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Mitzi Gaynor, born into a musical family in Chicago in 1931, was trained in ballet as a child and by her teen years was working as a chorus dancer. In Hollywood from the age of 11, she signed a contract with 20th Century Fox at 17. Recognizing her formidable dancing, singing and acting talents, the studio groomed her as a possible replacement for Betty Grable, with whom she appeared in My Blue Heaven (1950).
Gaynor's own musical starring vehicles at 20th included Golden Girl (1951), Bloodhounds of Broadway (1952), The I Don't Care Girl (1953) and Down Among the Sheltering Palms (1953). They are all pleasant films, and The I Don't Care Girl is arguably the most entertaining of the lot, with a particularly sexy and energetic performance from Gaynor, showcased in sizzling and offbeat dance numbers imaginatively choreographed by Jack Cole. But during this same period a phenomenon named Marilyn Monroe was creating a sensation at the same studio, and she would emerge as 20th's big new star and inherit Grable's crown as queen of the lot.
As a musical performer, Gaynor was tremendously more proficient in technical skills than Monroe, a point made evident in a film in which they both appear, There's No Business Like Show Business (1954). But Marilyn had star quality to burn, so 20th put its full concentration on turning Monroe into a movie icon and terminated Gaynor's contract. Gaynor meanwhile moved on to films at other studios, enjoying a success at MGM in Les Girls (1957) opposite Gene Kelly and an even bigger one in the coveted role of Nellie Forbush in South Pacific (1958), which was, ironically, distributed by 20th Century Fox. After 1963 she concentrated on television and personal appearances, where she continues to shine.
In The I Don't Care Girl Gaynor plays Eva Tanguay, a highly successful, Canadian-born vaudeville performer during the early years of the 20th century. Known as the "wild girl" and billed as "the girl who made vaudeville famous," Tanguay had a lusty style and brassy self-assurance. She turned the Jean Lenox/Harry O. Sutton song "I Don't Care" into her signature tune. In Walter Bullock's screenplay, the film's actual producer, entertainer George Jessel, plays himself and plans a film treatment of Tanguay's life. During a story conference, he tells his two writers to look up her old associates to determine her true story.
In a somewhat confused Rashomon (1950) style, each colleague has a different version of Tanguay's tale. Eddie McCoy (David Wayne), Eva's former partner, claims to have discovered her as a waitress in an Indianapolis restaurant. Her accompanist, Charles Bennett (Oscar Levant), now head of a music-publishing company, says it was Florenz Ziegfeld who discovered Eva for his Follies. A letter from singer Larry Woods (Bob Graham), a married man Eva had fallen in love with, offers yet another version of her biography.
It is said that studio head Darryl F. Zanuck demanded that almost half the film's footage be cut after it was completed, leading to a 78-minute release print and accounting for the movie's choppy continuity.
Zanuck also cut some of the numbers staged by original choreographer Seymour Felix and brought in Cole to stage "The Johnson Rag," "Beale Street Blues" and a reprise of "I Don't Care." It is these three numbers that really bring the film to life. Cole brought in some outstanding dancers to work alongside the bombastic Gaynor including his assistant Gwen Verdon, Marc Wilder and Matt Mattox, and what dance critic and Cole expert Debra Levine calls "a kick-butt chorus of stellar Jack Cole regulars."
Cole chose to burst out of the 1910s setting to make his numbers rock with blazing 1950s Technicolor and a frisky Gaynor gyrating more like a contemporary stripper than a turn-of-the-century vaudeville star. "The Johnson Rag" is unique in that it combines Mozart with modern dance music (some of it provided by Levant) and eccentric jazz dancing by Gaynor and partners. Cole gives "I Don't Care" an expressionistic kick, with Gaynor outlandishly bedecked in huge feathers and cavorting over an abstract set of platforms, stairs and ladders. The background color switches from bright yellow to bright red, and everything goes up in flames at the end. W.C. Handy's "Beale Street Blues," the finale, also has a striking abstract quality with its honky-tonk setting against a black backdrop and Gaynor vamping in a flowing magenta dress.
In a 2013 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Gaynor said of Cole that "he really didn't intimidate me - although Gwen scared the hell out of me! I loved him. I worked very hard with him. He taught me many, many things... When I started to work with Jack I could dance - and when we finished The I Don't Care Girl I was a dancer. Jack made me a dancer."
Gaynor has recalled some of the difficulties involved in the intricate and demanding musical numbers. Her Renaissance costume for "The Johnson Rag" included an elaborate headdress that weighed 15 pounds. According to Gaynor, during the sequence in which flames erupt during "I Don't Care," everything on the set was fireproofed except for the feathers in her costume. Happily, she didn't catch fire - and the feathers provided a cushion for Gaynor when she slid and fell off a platform. In that same number, Gwen Verdon stepped in for Gaynor for a dive into a water tank because Mitzi couldn't swim.
Numbers staged by Felix for the film include "Pretty Baby," "On the Mississippi," and David Wayne's "This Is My Favorite City." Levant, a brilliant pianist, performs selections from Liszt and Bach. The director is the dependable Lloyd Bacon, who worked in all genres and directed more than 100 films including the seminal musical 42nd Street (1933) and Gaynor's movie Golden Girl.
By Roger Fristoe