Review: I Love Melvin

The musical is perfect for yearning. Usually it’s for love: for someone to desire and be desired by. It could be for happiness in a more general sense. And sometimes it’s more specific still. And since the Hollywood musical depends on and is so much about stardom, it makes sense for the films to be concerned with stardom sought after. This triple-bind of yearning is caught in Don Weis’s MGM B-musical I Love Melvin. The one who yearns is Judy (Debbie Reynolds), a chorus-girl in a Broadway show, frustrated by the distance between her dream(s) of stardom and her current role as a bit-player. At the end of her first real number (“We Have Never Met, As Yet”), during which she spies couples walking by in perfect synchronicity and the eyes of men cast in her direction hoping for a “good morning,” the camera booms and cranes in on Melvin (Donald O’Connor), a photographer’s assistant for Look magazine, emerging from the other side of a bush, singing the same song. Later, he sees Judy perform her new role in the show: she’s dressed as a football, and with the aid of wires, she’s kicked, carried, tumbled, and launched around the stage—it’s a joyful number (“Saturday Afternoon Before the Game”), and attests to the fact that B-musicals aren’t lacking in invention. Melvin, inflating his position, proposes to take some photographs for a spread in the magazine. In fact, Melvin’s a dissembler and a bit of a louse; fearing that Judy may reject him in favour of a deathly boring but conveniently wealthy acquaintance, he promises to get her on the cover of Look. So he fakes it. Here, as for the umpteenth time in supposedly good-natured, upbeat musicals, a large helping of cynicism makes it way into the film’s texture. Judy’s father demonstrates a future of money trouble; Melvin’s boss, a future in the publishing business, about which he can’t speak a word of sense—perhaps because he’s drinking the chemicals he should be using to develop the photographs. It all points to a necessary idealism needed to survive in creative industries. But despite this, is it possible that at any time Judy might say the words belonging to the title? It seems likely. And while pat dialogue and a wobbly performance or two do threaten to vacuum some of the bounce out of certain scenes, the numbers are vivid and expressive enough to retain it—with the exception of Melvin’s hectic “I Wanna Wander,” with its invocation of the always racist ‘around-the-world medley’ and its attempt to ape O’Connor’s far superior exertion number in Singin’ in the Rain, “Make ‘Em Laugh.” (In fact the film owes a great deal to Donen and Kelly’s film, beyond reuniting former cast mates; moments after he’s introduced, Melvin dangles from a lamppost.) Forgive the finale, for it is nonsense: but Reynolds and O’Connor’s sense of play, the pair’s rapport and exchange of gestures, is delightful (“Where Did You Learn to Dance?”), and is more than a commensurate concession. And like Donen’s Give a Girl a Break, the B-musical operates here meta-textually as a site for the consolidation of stardom itself: these are films in which Reynolds’s star text is being refined, her star image clarified, her star persona entrenched.

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