Thursday, April 23, 2020
Russell Watch: The French Line (1954)
Format: TCM on DVR
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Hoo-boy. Apparently Howard Hughes realized, after loaning out Jane Russell to Fox for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1952) and watching them make a mint, *he* had a Jane Russell under contract at RKO that he didn't need to loan out at all. So, he decided to make another splashy musical about Jane Russell on a boat headed for Paris all on his own. And if people liked a bit of sexiness, he was going to shove Jane Russell into even sexier outfits! And he'sdrelease the movie in 3D! Jane Russell would be dancing and standing around as if she were in the room! You guys get it? wink wink nod nod need I say more?
The French Line (1953) as a title is probably some sort of double-triple or quadruple entendre I'm not getting. It does refer to a boat Russell is taking from New York to Paris. Maybe the woo'ing our male lead does. Maybe it has something to do with the Maginot Line. I was not consulted.
The picture quality of the version TCM had to show was pretty poor, and I'd be curious how I'd respond to a restored version, but I don't imagine this film is in anyone's top 10 list for bringing it back to its former glory - so you have to just hope they get to it eventually.
This is a very, very strange movie. And an exceedingly horny movie but in a weirdly unfocused way. It feels like Hughes didn't have a Marilyn Monroe and decided the only way to make up for the deficit was to apply a bucket of starlets and refuse to let Russell wear normal clothes for two scenes in a row. This isn't even some societal criticism - which, go nuts - but it's just... weird.
Anyway, your plot is that Jane Russell is a millionaire many times over because she's inherited half a stake in a ranch in Paris, Texas that just keeps gushing oil. She's filthy rich, and that means no man will marry her because he won't wear the pants in the family (this plot point alone will fritz out your willing suspension of disbelief, but hang in there). When he latest fiance dumps her, she takes the tickets and heads to New York en route to Paris where she meets up with a fashion designer pal and - without him knowing who she is - meets a trainwreck of a womanizer. There's a swarm on young women who just sort of float around for no reason through the movie (one of which is played by Joi Lansing), hoping that if we just have *all* these girls that equals a Monroe.
There's a lot of sex-farce set-up as Russell swaps places with a model and lets her travel as "Mary Carson" while she takes on the model's name and role as Myrtle Brown (who just got married and agrees to the deal so she and her husband can get a free Parisian honeymoon).
A lot of confusion stemming from mixed identities on the boat, and the supposed truth of the womanizer falling for Jane Russell when all signs point to him making a play for the married Myrtle. Man, I genuinely sometimes had no idea what was going on, and this movie is not that complicated - it just leaves some ellipses in the movie where I'm genuinely not sure of the film's intention.
The movie also did NOT get the approval of the Hayes Code, but Hughes put it out anyway, using the scandal to hype the movie. And while more overtly sexed than Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which is built out of well-managed innuendo), there's just not much here to see if you wanted to know why it busted the code. That said, there's the constant appearance of Russell's legs and cleavage, as well as one line that I wondered how it slipped past the censors before I learned it did not.*
The casting is clearly designed to not give Russell someone to upstage her as Monroe did in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. We get the "cute" Mary McCarty who they shove into a matching skimpy cowboy outfit alongside Russell, which no one should have to do by comparison. She's great in her role as the "buddy", but it doesn't even make sense from a story standpoint why she'd be in the number. It's kind of like suddenly seeing your middle-school guidance counselor have to wear a swimsuit for no reason.
The male star is Gilbert Roland, an actor whom I didn't really know. But I like the guy! He seems like he's having a ball in the movie. And, Russell's weird business partner, "Waco", who seems to discuss Texas as if it's a single, twenty square mile area, is... something. I'm not sure that's good acting, but he is a presence.
Still, it's hard to miss why the movie was made. There's no love for the music, even as Russell *can* sing and dance. It's an excuse to get her into the one-piece with the cut-aways and allow Hughes to work through something. But the technical aspects of the movie aren't there. The set is serviceable, but the DP work is... bad. The dance numbers simply never include a single close-up or change up their shots. It's impossible to imagine Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend without middle and close-up shots and a host of angles, but this movie kind of places the camera and Russell just sort of dances around the set.
Like I say, kinda weird.
Still, it's not awful. I enjoyed parts of it. I liked Mary McCarty a lot. But it's pretty far away from the raging success that spawned it.
*upon learning she's been dumped by yet another man, Russell sighs and says "well, I might as well get back to drillin'".