Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
I’ve been going through some of the lesser-known MGM musicals of late. There’s a lot of dreck hiding out in that celebrated body of work. But one of the things you quickly realize is that even the turds tend to encompass a tasty morsel. (Yes, I just mixed a shit metaphor with a food metaphor.) The 1948 “The Kissing Bandit” is one such turd. It’s like a banalized version of the studio’s MacDonald-Eddy operettas, themselves banalized versions of the operettas made by Ernst Lubitsch at Paramount during the early ’30s. (Lubitsch made a great one for MGM, the 1934 “The Merry Widow,” but it was mostly in the Paramount mode.) Here, the young, marionette-like Frank Sinatra plays a Yankee just arrived in Spanish California; he’s hoping to inherit his dead father’s hotel business. But it turns out the old man had moonlighted as a thieving Lothario, and Frank’s less enthusiastic about assuming that particular mantle. (Where women are concerned, he’s hapless.)
Playing a naif doesn’t come naturally to Sinatra. Worse, the screenplay denies you the pleasure of witnessing the materialization of the magnetic, tough-guy Frank; he’s a nebbish right ’til the last scene, when he finally succeeds in putting the lip to lead mannequin Kathryn Grayson. Prior to that the movie is a concatenation of scenes in which Grayson and Sinatra clumsily attempt to work up some heat. They also occasionally sing, though not memorably. It’s like watching cardboard woo tagboard.
But towards the end of the movie something wonderful happens. Right in the middle of all that tepid wooing, the tempo picks up, the lighting becomes more expressive, and the staging suddenly becomes energized. The camera dollies in on a group of dancers, there’s a cut, and then the head of Ricardo Montalban rises into frame. He directs a leer to the right of the camera, gives his hand a little jiggle, as if to shake off the banality of the proceedings, and then slowly begins to turn his body while dancing in place. And as he turns women appear from beneath his cape, first below his left shoulder, then below his right, each of them falling in with the turning as the camera dollies back out. The dancers now in full frame, Montalban briefly sets the women free with a flourish, then catches them by the arms and swings them around with abandon. They’re like satellites in thrall to Planet Montalban.
This bit, fittingly known as “The Dance of Fury,” was choreographed by Stanley Donen, still one year away from making his directorial debut with “On the Town.” One presumes Donen directed the sequence too, as it puts everything else in the movie to shame. (The bulk of the film was helmed by the prosaic Laslo Benedek.) It’s either a great argument for the Auteur Theory or evidence that MGM, aware that it had a turd on its hands, pulled out all the stops in giving the audience at least one moment to thrill to.
Here’s the clip:
How about Montalban? His performance has all the masculine bravado and raciness that’s missing in Sinatra’s. He’s sexy. He’s suave. He even manages to make his befuddlement in the face of female over-attention seem like an outgrowth of his affability, his confidence. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the gals fighting for him happen to be Ann Miller and Cyd Charisse, two of MGM’s most vivacious (and leggiest) female commodities. Lord knows it’s hard to look impotent when those two are after you. (In comparison, Grayson is like a tarted-up Pekingese.) Can you imagine how Frank felt while watching this? You can almost see him sitting there at the premier, mentally comparing his starring role with Montalban’s cameo (a cameo!), and scrunching down low in his seat. How emasculating.
Watching Montalban here (and he seems to be having a lot of fun, doesn’t he?), I can’t help but recall Pauline Kael’s terrific review of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” in which she framed Montalban’s performance as the triumphant validation of a too-long-overlooked bit player. Of course, as a performer Kael was every bit as flamboyant as Montalban. Maybe she saw a little of herself in his performance?
Here’s the best part:
Montalban is unquestionably a star in “The Wrath of Khan” (and his grand manner seems to send a little electric charge through Shatner). As a graying superman who, when foiled, cries out to Kirk, “From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!,” Montalban may be the most romantic smoothie of all sci-fi villains. Khan’s penchant for quoting Melville, and Milton (which goes back to “Space Seed”), doesn’t hurt. And that great chest of Montalban’s is reassuring — he looks like an Inca priest — and he’s still champing at the bit, eager to act: he plays his villany to the hilt, smiling grimly as he does the dirty. (He and his blond-barbarian followers are dressed like pirates or a sixties motorcycle gang.) Montalban’s performance doesn’t show a trace of “Fantasy Island.” It’s all panache; if he isn’t wearing feathers in his hair you see them there anyway. You know how you always want to laugh at the flourishes that punctuate the end of a flamenco dance and the dancers don’t let you? Montalban does. His bravado is grandly comic.
“If he isn’t wearing feathers in his hair you see them there anyway.” Not a bad epitaph, if you ask me.