Lovely To Look At (1952)
In 1933, Alice Duer Miller published a novel called Gowns by Roberta. Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach quickly wrote a musical based on the book. Their show premiered on Broadway as “Roberta” in 1933, starring future Hollywood stars George Murphy, Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray, and Sydney Greenstreet.
In the mid-1940s, MGM bought the rights and planned to remake Roberta, but the project languished, with occasional but never successful attempts at production, until the early 1950s.
Fun fact: in 1946, the Hollywood Reporter announced that Lucille Ball would be starring as the Countess, Ginger Rogers’ role, in MGM’s remake of Roberta. Unfortunately, this never happened, and neither did the remake that the Los Angeles Times wrote about in 1948 that was going to star Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Betty Garrett. I wonder if that project was replaced with Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), which starred three of the four mentioned by the Times. (Judy Garland was replaced by Esther Williams in that film.)
After those false starts, MGM finally produced its version of Roberta, entitled Lovely to Look At, in 1952. So, to recap, this film is a remake of a movie that was an adaptation of a stage musical that was a musical version of a novel that was published nearly two decades before this movie was released. Got it?
Lovely to Look At is not a strict remake of Roberta, though it features the same wonderful Kern songs and is set in a failing fashion house in Paris that just needs a big show to return to its former glory.
But the similarities mostly end there. In this version, the two male leads of a bandleader and his friend, played by Astaire and Scott, respectively, have been expanded to three men who are trying to get their Broadway musical produced.
The subplot of the fake countess, played by Ginger Rogers, is eliminated completely in Lovely to Look At; instead, Ann Miller fills the role of entertainer without the masquerade. The Russian royalty angle is gone, and the role of Roberta, the head of the fashion house, is altered, too.
In the earlier film, we spend time with Roberta, played by Helen Westley, before she passes away, but when Lovely to Look At starts, Roberta is already gone.
Fun fact: MGM didn’t want competition, or perhaps comparison to the earlier film, so they kept Roberta out of circulation except for rare screenings at art museums, and didn’t sell it to TV until the 1970s.
The investors love the material, but when foolish Al lets slip that only one half of one share of the show has been sold so far, the room empties. One investor tells them to come see him when they’ve raised at least $50,000. So our three heroes are stuck in a Catch 22. They can’t raise money until they’ve raised a lot of money.
We learn that Tony, Jerry, and Al are already in debt and are desperate to get their show to Broadway. They discuss their woes, and Tony’s decision to change Al’s last name from “Wodzscyngkic” to “Marsh” as they make their way to Club Sirocco to meet up with Tony’s girlfriend, Bubbles (Ann Miller).
Bubbles goes wild in purple sequins and feathers in “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” performed with a chorus of burgundy men in wolf masks. It is typical Ann Miller–bold, brassy, campy, and over-the-top.
You can watch it here:
After the show, Bubbles meets up with the fellas in her dressing room. They’re glum, but Bubbles offers Tony some of her savings if it will help get the show going.
Between takes of this scene, Miller decided to give Skelton’s hair a good combing:
Just then Al gets a telegram from Paris. He can’t read a word of it, but fortunately Pierre (Marcel Dalio) can. He reads the telegram and gets very excited; Al’s aunt, Roberta, has died and left him half of her fashion house!
Fun fact: you may recognize Dalio as the croupier in Casablanca (1942), or one of a dozen other small roles in Hollywood films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Steal A Million. Before WWII, Dalio had been a top actor in his native France. Dalio was Jewish, and fortunately he and his wife were able to flee to the U.S. in 1940; once the Nazis invaded, they used photos of Dalio on posters representing “a typical Jew.”
There is no segue from that, so we’ll just clumsily return to our lighthearted musical…Our group of would-be Broadway big-shots is thrilled at the news of Al’s inheritance, because it means he can sell his share and use the proceeds to bankroll the show! The three of them fly to Paris to sell Al’s half of Roberta’s.
Prepare for “France” scene, filmed on MGM’s backlot.
Anyway, a nasty shock awaits our happy trio when they arrive at Roberta’s. It’s almost empty, not quite the bustling couturier raking in the cash that they had envisioned.
And the elevator doesn’t work. Al gets stuck between floors, and Stephanie (Kathryn Grayson) rushes to his aid.
Once Al is safely delivered from that malfunctioning metal cage, he joins Stephanie in her parlor. We learn that she is Roberta’s adopted daughter, and that Roberta talked about Al all the time.
Stephanie sings Roberta’s favorite song, “Yesterdays,” which is about the most melancholy song I’ve ever heard, but apparently Roberta really loved it. We watched Irene Dunne sing “Yesterdays” to Roberta in the 1935 version, but in this movie we only hear about that tradition secondhand.
Al is completely smitten with lovely Stephanie and her soprano serenade. He hasn’t the heart to tell her that he only came to Paris to sell his half of the business.
While Al and Stephanie chat upstairs, Jerry is smitten at first sight when a pretty young seamstress walks by. She’s actually Stephanie’s sister, Clarisse, and Gower Champion’s real life wife, Marge. They’re a terrific dance team, so get ready for that.
Now Tony is embarrassed and impatient, so he makes a very bad impression on Clarisse and Stephanie. He tells them that Al wants to sell the business at once, and that Stephanie’s designs are old-fashioned and unattractive. No wonder the shop is empty!
Stephanie and Clarisse quickly inform Tony and Al that Roberta’s is almost bankrupt. The creditors are at the door, and Al’s share is basically worthless. That’s very bad news for their Broadway dreams.
At first, Tony, Al, and Jerry decide to go back home and forget Roberta’s, but something about Clarisse and Stephanie makes them change their minds.
Jerry corners Clarisse in her sewing room for a fantastic, spirited rendition of “I Won’t Dance.” He wants to dance, and she’d rather not, but the infectious rhythm and his charming grace win the day!
Fun fact: Astaire and Rogers performed “I Won’t Dance” in Roberta, though it wasn’t in the stage musical. The tune, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II, had been in the flop musical “The Three Sisters” in 1934. Dorothy Fields supplied the now classic lyrics for the 1935 film. Fields included the line “When you dance you’re charming and you’re gentle/Especially when you do the Continental,” which is a reference to Astaire and Rogers’ big number in their previous film, The Gay Divorcee (1934). The pair even strike a pose from “The Continental” as they sing the line! You can watch the scene here.
Obviously, the reference to “The Continental” was no longer relevant in Lovely to Look At, so Fields got to work again and changed the line to “When you dance you’re charming and you’re gentle/If our lips should brush it’s accidental.”
Another fun fact: during the number, the Champions dance around and under a rack of dresses, and I’m pretty sure the pale brown polka-dot dress hanging on the end is one of Katharine Hepburn’s costumes from Adam’s Rib (1949), another MGM film.
And I think the white one with pinkish-red trim looks very similar to a dress worn on an extra in Good News (1947), which you can see in one of my images from that film. Perhaps the costumers added some trim to the skirt after Good News, or it could be a different dress. The green dress on the end is giving me fits–I know I’ve seen it before but I can’t remember where! Do you recognize any other costumes?
Anyway, while Clarisse and Jerry are ro-dancing (romancing while dancing), Tony tries to repair his relationship with Stephanie. His efforts include a song, naturally. But she’s not fooled by his smooth tone and fancy words.
Fun fact: this was Keel and Grayson’s second film together. Their first was Show Boat (1951), which also featured a Jerome Kern score with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Marge and Gower Champion were in Show Boat, too.
Keel and Grayson would make one more movie together, Kiss Me Kate (1953), which also features Ann Miller.
Keel and Grayson are well matched vocally, but he towers over her physically. Grayson was just 5’2, and Keel clocked in at 6’3. No wonder she’s often standing on stairs or something, as she does in this scene, to make their height difference slightly less cartoonish.
For a petite person, Grayson was very well-endowed, so you’ll notice that her costumes try to minimize or camouflage her bust with big collars, sleeves, or other adornments.
Back to the film! Tony decides to work his theatrical magic on Roberta’s to help save the business. If Roberta’s revives, then Al can sell his half to finance their Broadway show.
Finally, we’ve got our “put on a show” plot, though this time it’s half Broadway, half fashion. Basically, they’re going to turn Roberta’s into a nightclub that also sells dresses for one night. Tony announces his plans to a stunned Stephanie during a meeting with the creditors. He somewhat unbelievably convinces them to give him a chance.
The next day, the courtyard at Roberta’s is full of “show” stuff. Stephanie has changed out of her usual drab brown or black and into showy purple. She’s smitten with Tony, and dresses like it. Poor Al has an unrequited crush!
…compared to Bubbles in her shimmering, low cut, fur-trimmed ensemble.
And she’s a little bit heartbroken over Tony. To cheer herself up, Stephanie tries on one of her sparkly ball gowns. Later she’ll top it with a large fur wrap, which I think swamps her petite frame:
While Stephanie plays dress up in the salon, she also enjoys a romantic hallucination. Tony appears in the mirrors and serenades her with the title song, “Lovely to Look At.” Fun fact: “Lovely to Look At” was written by Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields just for Roberta. It was nominated for Best Song in 1935.
After Tony finishes his song, Al arrives and asks if Stephanie would like to go out with him that evening. He’s so adorable, quite unlike smooth, selfish Tony. Here are Skelton and Grayson strolling around the backlot between takes.
Stephanie and Al end up at the same club where Tony and Bubbles are enjoying a night out. What a coincidence! I don’t think that Tony is worth Stephanie and Bubble’s rivalry, expressed in meaningful looks as they guzzle champagne, but what can you do?
Pretty soon, one of Roberta’s models, Zsa Zsa (Zsa Zsa Gabor) and her date, Max (Kurt Kasznar, My Sister Eileen) arrive. Then Clarisse and Jerry join them. It’s a party!
Fun fact: this was Gabor’s first film. She speaks only in French in the movie, and apparently MGM planned to subtitle her lines as a joke, but that idea was eventually dropped. You get the gist of Gabor’s dialogue just from her enthusiastic glee. After all, she’s generally just greeting people or asking for more champagne.
Everyone is having a lovely, boisterous time. Jerry and Clarisse can’t take their eyes off of each other, and Stephanie has imbibed way too much champagne, as has Al. So Tony convinces Bubbles to take Al home, and he stays to look after the very tipsy dress designer.
Eventually, Stephanie and Tony depart to take a carriage ride in the park, leaving our dancing duo alone. In a neat bit of movie magic, the cafe transforms into an endless blue sparkling with stars in one long, unbroken take.
It’s a great transition: Clarisse and Jerry start their embrace in the cafe, and end it in the starry sky. The camera moves in on the pair as they kiss, and then tracks back as they end the kiss, revealing the magic replacement of starry sky for cafe.
Here’s how I think it was done: although the actual transition between cafe and sky sets occurs during the kiss, as far as I can tell, the majority of the set change happens before that.
There is a cut as the pair twirl around the dance floor before they kiss. After that cut, Marge and Gower stay in front of the window instead of continuing to whirl around the entire cafe. We don’t see the band or the majority of the cafe set after the cut; the window and a few tables are the only things visible behind the dancers (top left image).
Why does this matter? Well, that cut and the subsequent blocking would have allowed the crew to remove most of the cafe set and extras after the cut while the camera was off, and well before the actual “magic transition.” When they began filming again, I bet only the window wall and those few tables remained.
Then, when the camera tracks in on the kiss, momentarily obscuring everything but Marge and Gower, (lower left image) the remaining extras skedaddled and the crew whisked the wall away during the few seconds of kissing. So when the camera pulls back after the kiss, not a trace of the cafe can be seen! At least that’s how I think it was done. There’s a clip further down so you can see it for yourself.
Regardless of how, what we’re left with onscreen is the world melting away during their kiss, leaving them alone together amongst the stars. It’s a glorious feeling made real thanks to movie magic.
And the magic doesn’t end there! Clarisse and Jerry perform a gorgeous, visually stunning dance to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire’s longtime collaborator, choreographed the dances in this film.
I love the way that Marge and Gower Champion dance together–their routines are athletic, graceful, sweeping, and expansive, with both slow, tender moments and bright, quick explosions of movement.
It’s one of my favorite dances, and I love the lush arrangement of that classic song. You can watch this number here:
It reminds me a little bit of the “Guardian Angel Ballet” danced by Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron in Daddy Long Legs (1955). Similar sky backdrop.
Final thought: Clarisse’s glittering pale blue gown with its sheer overlays and trailing veils is one of the most perfectly designed dance costumes I’ve ever seen. It’s lovely when Marge stands still, but it comes alive when she dances.
The flash of sequins, sometimes muted by those soft, sheer layers, is a gorgeous, ever-changing delight. It’s like clouds drifting across a sparkling night sky every time she twirls…
And the dress coordinates magnificently with the starry sky set!
Adrian designed the costumes for this film, and there are dozens and dozens of spectacular creations, which we’ll see later. The fashion house plot really let the studio go wild.
Fun fact: this film was Adrian’s return to MGM after a decade away. He’d been head of the costume department from the late 1920s until he left in 1941 to start his own fashion house. This would be his final film. Another fun fact: at one point in the movie, Tony mentions “Adrian, the great American designer” in a nice meta-moment. For more on Adrian, visit GlamAmor, a fantastic site about Hollywood fashion.
Anyway, after a dance like that, we know that Jerry and Clarisse are a forever couple. Let’s check back in with our other characters. Bubbles accompanies a very intoxicated Al back to Roberta’s. He spent all evening downing champagne and stealing ash trays. In the cab, he tells Bubbles how wonderful she is, and how he can see a future with her. She is touched, but it all comes crashing down when he calls her “Stephanie.” He’s really drunk.
But she falls asleep immediately after kissing Tony.
Bubbles is hurting, too, but she has some good advice for Al on how to get over heartbreak. She says she turns to food when her heart has been broken, and eating eventually helps her get over the pain:
They will be okay!
With the help of Jerry at the piano, Al entertains the guests with his “Irish Tenor” routine. He brings out a pistol, shoots a skunk, and stuffs his ears with paper so he won’t have to suffer like the audience. At one point he says, “Well, you knew I wasn’t Howard Keel when I came out here!” Meta!
After the performance, Tony makes the startling discovery that goofy Max is Max Fogelsby, one of the top showbiz producers. So Tony, Jerry, and Al pitch him their show in hopes that he’ll provide the financial backing. Max loves it, but he wants them to return to New York to start work immediately. He has an empty theater to fill! That means that they have to leave Roberta’s, but without their help, the business faces certain ruin.
Jerry returns to the ladies with bad news: Tony has decided to go to New York. Stephanie can’t believe it, but Bubbles sets her straight. Tony is selfish and manipulative, and of course he’ll leave Roberta’s in the lurch if it means getting his show produced!
Costume appreciation break for our three leading ladies. Clarisse has really stepped it up with that shiny animal print gown. And it seems Stephanie thought it was a Christmas party. Burgundy velvet and fur is an odd choice.
Tony is returning to New York immediately, even though Al, Jerry, and Bubbles decide to stay and help Roberta’s. Stephanie sings a plaintive version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” before breaking down in tears. Her love is leaving, she doubts he ever cared, and her business is doomed. All seems lost.
For a woman on the verge of bankruptcy, she sure has some nice jewels.
Anyway, the movie gets kind of sloppy from this point on. It’s almost as if they ran out of time and had to scrap some things. For example, we get a brief scene of Max and Tony on the airplane from Paris to New York, then we cut to Max’s office, where we learn that Tony is suffering from writer’s block and the show is stalled. Max is furious.
We have to take their word for all of this, because last thing we knew, they were on the airplane. We don’t see Tony struggling to write, or any preparations or meetings for the show. And we have no idea how much time has passed between the airplane scene and this one. No calendar, newspaper montage, or helpful telegrams giving us context and background.
All we need to know is that the show is not going well, and that Tony decides to return to Paris. And that’s all we get! Max decides to tag along, and he tells Tony that if he can make the show at Roberta’s a success, Max will bring it to New York! Cut to Roberta’s!
Al proposes to Bubbles, who up until this point didn’t know he liked her or that she really liked him. Fastest love resolution ever. And Bubbles sure looks demure (oddly so, she never dressed like that!) for all this talk of marriage and babies.
We learn that the fashion show is scheduled for that evening, and we see Stephanie begging the creditors to postpone as there is no way the show can happen that night. Then Tony walks in and all is saved, somehow! There are so many storylines wrapped up so quickly in these few minutes that we’ve got whiplash.
But it’s time for the show! Are you ready? It’s the most over-the-top fashion show-within-a-film I’ve ever seen.
Al starts us off with a dignified introduction that quickly turns comical when the moving sets and extras collide with him. He even trips over a masked harlequin and gets cocooned in a fabric backdrop. Skelton was a marvelous clown.
Then it’s our first sequence of dresses! (You can find more images of the fashion show costumes on my tumblr.)
Those fabulous ensembles are followed by the fanciest bathing suits you’ve ever seen:
Here is Skelton posing with the swimsuit models:
If your style runs more to pants with matching, voluminous skirted jackets, never fear. Roberta’s has something for everyone!
Who is that lounging in Lisa Frank pastels on the settee? Why, it’s Bubbles, of course! She proceeds to strip down, removing her skirt and bolero jacket before coyly moving towards her zipper. Then Al rushes in to protect her modesty.
After Bubbles’ striptease, the serene music and stately modeling changes abruptly. Scary antler men with pitchforks chase Al out of the way, and the set is drenched in red and green light. It’s little black dress time! So the antler skulls make sense. (nope).
Jerry slinks in for a cat burglar themed number set in this nightmare of animal skulls and red and green light. He steals the jewels right off the models’ wrists and necks. And no, none of this ever makes sense.
Fun fact: although Hermes Pan choreographed the dances in this film, Gower Champion would choreograph his own numbers in later films, including Jupiter’s Darling (1955) with Marge, Keel, and Esther Williams. He would go on to enjoy an incredibly successful career as a choreographer and director on Broadway, too. He won eight Tony’s, and directed and choreographed such mega hits as “Hello, Dolly!”, “Carnival!”, “Bye Bye Birdie,” and “42nd Street.”
Fun fact: Mervyn LeRoy (Million Dollar Mermaid) directed this film, but he had to leave the production before the fashion show was filmed, so Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis, The Band Wagon, Kismet) stepped in and directed it. Minnelli’s involvement explains some of the rich color, imaginative staging, and dreamlike quality of the sequence.
Another fun fact: Tony Duquette, a set and costume designer who worked on Kismet, is credited with “Fashion Show” for this film, but I’m not sure if he worked on the sets, costumes, or both. I’d imagine he was tasked with the sets and staging, since Adrian’s return to MGM was a pretty big deal.
After the saturated red and green explosion, we switch to gold and moonlight blue for the parade of formal gowns.
It’s an elaborately choreographed sequence with models crisscrossing the set, walking suits of armor, opera boxes, gilded canopies, and a floating camera. At one point, the model in the black and gold embellished coat almost trips getting to her spot, and we barely get to admire some of the gowns in the midst of all the motion. We do get to see Zsa Zsa modeling an enormous ball gown beneath a golden canopy, though.
Fun fact: these insane costumes for the fashion show cost $100,000, and Minnelli later said that he wanted to give them “as extravagant a mounting” as possible. Mission accomplished.
Another fun fact: the white gown with gold and pink accents was used again in The Band Wagon (1953) during the “Girl Hunt Ballet” number on Julie Newmar:
Just when you think there can’t possibly be anything else, Stephanie appears in a gold and white showstopper. She starts singing “The Touch of Your Hand,” and Tony soon joins her. They’ve reconciled, apparently.
Then Al retrieves Bubbles from an opera box, and Jerry starts dancing with Clarisse. It’s been almost sixteen minutes since the show began…a lifetime of silks, miles of satins, and truckloads of sequins.
We assume the show is a grand success, but our brains are so overloaded by sparkles and antlers that we can’t really remember why any of this is happening in the first place.
You can watch part of the fashion show here in this montage of Adrian’s designs. It begins fifteen seconds in, and runs to 1:15.
Once our eyes are no longer being dazzled by glittering gowns and ridiculous bathing suits, we remember that Max told Tony that he would stage the show on Broadway if it was a success at Roberta’s.
That makes absolutely no sense. How in the world would this translate to Broadway? But Tony’s vague Broadway show was just a reason to get the plot going, so don’t think too hard about that.
Actually, that’s a good disclaimer for this whole movie. Don’t think too hard about it, just enjoy the songs and shimmer.
As always, thanks for reading, and you can buy this fun film here!