheldon
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Arthur Lonergan
Music: David Rose
Cast: Jane Powell (Elizabeth Rogers), Danielle Darrieux (Marie Devarone), Wendell Corey (Jim Stauton Rogers), Vic Damone (Andre Milan), Fernando Lamas (Paul Sarnac), Marcel Dalio (Claude Duval), Una Merkel (Glynnie), Richard Anderson (Bob Lennart), Hans Conried (Jean the Maitre D'), The Four Freshmen (Themselves).
C-96m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller