- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

“With a Song in My Heart” and “The Girl Next Door,” musicals of the early 1950s recently revived in DVD editions by 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment, share a fragile claim on immortality.

Nevertheless, a case can be made for revisiting them in these usefully augmented editions, which draw attention to such once commanding performers as singer Jane Froman and the versatile actor-singer-hoofer Dan Dailey, whose careers are summarized in supplementary material.

A biographical salute to Miss Froman (1907-80), “With a Song in My Heart” was a popular tearjerker of 1952 and helped rejuvenate the career of its subject, who headlined a TV variety series for a few seasons after the movie was released. It seems a pity that glimpses of this show - or her frequent appearances on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show - couldn’t be folded into the “extras.” Duplicating the successful methodology of “The Jolson Story” in 1946, Miss Froman was readily available to invigorate the soundtrack with her own durably vibrant voice while Susan Hayward impersonated her.

There are good reasons why posterity regards “Singin’ in the Rain” as the great movie musical of 1952 and might need to make generous allowances for “With a Song” as an outmoded also-ran. The latter’s approach to melodic show-business biography now seems stilted and evasive. Some of the evasions are underlined in a fascinating audio “extra,” an interview with Miss Froman’s second husband, John Burn, reminiscing both candidly and fondly at age 89.

They fell in love while recuperating from severe injuries suffered from a plane crash on the Tagus River in Lisbon in 1942. In fact, Mr. Burn, a co-pilot, rescued Miss Froman while adrift and clinging to bits of wreckage. His account of how they grew attached while talking through their pain and awaiting rescue boats opens up dramatic possibilities that the movie ignores. So does his recollection of how Miss Froman remained addicted to painkillers during the years in which she was trying to sustain a professional comeback between countless operations on her damaged limbs. Although Susan Hayward won another Oscar nomination for the film, the untold aspects of the story would have given her far more latitude for both suffering and grit.

Perhaps the most endearing memento of the film is its breakthrough importance for Robert Wagner, who appeared as an unnamed paratrooper who encounters the heroine first in a Manhattan nightclub and then during her 1945 tour for the USO in European war zones.

The follow-up encounter proves a stroke of sentimental genius: Mr. Wagner is now a hospitalized soldier whose possible psychosis is “cured” by the reunion. As a practical matter, the actor emerged as a star on the strength of tear-stained close-ups of his face while being gently serenaded by the heroine.

“The Girl Next Door,” which appeared in 1953, was easily overshadowed by both “The Band Wagon” at MGM and “Call Me Madam” at Fox. Despite being a small deal, “Girl” retains considerable zest and appeal. Among other things it demonstrates how much professionalism Hollywood invested in even minor musicals at this point.

None of the songs in the score by lyricist Mack Gordon and composer Josef Myrow became standards (their biggest hit was “You Make Me Feel So Young” in 1946), but they’re deftly executed by Dan Dailey, Dennis Day and June Haver’s voice double. Moreover, the songs trigger playful, lyrical dance interludes that give the film an imaginative dimension missing from the Froman biopic, always wedded to conventional song presentation at the microphone or within the proscenium.

Animated sequences enhance a couple of episodes, and “Girl” also has a flair for lyricizing domesticity. The co-stars share an agreeable backyard dance number, and Mr. Dailey is paired with juvenile Billy Gray, cast as his son, for a tune that obliges them to juggle dishware.

There’s also a diverting counterpart to the “Girl Hunt Ballet” number from “The Band Wagon.” Though not a bang-up finale, it’s predicated on a nightclub act that showcases Miss Haver as a blonde femme fatale in red, darting through film noir decor that is fancifully invaded by Mr. Dailey, a spectator who imagines himself as her shadowy partner and rescuer. The movie uncorks musical resources in a looser, happier spirit than the one that prevails throughout “With a Song in My Heart.”

An underutilized recruit to MGM in the early 1940s, Dan Dailey returned from military service as the all-purpose leading man that Fox had lacked for Betty Grable. “Girl Next Door” demonstrates that his tall, easygoing, loose-limbed prowess would also have propped up June Haver, if she had chosen to continue a career.

Instead, she abandoned Hollywood for a convent, then returned not as a performer but as Mrs. Fred MacMurray for almost four decades. In all likelihood, Fox intended to marginalize her in favor of Marilyn Monroe, but the film noir dream number makes you wonder if the management had something more alluring in Miss Haver than it ever appreciated.

TITLE:”With a Song in My Heart,” released in 1952

CREDITS:Directed by Walter Lang. Producer-screenwriter: Lamar Trotti. Music by Alfred Newman. Choreography by Billy Daniel. Cinematography by Jean Penzer and Leon Shamroy. Art direction by Lyle Wheeler and Joseph Wright. Costumes by Charles LeMaire

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

DVD EDITION:20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment

WEB SITE:www.foxhome.com

TITLE: “The Girl Next Door,” released in 1953

CREDITS:Directed by Richard Sale. Produced by Robert Bassler. Screenplay by Isobel Lennart. Cinematography by Leon Shamroy. Musical score by Cyril Mockridge. Songs by lyricist Mack Gordon and composer Josef Myrow. Choreography by Richard Barstow.

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes

DVD EDITION: 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment

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