Musical Interlude: Bloodhounds of Broadway (1952)

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While not even its greatest admirers could claim it as one of the few outstanding musicals of classic Hollywood, the 1952 musical Bloodhounds of Broadway is a colorful, pleasant, mildly entertaining little movie. Based on the popular stories of Damon Runyon (his tough-talking, soft-hearted bookies, gangsters, and hoodlums provided Hollywood with the stuff of a hundred movies), the movie stars Scott Brady, brother of the fearful Lawrence Tierney, and Mitzi Gaynor in one of her first leading roles. As a matter of fact, the movie might have been designed specifically to launch Miss Gaynor into stardom; not only is she given one of the gingham-girl-to-elegant-woman transformations so dear to the studio picture and the hearts of plain females everywhere, but the picture’s story is so constructed that Gaynor’s performance of two back-to-back musical numbers forms one of its plot climaxes.

The story begins as “Numbers” Foster (Scott Brady), the operator of a betting business in the back of a New York City nightclub, learns of an upcoming federal investigation and takes off for a precautionary stay in Florida until things blow over, leaving his girl Yvonne (Marguerite Chapman) to appear in court with a carefully prefabricated story. It goes over well in court, the investigation appears to be over, and so Numbers and his chief henchman Harry (Wally Vernon) get a car and start driving back to New York. But they get stranded among the backwoods of Georgia, where they meet Emily Ann Stackerlee (Mitzi Gaynor), a sprightly fresh-faced girl much given to singing, who welcomes them warmly. When trouble is caused by a jealous, trigger-happy would-be suitor, Numbers decides to bring the solitary girl to New York so she can get a job singing.

So Emily Ann goes off to the Big City and stays with Harry’s sister Tessie (Mitzi Green). Much to Numbers’s surprise, Emily Ann turns out to be a very attractive young woman of twenty once she has been dressed up properly; Yvonne also notices this and becomes highly suspicious of his intentions regarding his ward. Meanwhile, Emily Ann is learning to dance and sing and fall in love with Numbers; but once the two have acknowledged their feelings for each other, Yvonne vengefully denounces Numbers to the police, and Emily Ann must convince Numbers to take the advice of his old childhood friend, now Inspector MacNamara (Michael O’Shea), and choose the path of honesty and poverty before they marry.

It’s clearly not a very original plot, but the actors are engaging enough to keep up one’s interest and the story moves swiftly along without lingering too long on anything. Mitzi Gaynor is the movie’s main raison d’etre, and her patent youth and freshness do much to carry the film, as do her enthusiasm and the whole-hearted way she attacks her simple role. While she gets to do some cliché backwoods-girl singing and dancing in her first scenes, the two dances she performs in the middle of the film allow her to accomplish the same transition from backwoods girl to sophisticated lady in musical terms which has already been done in terms of her appearance. The first of these dances is a lively redneck/hick pastiche number, with Mitzi portraying a pretty girl of the kind immortalized in Lil’ Abner and the works of Erskine Caldwell. Next comes a serious rendition of a torch song, delivered by Gaynor in a long gown and complete with dramatic staging, lighting, and dancing. Thus the audience is introduced to the range of Miss Gaynor’s talents, which are indeed impressive. She gets one last dance at the end of the film, a decidedly more daring dance set in a New Orleans “café” and performed in chorus girl attire, and altogether the sum total of her performance (especially the dancing) explains why her career took off and justifies the film’s design as a setting for her talents.

The rest of the cast performs well, with Miss Chapman getting one song of her own, and Mitzi Green and Richard Allen participating in the dancing and singing on occasion. The bloodhounds of the title have surprisingly little to do, but they do appear. More memorable, however, is the appearance of a very young Charles Bronson among Numbers’s little gang of hoodlums.

The film, viewed in a beautifully clear print, is always visually pleasing, in particular for those partial to the rich, better-than-life tints of a good mid-century Technicolor palette. Travilla designed the lovely costumes with his usual panache and eye for color; he deserves to be more widely recognized among classic film fans, for his costumes are often more flattering and memorable than those of more famous designers (Edith Head had her off-days, believe me). The film also presents a classic example of the 1950s usage of the two visual and thematic extremes of backwoods and city glamor, something often used in musicals but not always to such good effect as here.

Bloodhounds of Broadway runs 90 minutes and is highly palatable light entertainment for fans of musicals, Runyonesque characters, and Mitzi Gaynor.

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