One day, the Kimbell family of tiny Duck Creek, Connecticut, sits down for dinner after church. As patriarch Gordon (Robert Keith) says grace, they are interrupted by visitors. Wealthy Rick Belrow Livingston (Farley Granger) and his tap-dancing Broadway star girlfriend, Lisa Bellmount (Ann Miller), who are on their way to elope, have been pulled over for speeding through the town. The police bring the pair to the Kimbell home so Gordon, the town judge, can pronounce his sentence for the offense. Rick’s snooty attitude and sense of entitlement angers Gordon, and he throws the young man in jail for thirty days.
Later that night, Rick’s mother (Billie Burke) arrives in town during a box social and tries to convince Gordon to release her son. But talking to Gordon makes her realize that jail just might be the best place for him at the moment, and she leaves without Rick knowing she was even there. Meanwhile, when the box meals (and their preparers) are auctioned off to the highest bidder, Rick–who observes the entire ritual from the window in his cell–buys a meal with the reluctant Cindy Kimbell (Jane Powell), Gordon’s daughter. Like her father, Cindy heartily disapproves of Rick’s attitude, and clearly tells him so.
After a couple of days of community service and a feigned “hunger strike,” Rick eventually plays on Cindy’s sympathy and convinces her to let him leave jail for an evening to spend time with his mother. In actuality, he’s trying to get back to New York to see Lisa for her birthday. Cindy insists on tagging along, but Rick manages to ditch her at his mother’s house and heads off to see Lisa. Rick’s butler inadvertently locks Cindy in a refrigerated fur cabinet, and when Rick discovers this, he leaves Lisa and rushes to Cindy’s rescue. The two of them spend the night on the town together (in a “walking the city streets” montage that is staged quite like a similar scene in 1959’s Pillow Talk) and find that they are greatly attracted to one another.
Their end-of-the-night kiss is witnessed by Ludwig Schlemmer (Bobby Van), Cindy’s reluctant boyfriend, whose father, “Papa” Schlemmer (S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall), has been pressuring him to propose to the girl. Ludwig is ecstatic that Cindy has apparently found a new love, because he has no desire to marry–instead, Ludwig longs to go to New York to be a dancer (against his father’s wishes). When Papa alerts Gordon to Cindy’s newfound affection for Rick, Gordon grows concerned that a relationship with Rick will not be good for his daughter. Can Rick and Cindy forge a relationship in the face of parental challenges and erstwhile beaux? And will Rick be able to adapt to a simple, small-town frame of mind, or will the lures of the “big city” cause him to leave Cindy behind and return to life as he’s always known it?
Small Town Girl (1953), directed by László Kardos, is not as well-known as other MGM musicals of the 1950s. This doesn’t mean it’s a “bad” film; in fact, despite its relative obscurity, it is somewhat appealing and features a few rather entertaining musical numbers. But the movie ultimately suffers in comparison to other MGM greats because the film’s purported stars, Jane Powell and Farley Granger, are actually the least interesting characters in the film: their romance is somewhat bland, and the pair lacks convincing chemistry. Though Powell is, as always, a lovely presence, Granger is not particularly known for his singing or dancing prowess, so his leading a musical is rather odd (the only number he “performs” in the film is a made-up verse set to the tune of “Frère Jacques”). Reportedly, Van Johnson and Peter Lawford were also in contention for the role; their casting would probably have made more sense, and might have resulted in a memorable duet or two with the musically-adept Powell.
Instead, Bobby Van is the undisputed star of the picture. His Ludwig is joyous and goofy, a long-limbed, freewheeling, energetic bundle of fun with an adorable Cary Grant impersonation. The most famous sequence in the film is probably Van’s exhausting and exhilarating “hopping dance” through town after Cindy rejects his proposal. The entire scene–choreographed by the famed Busby Berkeley–appears to be a continuous long take, though there are four subtle cuts at various points during the number. Still, it is an amazing feat of athleticism and staging, not just on Van’s part–which is impressive enough, with a series of two-footed hops that he must have felt for WEEKS afterward in his knees and ankles–but also with the careful coordination of hundreds of extras, automobiles, and even a dancing dog! The music that accompanies this sequence is an almost entirely wordless reprise of “Take Me to Broadway,” which Van performs in full earlier in the film, indicating that Cindy’s rejection is the impetus that will send the young dancer straight to the Great White Way no matter what Papa says. [Note that in the background of this scene, there is a billboard advertising another MGM production, 1952’s The Merry Widow, starring Lana Turner, which had been released the autumn before this film.]
Another wonderful musical interlude comes courtesy of Miller (as if they would put her in a musical and not let her show off her stuff!), whose arguably best moment in the film comes in her performance of “I’ve Gotta Hear That Beat.” It’s a beautifully-staged number, opening with a sole spotlight on the black-clad Miller, singing and tap-dancing up a storm. As the camera pulls away and the stage lights come up, we see the members of the orchestra–or rather, we see their disembodied hands, playing their instruments through the floor of the stage as Miller shimmies and taps her way around them (well, the drummers and the stringed instruments are playing; the saxophonists and the clarinetists merely hold their instruments and move their fingers in rhythm). Watching Miller circle endlessly through her accompanists is–per usual in one of her pictures–like watching poetry in motion. I will never, ever get tired of watching Miller dance in anything she does. She’s beyond brilliant.
Other notable members of the cast include Nat King Cole, playing himself as he serenades the newly-infatuated Cindy and Rick with “My Flaming Heart” (which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song); Fay Wray, as Cindy’s level-headed mother; character actor Robert Keith as Judge Kimbell; Billie Burke as Rick’s flighty yet caring mother (whose pink, floofy gown in the “birthday” scene is greatly reminiscent of Burke’s Glinda costume from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz); and, of course, longtime True Classics fave “Cuddles” Sakall, who brings his usual level of befuddled charm to the role of Ludwig’s nosy father. One more notable star almost joined the cast before his untimely early death–country singer Hank Williams was supposed to make his screen debut in this film as Duck Creek’s sheriff, but sadly passed away in early 1953, four months before the movie’s release.
I find it almost impossible to talk about Small Town Girl without mentioning the sometimes heavy-handed religious thread that runs throughout the movie. The film is bookended by scenes in a church–it opens with Cindy performing a solo, and ends with Rick and his mother sitting in the pews, watching Cindy and the choir sing a chorus of “Hallelujah” while she beams at her new love with pride. There is a not-so-implicit Christian message of redemption in the film–in essence, the bad boy who is made good by the love of a good woman and a good town. Duck Creek is painted as a kind of idyllic Utopia, separate from the negative influences of the big city, with its fast women, loose morality, and dependence upon consumerism. And yet at the same time, the movie celebrates Ludwig’s desire to leave the small town to conquer Broadway–only Papa condemns his choice, though in the end he, too, gives in. Ultimately, the message of the film is compromised by its attempts to at once vilify and celebrate the world that Rick eventually chooses to leave behind. Are we to assume that, because Ludwig grew up in Duck Creek, he will bring his unfailing morality to the big city and “clean up the joint” (so to speak), when, in all likelihood, Ludwig becoming a Broadway star will likely mean corruption of that very moral compass (if we’re talking in realistic terms, that is) …?
That little quibble aside, Small Town Girl is definitely worth a viewing. It may be a minor entry in the spectacular MGM catalog, but even a “minor” MGM musical is admittedly better than half the films to come out of the classic Hollywood era. They’re just that entertaining, and this one is especially blessed by a fantastic supporting cast. Try taking your eyes off Bobby Van once he gets to hopping. I daresay you’ll find it impossible to look away!