Home Video Reviews
WWII was winding down when The Dolly Sisters (1945) was made, and 20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck believed that movie audiences wanted something more with their fluff. The Dolly Sisters is definitely a "Betty Grable musical," but it stresses romantic longing and serious relationship tensions over simple frivolity. Seen today, this actually makes it slightly disappointing compared to Down Argentine Way (1940) or Moon Over Miami (1941), two other (and earlier) Grable pictures in Fox Home Entertainment's new five-disc set. The seriousness feels a mite forced, perhaps not what we want from such a movie. The film also suffers somewhat from being a biopic, covering many years of real characters' lives in a way which sometimes can't help but feel plodding - always the main obstacle to making a good film biography.
These are slight criticisms. Grable and June Haver are perfectly enjoyable as Yansci and Roszika (Jenny and Rosie) Dolly, who in real life emigrated to America from Hungary as children in the early 1900s and grew up performing on the vaudeville circuit. They eventually became big stars on Broadway and spent much time in Europe. "The Dolly Sisters" were a famous and celebrated act - forgotten today but widely known by the public in 1945. The movie follows reality to a point. Yes, Jenny Dolly did fall in love with Harry Fox, a vaudeville singer who helped the sisters get started but never hit it big as they did. Whether that professional unevenness created quite the heartache and drama portrayed in the movie is another question. As for the ending, let's just say it's pure Hollywood. Take a look at the DVD's liner notes (by Sylvia Stoddard) to learn what really happened to the Dolly Sisters - a tragedy which the movie simply rewrites.
Does it matter? The mere casting of blondes Grable and Haver as the real-life brunettes Jenny and Rosie should tell us something about whether anyone was even trying to be accurate. The Dolly Sisters is all about delivering the eye-popping sets, colors, and (especially) costumes we'd expect of an 'A' Grable musical, and it offers an overload of pleasurable moments and songs. The two stars perform a spirited rendition of "Carolina in the Morning" in a New York hotel room for Oscar Hammerstein (Robert Middlemass), who promptly signs them to a contract. Mack Gordon and James Monaco's "I Can't Begin to Tell You," sung by John Payne playing Harry Fox, was nominated for an Oscar. Then there's "Powder, Lipstick and Rouge," a jaw-dropping number in which women parade out dressed as, you guessed it, powder, lipstick and rouge (plus mascara and a powder puff, of course). That's Cathy Downs as "Miss Mascara." She'd soon appear as Clementine in My Darling Clementine.
But perhaps the loveliest song is Harry Carroll and Joseph McCarthy's "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," sung by John Payne as he plays piano in a bar one snowy Manhattan night. Grable joins him halfway through. Unbeknownst to them, George Cohan's partner Sam Harris (Eddie Kane) is standing at the bar, listening, and this leads to Fox getting a singing deal. Lending poignance is the clear impression that Payne and Grable are smoothing over their relationship through singing this song. This is what good musicals do - use numbers to establish and propel emotional relationships - and The Dolly Sisters is a work of professionals all the way.
Haver was being groomed for stardom in her pairing with Grable, just as Grable had been built up at Fox by appearing with Alice Faye in Tin Pan Alley (1940). Supposedly the otherwise easygoing Grable loathed Haver, but she was professional enough not to let it show on screen.
The Dolly Sisters was a huge hit, Grable's biggest to date. Fox Home Entertainment's DVD comes with an enjoyable photo gallery, four "lobby cards" (actually postcards of scenes from the film), a Fox Movietone Newsreel of the movie's Chicago premiere, and a commentary track from USC film professor Drew Casper. Picture and sound are excellent, and the cover art is festive and eye-catching, utilizing the original poster art.
For more information about The Dolly Sisters, visit Fox Home Entertainment.
by Jeremy Arnold