Happy Go Lovely (1951)
Happy Go Lovely was the first musical made in Britain after WWII. It was produced by the Associated British Picture Corporation in partnership with RKO, who distributed the film in the US.
Set in Edinburgh in the run up to the Festival, the movie has surprisingly little to do with the city or the Festival. In fact, it was filmed in a studio outside London, and besides a few kilt jokes, there’s nothing very Scottish about it. Replace Edinburgh with any city and the film would stay the same, though the few shots of the Scottish capital are fun to see.
The film stars showbiz veterans Vera-Ellen, David Niven, and Cesar Romero. She’s the chorus girl with dreams of stardom, Niven is the Scottish mogul drawn into her world, and Romero is her bankrupt producer.
Ellen was born Vera-Ellen Westmeier Rohe, but she went by Vera-Ellen in her show business career. Her dancing ability was recognized early on, and she trained in ballet, danced on Broadway, and was a Rockette before coming to Hollywood. By the time she made Happy Go Lovely, she had appeared in eight films and danced with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
Ellen had recently made the classic On the Town (1949), but her famous role in White Christmas (1954) was a few years away. Fun fact: The Los Angeles Times claimed in 1949 that Celeste Holm was up for the part in Happy Go Lovely, though eventually Ellen won the role and the film was tailored to her terpsichorean strengths.
David Niven takes the romantic lead as the Scottish millionaire, though he doesn’t alter his upper crust British accent. By the 1950s, Niven had been an established actor for over a decade. He was well-known to both British and American audiences, having left his native England for Hollywood in the early 1930s. He appeared in films such as Cleopatra (1934) and Barbary Coast (1935) in uncredited roles, though he soon won supporting parts in Rose-Marie (1936) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1937). He continued rising through the ranks and starred in Bachelor Mother (1939) and Raffles (1939) before returning to the UK when WWII began.
He re-upped with the British Army (he’d first joined as a second lieutenant after graduating from Sandhurst in 1930), became a Commando, led troops into battle, did some work with the Film Unit, and ended the war as a lieutenant colonel. After all of that, he returned to show business and starred in British and Hollywood films once again.
Cesar Romero completes the starring trio. He appeared in many 1930s and ’40s films as the Latin lover or dance partner as in Springtime in the Rockies (1942), but in this movie he plays a blustery producer who is apoplectic with anger 90% of the time. This is not one of his best roles, but he had an incredibly long career in film and TV from 1933 to 1998, so check out some of his other work!
To the film! We open with a dignified voiceover intoning about beautiful Edinburgh and its storied Festival of the Arts. The camera pans over the glorious city before landing on the sign for the revue Frolics to You! (The narrator adds ruefully that “Some things slip in” to the Festival that aren’t quite up to its lofty standards.)
Inside the Mercury Theatre we watch the company perform “MacIntosh’s Wedding.” The number is a Scottish themed romp about a groom desperately trying to escape before his wedding. Can you find our star, Vera-Ellen?
Here she is!
Once the number finishes, the camera reveals a smattering of audience members who we soon realize are the show’s creditors. They’re not happy, and neither is the cast. No one has been paid what they were promised, and it’s unclear if the show can even limp along until opening night.
John Frost (Cesar Romero) is the director/producer, and he begs his cast and creditors for more time. He manages to hold off the creditors for a few more days, but then the star quits, so now the show has no leading lady.
Janet Jones (Vera-Ellen) and her bestie and roommate Mae (Diane Hart) aren’t having an easy time, either. They have to sneak into their flat because they owe several weeks’ worth of rent. Fortunately, the landlady used to be a chorus girl, too, so she lets them stay when they promise to pay her once the show opens.
The next morning, Janet and Mae oversleep (what a cozy little room!) and then Janet has to flee down the fire escape to avoid a dressmaker who has come to collect on some very overdue bills.
She flags down a car so she can make it to the theatre on time. It’s a fancy chauffeured vehicle though it’s currently empty of its owner. The kind chauffeur speeds to the theatre (giving us more shots of pretty Edinburgh) but he gets pulled over, and in all the confusion Janet leaves her purse in his car.
She finally makes it to the theater and she almost gets away with being late, but Frost is in a terrible mood (as per usual) and fires her.
But how cute and dreadfully uncomfortable-looking is her monogrammed rehearsal outfit?
I love the midcentury mania for huge monograms:
Right after Frost fires Janet, the chauffeur drops off her purse at the theatre. A knowledgeable chorus girl recognizes him as B. G. Bruno’s chauffeur–Bruno is a greeting card mogul who is the richest man in Scotland–and she assumes that Janet is having an affair with the multimillionaire! Why else would his chauffeur be returning her purse?
The chorus girl immediately starts telling everyone that Janet and Bruno are an item. When Frost hears the completely false rumor, he decides to re-hire Janet and promote her to star because surely then her rich boyfriend will invest in the Frolics. Bruno could save the show!
But Frost doesn’t tell Janet any of this when he offers her the leading role. He’s much too discreet for that. So Janet has no idea why Frost made her the star, nor why the same dressmaker who has been hounding her for weeks suddenly shows up with armfuls of finery. She “gives” Janet an evening dress and a beautiful fur stole without any explanation (everyone is terribly delicate even as they mercilessly take advantage of the situation).
If any of this sounds familiar, it might be because there is a similar situation in Easy Living (1937) when people wrongly assume that a penniless girl is having an affair with a powerful and rich stock broker. They shower her with freebies and then send the bill to her “boyfriend,” and neither one knows why for quite a while.
Janet doesn’t find out about the Bruno rumor until Mae sets her straight. Janet is horrified and embarrassed, but I’m focused on Mae’s teeny tiny baseball cap. Don’t worry–she has one in every color!
Mae convinces Janet not to tell Frost the truth because the opportunity to go from chorus girl to star is too wonderful to pass up. Plus, Janet hasn’t done anything wrong. She isn’t having an affair with Bruno, and she never told anyone she was. They hope the rumor won’t do any real damage…
But then the dressmaker sends her bill to Bruno (David Niven). Naturally, he is bewildered by the situation, as is his staff, who know Bruno as a stuffed shirt and not the type of man who would shower a girlfriend with gifts. Bruno gets even more confused when Frost calls and slimily insinuates that he’d be happy to meet with him to discuss investing in the show. Bruno heads to the theater himself to get to the bottom of this nonsense.
Meanwhile, Janet rehearses a new pastel number. Vera-Ellen was an accomplished dancer who had trained as a ballerina, so often she will dance en pointe as she does in this scene. Fun fact: IMDB claims that the look of this number was inspired by Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 18th century rococo paintings. You may recognize him from the famous work “The Swing.” Ellen has a swing, too!
Vera-Ellen sings in this number, though she wasn’t much of a vocalist and her voice was dubbed, as it was in her other movies. It’s Eve Boswell’s voice we hear in this film. Fun fact: at the time, Boswell was touring Britain with the famous bandleader Geraldo. In 1952, she left the band and started a successful pop career as a solo artist. She would get her own BBC radio show in 1954. This film came just before her solo stardom.
She sure learned the star’s choreography quickly…you can watch the number and the preceding scene here:
After the rehearsal, Janet waits in her dressing room for a reporter named Paul Tracy who has an appointment to interview her. But Bruno shows up first, and Janet assumes that he is Paul. He doesn’t realize her mistake for quite a while.
Pretty costumes! Anna Duse was the designer. She started working in the British film industry in 1944 and designed until the late 1960s. She would be in charge of Vera-Ellen’s costumes again for the British film Let’s Be Happy (1957).
By the time that Bruno figures out who Janet thinks he is, the millionaire has become enchanted with the lovely dancer. (The real Paul was diverted from Janet by Frost, so Janet doesn’t discover her mixup.) Bruno decides not to tell her who he really is. He likes being plain ol’ Paul after years of being the Richest Man in Scotland.
Janet likes him, too. They end the interview with “Paul” promising not to mention Bruno in his article about Janet and the show. They also set up a lunch date for the following day. Here they are between takes of this dressing room scene:
The next morning, Bruno arrives at his office in a light-colored suit with a flower in his buttonhole. He whistles, gives flowers to the secretaries, and apparently no longer needs his glasses. Love has made him young again and fixed his vision!
But Janet is mad because the real Paul’s article slyly mentions Janet’s “relationship” with a certain greeting card manufacturer. (These rehearsal outfits are hilarious!)
Janet rushes to lunch to confront “Paul.” There is some excellent (read: obvious and silly) rear projection of an Edinburgh street behind the pair. (Rear projection is when footage is projected on a screen behind the actors).
Paul swears he didn’t write the story (which is true!) and Janet believes him. They’re back on lovey-dovey footing. But he keeps asking her about Bruno because he thinks it’s cute when she makes up stories about where she met him, etc. But Janet doesn’t like to lie and always changes the subject.
Things get more complicated when Frost begs Janet to bring Bruno to dinner. The show’s creditors don’t believe that the millionaire is really dating the star, nor that he is going to pump money into the failing endeavor. They threaten to take back their sets, costumes, and money unless Frost proves that Bruno is involved.
Mae and Janet try to think of someone who can impersonate Bruno, but it seems hopeless until “Paul” stops by the flat with flowers. Mae nominates Paul to “be” Bruno for the evening–he sort of looks like a millionaire! (chuckle). (She puts on her polka dot cap for this conversation.)
That evening, the real B.G. Bruno impersonates B.G. Bruno at a fancy restaurant. Amusingly, Janet keeps pulling Bruno to the dance floor to give him pointers on how to act like a millionaire! She’s afraid their deception will be discovered any moment because he turns down caviar in favor of soup and acts far too normal for a millionaire. It’s pretty funny, actually.
The creditors sit at a nearby table and ask their waiter who the man is with Frost. He answers truthfully that it is B.G. Bruno, so they are finally convinced that their investment is safe.
There is a great moment when Lady Martin comes to the table to say hello to her dear friend B.G. Janet and Mae are confused until “Paul” whispers to them that he paid her two pounds to pretend he was Bruno. Clever man! Also, Mae has a tiny cap for evening wear, too!
When Lady Martin nods goodbye, Janet and Mae “subtly” thank her for her performance, which alarms the real aristocrat. Another chuckle!
Nice fingerless gloves, Vera-Ellen Jackson.
The dinner is a success. Mae and Janet congratulate themselves on fooling the world, when in fact they are the ones being fooled. Irony!
Bruno walks Janet home in the moonlight. He asks her, hypothetically of course, that if he was the real Bruno, would she want him to invest in the show? She says yes, both for the show’s sake and for hers. After all, it’s not much of a break if the show closes after one performance.
Then she admits that she has never met B.G. Bruno. This is the moment that Bruno has been waiting for, but she rushes into the house before he has a chance to tell her that she actually does know Bruno, and that he is falling in love with her.
Janet’s periwinkle chiffon dress is very pretty, but the ruffled breast pads are unflattering and just emphasize how very, very skinny Ellen is. It would have been better to raise the neckline and do away with the fancy cutlets all together.
Anyway, the next day Bruno gives Frost a check in the staggering amount of 10,000 pounds! Frost nearly has a stroke. Bruno makes him promise not to tell Janet, but the first thing that Frost does is shout the good news to his star. He’s not very likable in this movie.
Now it’s Janet’s turn for a stroke–she thinks that Paul forged a huge check, so she comes clean to Frost about the Bruno lie and how the man that Frost thinks is the millionaire is actually a reporter! She begs him not to deposit the check because then Paul will be in trouble. Janet’s honesty really ruins Frost’s day. He thought that his show was finally saved.
Despite all of this drama, Frolics to You opens that night. But Frost can’t enjoy it because he is focused on catching “Paul” if he shows up.
While Frost and policeman scour the theater, Janet performs a troubling ballet called “London Town” about a naive girl in the big city. First, ladies of the night smash her camera, then she gets roped into performing with two men. Fortunately, they turn out to be nice guys who just want to dance.
But the next guy she encounters is not nice. She tries to get away, but the police have their backs turned, and no one helps her.
It’s disturbing. The guy even rips off her long skirt and pushes her up against columns while prostitutes laugh. Finally, another man steps in and fights the first guy.
She retrieves her skirt and dances with the second man. Although it ends well, the number is unpleasant. It basically choreographs sexual assault.
But here is some of the coolest behind the scenes footage I’ve ever seen of the set designers, costume people, Ellen rehearsing the number, and then filming it! Notice that she is not wearing hot pants to rehearse as she does in the movie!
After the number, Frost and Janet see Bruno sitting in a box. Frost sends the police after him, but Janet helps Bruno escape from the theater. Let’s pause to admire Mae’s blue and white striped dress.
Despite Janet’s efforts to save him, Bruno sneaks right back into the theater. Fortunately, when Frost and the police finally catch him, the captain recognizes him as the real Bruno. Janet is shocked but delighted that her love didn’t actually forge a check (his millions of pounds probably contribute to her smile, too.)
The whole Paul/Bruno thing is cleared up just in time for him to watch Janet’s big finale.
It’s a happy, pretty number compared to the previous nasty one. The sunrise backdrop transitions to sunset over the course of the dance. It’s a beautiful touch.
Her costume is quite sparkly:
Frolics to You is a success and Janet is a star. Bruno walks her home, as usual, but this time there are no mistaken identities to confuse their feelings. The evening ends with a kiss and the promise of happy ever after! The end.
This movie was filmed mostly at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood outside of London with some B-unit footage shot on location in Edinburgh. Fun fact: during WWII, the War Office used the Elstree complex for storage!
Happy Go Lovely premiered in June 1951 in London and made its way to the US a month later. Oddly enough, the version of the movie shown in the UK was ten minutes longer than the American one!
The 1951 version of Focus: A Film Review called the film “light entertainment at its best. The scenes are sumptuous, the technicolor good, the dialogue amusing, the dancing excellent, the music if not brilliant at least gay and tuneful, while the story is as light, farcical and impossible as anyone could wish.” The review finishes with “Go and see it, it will make you laugh and forget life’s worries.”
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times agreed about its lightness, calling it a “featherweight musical picture…about as original and inspiring as an old-fashioned lemonade—and, at the same time, as wholesome and soothing, in a bland sort of way, as one of same.”
Crowther summarizes the “dismally routine story,” writing that “…she argues a nice young man, whom she thinks is a newspaper writer, to impersonate the laird. (But you know and I know and HE knows that big joke!) he IS the laird—and it is upon this confusion of identity that the whole flimsy business hangs. Sounds pretty gosh-awful, doesn’t it?”
He tempers that conclusion with this lukewarm praise: “But somehow, for all its hackneyed substance and the incontrovertible fact that, except for a few “establishing” glimpses, it has nothing to do with Edinburgh, there is a certain limpid charm about this picture—a certain childish cheerfulness—due, in the main, we would reckon, to Vera-Ellen’s youthfulness and grace.”
Vera-Ellen’s biographer David Soren noted some of the same qualities in his assessment of Happy Go Lovely. He wrote that, “She makes her role believably sweet rather than frantic or simply comedic. Vera-Ellen has the chance to show herself as a talented romantic comedienne and generates real chemistry with Niven….For once, the producer has been willing to respect her talent and give her a chance to display her burgeoning dramatic skills, and Val Guest’s witty script makes the most of the ridiculous mistaken identity plot and generates real laughs.”
Here is the behind the scenes footage minus the newsreel sound:
And here are some funny articles about Ellen (and poor Rock Hudson!) from around the time this movie was released: