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On the Riviera

On the Riviera(1951)

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teaser On the Riviera (1951)

In the early '50s, comic Danny Kaye was at the crest of his global popularity when Fox signed him on for the splashy musical farce On the Riviera (1951). The studio dusted off a mistaken-identity screenplay that it had already utilized twice before; still, it proved an ideal fit for its star's strengths, and combined with beautiful female leads, colorful locales, and engaging set pieces, it delivered an entertainment that still holds up well.

The scenario opens on the Riviera, of course, where American cabaret entertainer Jack Martin (Kaye) is given an ultimatum by his employer (Sig Ruman) to freshen up his act or clean out his dressing room. The desperate song and dance man hits on the idea of exploiting his pronounced resemblance to a local celebrity, the suave and polished aviator, entrepreneur and womanizer Henri Duran (Kaye, again). The act Jack builds around the impression opens to audience applause, with no one more appreciative than the real Duran; less impressed is Henri's gorgeous spouse Lili (Gene Tierney), who's understandably weary of her husband's neglect and tomcatting. Backstage, Duran proves only too quick to flirt with Jack's shapely girlfriend/co-star Colette (Corinne Calvet).

Henri soon has his own problems; his business rival Felix Periton (Jean Murat) has herded him into a potentially ruinous corner, and he has to quickly and quietly fly abroad in search of financial backing. His corporate lieutenants, Lebrix (Marcel Dalio) and Foral (Henri Letondal), learn to their horror that Lili has invited Periton to that evening's scheduled soiree at the Duran home, and he'd be certain to put two and two together when Henri fails to appear. Their frenzied solution? Hire Jack to pose as Duran for the evening. Martin agrees, under the proviso that Lili (with whom he's smitten) is kept in the dark about the ruse. Of course, Lebrix and Foral tell her immediately, and then beg her not to let on. It gets even more confusing from there, particularly when Henri makes an unanticipated return that evening.

The screenplay had its basis in a fizzled Broadway farce entitled The Red Cat that had been mounted for the stage by 20th Century Fox honcho Darryl Zanuck. That's not to say that the studio didn't wind up getting its money's worth; On the Riviera marked Fox's third screen adaptation of the property, following Folies Bergere de Paris (1935) with Maurice Chevalier, Merle Oberon and Ann Sothern; and That Night in Rio (1941), with Don Ameche, Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda. (Oddly enough, Kaye works Chevalier and Miranda impersonations into his performance). In a Golden Globe-winning effort, Kaye tackled the contrasting parts with panache and obvious relish; he had already successfully mined the dual-role gimmick once in his career (Wonder Man [1945]), and would do so again (On the Double [1961]).

The material, too, offered a far more mature side to Kaye than the man-child so often on display in his previous Goldwyn vehicles. The denouement--during which a hurt Henri rather callously dupes Lili into believing that she slept with Jack the night before, rather than him--was loaded with double-entendre that amazes in that the censors of the day let it slide. The soundtrack, of course, is laden with the winning patter songs that Kaye's wife, Sylvia Fine, so well tailored to his talents, including "Happy Ending," "Popo the Puppet" and the title tune. The choreography bears the unmistakable touch of jazz dance pioneer Jack Cole, and the numbers spotlight his assistant and protg, the young Gwen Verdon (billed as "Gwyneth" here).

In his biography The Lives of Danny Kaye: Nobody's Fool, Martin Gottfried revealed that the rapport that Verdon shared with Kaye carried over into an off-stage liaison. "The camera moves in, their eyes meet, they nearly kiss, and the energy between them is unmistakable," he wrote. On the Riviera wound up receiving Academy Award nominations for Alfred Newman's score, as well as the set decoration provided by Lyle R. Wheeler, Leland Fuller, Joseph C. Wright, Thomas Little and Walter M. Scott. (Yes, that is Tierney's portrait from Laura (1944) that was used in the decor.)

Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Director: Walter Lang
Screenplay: Valentine Davies, Phoebe, Henry Ephron (screen play); Rudolph Lothar, Hans Adler (play); Jessie Ernst (adaptation)
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: Leland Fuller, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Earle Hagen, Cyril J. Mockridge, Alfred Newman (all uncredited)
Film Editing: J. Watson Webb, Jr.
Cast: Danny Kaye (Jack Martin/Henri Duran), Gene Tierney (Lili Duran), Corinne Calvet (Colette), Marcel Dalio (Philippe Lebrix), Jean Murat (Felix Periton), Henri Letondal (Louis Foral), Clinton Sundberg (Antoine), Sig Ruman (Gapeaux), Joyce MacKenzie (Mimi), Monique Chantal (Minette).

by Jay S. Steinberg

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