I Love Melvin (1953)
I Love Melvin reunites Singin’ in the Rain stars Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds; in fact, this film began shooting about a month after Singin’ in the Rain premiered in the spring of 1952. It was a monster hit, so it’s not surprising that MGM went to the trouble of borrowing O’Connor from Universal to star alongside Reynolds in this movie.
Both actors had been working in Hollywood for a while before they wowed audiences in Singin’. O’Connor grew up in the circus and vaudeville, and made his first movie appearance when he was only twelve-years-old in 1937. He found success as a child actor but returned to vaudeville when he aged out of those roles.
He returned to the screen in 1942 and worked steadily with his biggest success coming in Universal’s Francis series about a talking mule. The first Francis premiered in 1950, and O’Connor would eventually appear in five Francis sequels. But Singin’ in the Rain was his most famous role and spurred his casting in other Technicolor musicals like I Love Melvin, Call Me Madam (1953) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954).
Compared to O’Connor, Reynolds was a newbie. She signed a contract with Warner Bros. in 1948 after they “discovered” her when she won the Miss Burbank pageant. But the studio dropped the ball: after an uncredited appearance as a wedding guest in June Bride (1948) and a tiny part in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950), Warner Bros. cut Reynolds from their roster.
Fortunately, MGM snapped her up and cast her as the singer Helen Kane in Three Little Words (1950). Then she played Jane Powell‘s sister in Two Weeks with Love (1950) and appeared in Mr. Imperium (1951) before Singin’. Reynolds had just turned nineteen when she made the movie, and it skyrocketed her to stardom.
To the film! We open on a soundstage where the movie star Judy LeRoy is about to perform a glamorous musical number. I love shots like this of the “behind the camera” equipment and personnel. It’s especially fun to think about how the real equipment and crew must have been facing the “onscreen” ones in order to film these shots! What a weird, amazing mirror image.
Judy (Debbie Reynolds) struts down the stairs in her tulle and feathers singing “A Lady Loves.” The lyrics include gems like “A lady loves French chapeaus,” “penthouses,” “Riviera Holidays” and “gifts on her breakfast tray” with the tacked on “But most of all, a lady loves to love!” ending. It’s a “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” style song that’s absolutely delightful. And quite catchy. The songs in this film were written by Josef Myrow with lyrics by Mack Gordon.
It’s quite poignant to watch Debbie Reynolds now. She was so talented, so funny, so beautiful, so charismatic. Joy on the screen.
Fun fact: a reprise of this song was filmed on a farm set with Judy in gingham singing “A lady loves the simple things” but it was cut from the film. More on that, including the footage, later.
When the director yells “Cut!,” the cast, crew, and onlookers immediately shower Judy with praise. She makes her way through the tunnel of adoration to her dressing room and a waiting Robert Taylor (Howard Keel was originally cast but the cameo went to Taylor, instead). He is about to declare his love when the scene dissolves to a modest bedroom.
It was all a dream! Judy LeRoy (really Schneider) is a chorus girl in a Broadway show. She lives at home with her mom and dad (Una Merkel and Allyn Joslyn) and her little sister Clarabelle (Noreen Corcoran.)
Judy dreams (literally) of becoming a star, but so far she’s only gotten to the chorus. Her dad is a glum fellow who worries about her future, but Judy is a cheerful, optimistic gal. Plus, that morning she learns that she’s been promoted out of the chorus and will be playing the “football” in the big number. Things are looking up!
Judy sings on her way to the theater about how she’ll know her true love when she sees him, but she hasn’t met him yet. It’s a very Disney princess song, but extra-wonderful because Debbie Reynolds is performing it.
She doesn’t know that a cute young man is singing the same song as he walks to work! (It’s a perfect setup for a meet cute). As he dances his way towards Judy he swings off lamp posts in what must be a reference to Gene Kelly‘s famous solo in Singin’ in the Rain.
The two jauntily dance along the tall hedge and we know the meet cute is imminent. But instead of an adorable, sing-the-same-line-as-they-sweetly-bump-into-each-other followed by slow motion loving gazes, they crash and hit the dirt. Then they angrily dust themselves off and stride away in opposite directions. Well done, movie! You tricked us.
We soon learn that Melvin Hooper (Donald O’Connor) is a photographer’s assistant at Look magazine. This was a real bi-weekly publication that started in 1937 and lasted until 1971. It was similar to Life with a large format and a focus on images. Look was extremely popular with circulation numbers ahead of the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, though it trailed Life. So audiences in 1953 would have been very familiar with Look. I wonder if MGM contacted the big magazines about being featured in this movie and went with Look because they were most willing to coordinate publicity with the movie…more on that later.
That evening, Melvin walks down Broadway and sees Judy’s picture on a poster for her show, “Quarterback Kelly.” She looks familiar, but he can’t place her. So he flashes his press credentials and watches the football game number from backstage. Judy plays the football, and she really gets thrown around by the players and ref.
Reynolds was an acrobat by training, but these are some serious stunts! You can sometimes get a glimpse of wires helping her fly through the air, but other times it’s just her own skill and strength, and that of the other dancers, that keep her from hitting the ground.
It’s wild! You can watch it here:
After the show, Melvin waits at the stage door and asks Judy if he can walk her home. He’s quite taken with her now despite his initial lack of interest in the park. You know what they say: if you want to catch a boy’s eye, dress as a football and do some flips.
As Judy and Melvin are about to leave, Harry Flack (Richard Anderson) pulls up in his car. He’s Judy’s main suitor, though her affection for him has waned. Fun fact: you may recognize Anderson from his recurring role as Oscar Goldman, the boss, on the TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man” and its spinoff “The Bionic Woman” in the 1970s-80s.
Harry offers to drive her home, so Judy reluctantly gets in the car. She winces as she sits and explains that the football number is a little painful to perform. At least the movie acknowledges the inevitable bruises that would plague anyone who did those stunts!
Despite Harry’s appearance, Melvin doesn’t give up. He asks Judy if he can take some pictures of her for a potential layout in Look. He envisions a “chorus girl at home and in the city” angle, so they get some shots of Judy vacuuming, ironing, washing her hair, and hitting New York City hotspots.
Fun fact: Reynolds and O’Connor really did visit the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and other New York locations rather than just use MGM’s New York sets back in California.
Since Judy and Melvin are Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, they frequently break into song and dance between photoshoots. It’s the beautiful, classic musical trope: if you dance well together you’re meant to be, even if you’re not in love quite yet. Visit my History Through Hollywood: Love for more on that.
You can watch this joyful dance here. Robert Alton staged and directed the dances in this film.
Weeks go by, and despite Melvin’s best efforts, he can’t get anyone at Look interested in his photos of Judy. After all, there are lots of pretty chorus girls, and he’s just a photographer’s assistant. But he keeps trying: he bugs the editor’s secretary, Miss Seldon, (which must be a reference to Reynolds’ character Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain!), and continues photographing Judy.
By now, Melvin’s interest in Judy is far more than professional. He’s in love, and she cares for him, too, but her parents are pushing Judy to marry Harry because of his excellent job prospects. Poor Melvin!
One afternoon, Melvin is particularly bummed about his failure at Look and his stalled romance with Judy, but Clarabelle arrives at the park and cheers him up.
They sing “Life Has Its Funny Little Ups and Downs,” and eventually Melvin just has to put on roller skates and dance! And by dance I mean tap on wheels, zip around the gazebo, and perform some crazy leaps around the gazebo pillars.
It’s a virtuosic performance. O’Connor’s background in the circus and vaudeville certainly come in handy, and this movie takes advantage of it.
He closes the dance by speeding in a circle so fast that I knew some movie trickery had to be involved–if you look closely you can see he is attached to a wire anchored to the center of the floor. That allows him to whip around in such a tight circle inside the gazebo.
Exhibit B: Gene Kelly in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955):
Melvin’s jubilant roller-skating cheers him up, but Judy is facing some conflict at home. Her father works at a drugstore but hates it, and he constantly talks about how the family is barely scraping by. He doubts that Judy will ever make a good living in show business, and he really wants her to settle down with someone who has good prospects, i.e., Harry. He warns her not to let steady, humorless Harry get away while she chases no-good Melvin who hasn’t followed through on his promises with Look.
Later on, Melvin takes Judy and Clarabelle to the movies. There’s a weird effect that takes us into the onscreen movie: we start watching the flat screen with Melvin and Judy, then pop into the dance number as though it’s a stage show.
After the vaguely Spanish-themed scene is over, we jump right back out to the world of I Love Melvin. It’s a cool effect, but also startling. And pointless? We pop in, out, and never deal with it again. I kept waiting for the movie-within-the-movie to come back in a dream sequence or something, but it doesn’t. That would have been a nice touch, right? Judy could star in this number the next time she has a dream.
On the bus home, Judy tells Melvin that she is under a lot of pressure from her parents to stop seeing him and instead marry Harry right away. Her parents don’t believe that Melvin can help Judy’s career as he promised, and they are worried that she will lose Harry if she keeps hanging around Melvin.
Melvin professes his love and begs her not to marry Harry. But he’s not sure how he can prove his worth to her parents. But she has an idea: she tells him that if he gets her on the cover of Look, she is sure her parents will back off. It’s a huge request, but Melvin will try!
Melvin decides to make the Look offices buzz with Judy’s name so that she’s more than an unknown chorus girl. So he hangs photographs of her all around the building, and even replaces a framed cover of Elizabeth Taylor with a print of Judy! Bold, Melvin!
It’s extra funny because Elizabeth and Debbie were friends at the time. And it’s extra extra funny because we know that in about six years Debbie Reynolds’ husband, Eddie Fisher, would leave her (and their two young children) for Elizabeth Taylor in one of the biggest scandals in Hollywood history…
Melvin even puts pictures of Judy around the Look sets where his boss is working on a travel themed layout.
Once the photoshoot is over and he’s alone, Melvin bursts into song. Inspired by the travel agency set, he sings a cute ditty called “I Wanna Wander” with the added refrain “but only with you.”
Then he “travels” by bouncing between the sets and playing with Look‘s costumes. (I hate to keep referencing Singin’ in the Rain, but at one point Melvin grabs a cape and does a matador dance similar to the one in “Good Morning” in that earlier film! It can’t be a coincidence!)
“I Wanna Wander” starts “realistically” with Melvin throwing on hats or sauntering through various sets, but then things get crazy. He has a Carmen Miranda moment after his cannibal scene, and then he goes into the “photocrime” set where he plays several different characters in elaborate costumes who appear in quick succession. We’ve stepped out of the realm of guy-playing-around and into movie magic.
You can watch the beginning and very end here (though the photo crime part is cut out):
Meanwhile, the pressure on Judy is building. “Quarterback Kelly” closes in three weeks and she has no job prospects, so she wonders if she should give up on her show business dreams and settle for Harry. Her parents certainly think so. Then Harry proposes, and Judy doesn’t accept, but she doesn’t refuse him, either. The next night, he plans to ask her father for her hand.
Back at Look, Melvin’s strategy doesn’t work, and instead of Judy, a famous horse gets the cover. As he looks at the actual cover, it morphs into one of Judy in his mind, which gives him an idea.
He asks his boss (Jim Backus) to help him make a fake cover that he can show to Judy and her parents as a visual aid. He plans to tell them it’s not real, but he hopes that seeing Judy on the cover, even if it’s just a prop, will buy him more time.
But when Judy sees it, Melvin’s explanation is drowned out by her excited shrieks. She runs upstairs and shows it to her family and Harry, who was in the midst of asking her dad for his permission to marry her. Awkward!
By the time Melvin figures out what is happening, it’s too late. They all think it’s real, and he is afraid to tell them the truth. But he has some time to figure something out, because the next issue isn’t due for a few days.
That night, Judy dreams of life as a Hollywood star. I’m surprised the doll didn’t give her nightmares, instead.
In the dream, Judy and Clarabelle walk a red carpet with their matching fur coats and poodles, and then lounge in her glamorous dressing room.
Then Judy gets a magic makeover with a gold gown and a red wig before a voice summons Judy LeRoy, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire to the set.
It’s not the real guys, though. Instead, three men in Fred Astaire masks dance with Judy before three men in Gene Kelly masks join in. They really nail the different dance styles!
It’s fun but a little creepy. It’s also a cute meta-joke because Debbie Reynolds danced with Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain!
This number and the Robert Taylor cameo are interesting elements because they merge the fictional universe of I Love Melvin with the real world and real Hollywood stars.
By referencing Kelly, Astaire, and Taylor, and including all of the Singin’ in the Rain winks, the audience is reminded of actual Hollywood but simultaneously asked to forget that Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor are Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. Instead, we have to hold on tight to the Judy and Melvin characters even as the movie pokes at its own universe.
It’s similar to the game played in Singin’ when Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds expose the “artifice” of a Hollywood soundstage in the “You Were Meant for Me” number, but then we forget about the work and believe in the onscreen magic moments later. You can go down that rabbit hole of meta moments or ignore them and enjoy the movie!
After the dance number, Judy receives an Academy Award. It’s a good dream. Fun fact: The woman who gives Judy the Oscar is wearing a black and white dress that first showed up in Rich, Young and Pretty (1951) on Danielle Darrieux. MGM designer Helen Rose was in charge of the costumes for both films. It looks as though she replaced the off-the-shoulder top seen on Darrieux with a matching tulle bodice for I Love Melvin.
You can watch the dream sequence here:
Back to the film! The day that Judy’s cover is due on newsstands, her dad legally changes his name to LeRoy to match her stage name, then insults his boss and quits before he sees the real Look cover.
So he’s pretty upset. Meanwhile, Judy is crushed and humiliated because she told everyone she knew about her cover. And Melvin is still too scared to tell them the truth, so he lies and says that there was a mistake and Judy’s cover will be coming out soon.
But Melvin encourages Judy to take a job in the road company of her show in the meantime…
The only person having a good day is Harry. He thinks that the cover debacle puts him back in the running for Judy’s hand.
Weeks pass and Look keeps appearing on newsstands without Judy. She travels with “Quarterback Kelly” but takes a fall during the football number in Chicago, which sends her mom and Clarabelle to her side. They tell her that her dad is determined to get Melvin fired, so a recovered Judy rushes to the Look offices with her family in tow.
She doesn’t want to get Melvin in trouble, but she doesn’t know that he quit three weeks ago and no one has seen him since. But when Judy explains the crazy situation to the editor and adds the important detail of “I love Melvin,” they concoct a plan.
Soon everyone is looking for Melvin.
The last three weeks have seen Melvin circling towards the bottom of a downward spiral. He sleeps on park benches and has given up on everything. But one morning he sees a man with a copy of Look with Judy on the cover. He assumes that it is a fake and grabs it, so the man starts shouting for police. Melvin races through Central Park with the police on his tail. Judy and her family find out that Melvin is in the park, so they join the chase, too.
In a lovely rhyme, Judy and Melvin crash into each other by the hedge where they first met. Judy shows him the article in Look and explains that the magazine put her on the cover hoping that he would see it and come back. Adorable!
And it’s happy ever after!
Here they are behind the scenes of the final sequence:
This movie was in production in mid-May through July 1952 and premiered on March 20, 1953. A massive ad campaign between MGM and Look heralded the movie’s arrival. As you can see from this ad in Motion Picture Daily aimed at theater owners, Look published the cover of “Judy” from the movie on March 24, 1953 just as the movie was released into theaters.
So you could go buy the issue that Melvin and Judy have in the film! The special tie-in magazine also included an article about the film, and Look printed color posters for movie theaters and newsstand cards. Look was very willing to publicize the film in exchange for being featured so heavily in the movie. Cross-promotion, y’all!
I Love Melvin also came up in a discussion of TV and film tie-ins in Film Bulletin in March 1953. The brief article discusses the new option of playing films on television.
The writer is against the practice, as theater owners were engaged in a struggle to get people away from their TV screens and back into movie theaters. (Amazing how our constant diet of movies on TV started as a novelty and a controversial practice!)
Although showing an entire movie on TV wasn’t recommended, “sampling” a film was more palatable, especially if it was a movie “calculated to bring them back” into theaters. The article uses the Technicolor splash of I Love Melvin as an example of the type of movie that might benefit from “sampling:” “Why not employ the TV campaign on a picture like ‘I Love Melvin.’ Let them try to get that kind of entertainment on their TV sets.”
As you can see on the ad above about the Look tie-ins, MGM did “sample” the movie on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” show with “highlight scenes” and musical excerpts. As the ad says, “It’s like a trailer in homes across America.” (Again, amazing to see that movie trailers on TV weren’t the norm!)
I Love Melvin did okay at the box office but certainly wasn’t a runaway hit. Bosley Crowther at The New York Times found it enjoyable but disappointingly light. He wrote,
A nice lot of Debbie Reynolds is generously put on view in “I Love Melvin”…Even a little of Miss Reynolds is pleasing and refreshing to see, she being a pretty little package of simple girlish talents and graceful form. The amount of her shown by Metro in a sleek Technicolored display of musical comedy contrivance is almost too liberal for words…
Indeed, there is so much of Miss Reynolds in this chromium-plated spun-sugar show that one could wish she had more substantial talents or that the authors had penned a more substantial script. For even this well-turned little lady wears just a trifle thin when she and the script begin to look like a chipmunk going around and around in a cage.
Crowther found O’Connor a little too much, noting that he contributes several songs and dances, “And, being Mr. O’Connor, when he does he makes it entirely apparent that he is definitely in the show.” The critic concludes that “The music, while undistinguished, is sufficient to get them around and the decor is in the most splendid and expensive Metro style. But, again, it’s a matter of substance—the material just isn’t there in the slim and light-headed little fable.”
As I mentioned, a second version of “A Lady Loves” with entirely new lyrics was recorded and filmed but cut from the movie. It survived and was included in That’s Entertainment III (1994). I’m not sure if it was supposed to be Judy’s dream, Melvin’s dream, or a scene meant to come at the end of the movie to show that Judy is a star and Melvin is her cinematographer. Regardless, it’s fun to watch and compare to the “glamorous” version!